- The Possibility of Infinite Numbers of Worlds, interview by Akiko Miki, curator of Palais de Tokyo, 2006

Akiko Miki: First tell me when you started making art.

Koki Tanaka: I started making things in elementary school.  When it comes to art, I began making things similar to what I am doing now around the end of college.

AM: What did you make when you were an elementary school student?

KT: Come to think of it, I did take some videos.  I borrowed my Dad’s HI 8 camera.  I don’t know where it is now, but I turned the camera on and flew around the room as if I were a mosquito or ran along the river next to my house as if I were a dog.

AM: This was when you were 11 or 12, right?  You found the sources of what you are doing now way back then.

KT: After entering art college, I painted for a while and forgot all about video.  The school had the students try sculpture and video and other things, and when I came to a dead end in painting, to break out of a slump, I began doing video work and installations.  I remembered what I did as a child and started running around the mountains with a video camera (laugh).

AM: What kind of pictures did you paint?

KT: I began making oil paintings while I was in high school.  As if retracing art history, I began by paintings outdoors like the Impressionists.  I also retraced the history of modern art in Japan, looking at artists like Shunsuke Matsumoto.  Incidentally, I first thought of becoming an artist when I saw a small painting by Monet.  Looking at this painting, I thought: I am standing in the same position that Monet was in when he was painting it.  I found this quite moving. 

Afterward, in college, my paintings became more and more abstract, and the canvases became larger and larger.  Like things you often see.

AM: Sounds quite normal, a pretty common process.

KT: Definitely.  Then at a certain point, I could no longer understand what it meant to make a painting.  So I decided to get way from “making” with unfamiliar methods.  As a first step, I started doing video.

AM: That’s when you were a first or second year student at Tokyo Zokei University.  Later you went to master's degree program at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, and then you traveled to other parts of the world, Vienna, New York, and Paris.

KT: I was in Vienna only two months on a student exchange program.  I went to New York on an ACC grant while I was still in master's degree program.  The year after the program, I stayed in Paris, participating in Pavillon (educational unit of Palais de Tokyo) from November 2005 to 2006.  After graduating from Tokyo Zokei University, I worked as an editor for a while at Musashino Art University Press.  From that time on, I was getting more shows.

AM: In one interview, you said, “The act of art is editing.”  Did this have something to do with your actual experience as an editor? 

KT: Yes, I suppose so.  At the time, I made this statement deliberately.  I thought that works of art were related to exhibitions (in this case, solo exhibitions).  I thought about what sort of work should be set up for a particular exhibition.  In the sense of composing several different outputs based on a single theme in the exhibition space, I used the word “editing”.  I have not entirely abandoned this idea, but my interest has shifted from how the exhibition is structured to the ordinary process of making of the work, to how the content is developed.

AM: After that, you went to New York.  What kind of work did you do there?

KT: Up to then, I had mainly produced loop videos of the type in which a basketball is bounced over and over.  I had come to a kind of impasse.  Everything I looked at seemed like a loop.  Therefore, in New York, I decided not to do anything for a while.  I wanted to forget about loops and then start over again.  For example, there is a work by Bruce Nauman called Eleven Color Photographs (1966-1967).  It treats the theme of what an artist does in the studio.  It contains self-portraits of the artist spitting out water in imitation of a fountain and eating words covered with jam.  I was attracted to this way of working, and I made about ten new works with different directions.  Right after returning to Japan, I showed the works I made in New York in a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Gunma, “Plastic Bags, Beer, Caviar to Pigeons, etc.” (2004). The actual images included, for example, a sneaker falling down a stairway, a beer glass into which beer kept pouring even though it was overflowing, caviar being given to pigeons, and helium gas being injected into shopping bags until it flew away in the sky. These were the kinds of things I shot.  In my case, it was not the studio.  I found these sorts of things in ordinary, everyday places.  It was about looking carefully, looking clearly at things that seemed ordinary.

AM: Looking carefully?

KT: It might be called objective observation.  When pouring beer into a glass, it is usual to try not to spill.  If you forget about this ordinary caution, you might think of pouring until it overflows.  Something I noticed while in New York was the fun of taking a second look at familiar things.  Previously, in an exhibition in a former school in 2001, I used some toilet paper I found on the premises, making it move with an electric fan.  At this time, it was not my purpose to make a loop video.  My purpose was to look at familiar things differently, or bring out different meanings.  My life in New York was relaxed and laid back, so I was able to remember things that I had previously done unconsciously. 

AM: You could make art works out of anything, using ordinary everyday things as subject matter.

KT: Right.  If you went to that place you could discover something.

AM: The loop works have no beginning and no end, and the work showing a long connected train takes the form of a circle.  One notices an interest in the circle, an interest in unrelated things being connected.

KT: Yes, that’s true.  As my interest in the loop faded, I gained a stronger interest in connecting unrelated things.  Ordinary unrelated things exist there without any way of knowing whether they are connected or not.  Perhaps someone will discover a connection.

AM: Using ordinary materials, subtly shifting the everyday situation, and using a certain amount of humor.  Your work reminds me of Peter Fischli and David Weiss or Roman Signer.  What do you think of them?

KT: There is some influence.  This is true of Bruce Nauman also.   Especially in the method of gathering things that one finds at hand and seeing what one can do with them.  For example, if one is going to make a large work, perhaps a painting, one first prepares a large canvas, makes large stretcher bars, gets plenty of paint, and gets brushes by a certain manufacturer.  You get yourself ready in various ways.  It is different to start out by making do with what you have on hand, carrying out the first idea that comes into your head.  This simple approach is what we have in common.

AM: So how are you different from them?

KT: The work of Roman Signer has a quality of spectacle even if he uses things that he finds around (he also uses gunpowder a lot).  My work, especially recently, is closer to a situation where truly nothing is happening.  Things remain just as they are to such an extent that there is hardly any spectacle.  Aluminum foil falls down noisily, and that is the end of it.  A broom falls over.  There is a succession of scenes of things that most people have probably “seen before” in everyday life.  I was surprised by the process of non-everyday associations in which unconnected things are connected in works by Fischli and Weiss, for example, in the famous The Way Things Go (1986-1987).  They are connected in ways that make you wonder how far they might go.  I like their work, but I also have the feeling that it is excessive and contrived.  Going back to the previous discussion, they reject to some extent the stance of painting a large painting or making technically elaborate art.  This sort of thing.  However, they end up “showing” things based on a gimmick.  I began thinking that maybe things could be made simpler. In some of my work, there is nothing but the movement of a hand grasping a knob.  Even things and movements that have hardly any significance seem to contain something never seen before when they are singled out and looked at.  What do we know about things our body is already doing or the beer bottle lying there?  Maybe we don’t know anything.  Rather than a work of art, this is just an approach to cognition. 

AM: So it’s close to being a physics experiment.

KT: Well, there is just a slight difference, so there may be few people who see it that way.  Even for me, it’s not that clear, but right now I feel that kind of difference.

AM: To change the subject, you have made many works that are not just video but are combined with sculpture, haven’t you?

KT: This started with thinking about whether I could put the loop work into three-dimensional form.  So I made such things as a big pile of packing tape. 

However, from the time I started installations of the type in which the things appearing in the video were placed beside it, I lost interest in only showing images.  No matter how real images are, people see them as being false.  For example, if New York is invaded by aliens or the Eiffel Tower is destroyed in a movie, no one thinks that it has really happened.  If you see a movie about the sinking of Japan, no one thinks it is happening right now and runs out of the theater.  Since images are complete within themselves, I wondered if they could not be made incomplete through the method of installation.  That is, by doing an operation in which the contents of the image and reality are made ambiguous.  Recently I am using a way of showing things in which the thing that occurs in the image is understood to be the thing that occurred in reality. 

AM: Do you remember the Zilvinas Kempinas work shown at the Palais de Tokyo in which a circle of videotape was made to float in the air with the use of fans?  I recalled that he referred, well, maybe a bit by joke, but to this as a video installation.  Did you think of showing the medium of video in a different dimension?

KT: No.  In the packing tape work, I just wadded up the tape and laid it down.  I didn’t think it out that far (laugh). 

AM: However, in the show at the Museum of Modern Art, Gunma and the Palais de Tokyo, you avoided the use of new materials.  You made works with things you found inside the museums.  Economically, it was a good deal for the museum (laugh).  The architect Jun Aoki speaks of the method of finding possibilities for things just existing there, and describes it as not accepting restrictions as restrictions.

KT: This was true of the project at FRAC Champagne-Ardennes (2006), where I used a desk ordinarily used for business conferences in the curatorial office. 

AM: So then, every time you do an exhibition, you begin by looking to see what you can find in the exhibition space?  Like cooking with what you find in the refrigerator?

KT: Yes, that’s what it’s like:

AM: That reminds me of a video you made showing a cook at work over a long period of time.  There is probably something close to cooking in the sense of figuring out how to do something original with the same materials.

KT: My works becomes more and more spontaneous.  In the “2006 Taipei Biennial: Dirty Yoga” (Taipei Fine Art Museum, 2006), I didn’t use materials from inside the museum, but I went out and bought a lot of ordinary products from a home supply store near the museum.  I used at least three patterns of movement for each object and made a total of about 300 takes.  A waste basket was thrown down stairs.  A large parasol was opened.  Gloves on both hands were pulled off.  I filmed the relationship between the principles of physics, people and things as a performance.  The things used as images are placed randomly in the exhibition space, and the whole was given the title, Everything Is Everything.

AM: What does Everything Is Everything mean? 

KT: It doesn’t have a deep meaning.  Frankly, I chose it without much thought (laugh), but, well…everything?  Everything isn’t possible.  If people who saw this work at the museum took the experience into their actual lives, “everything” around them might change through this point of view.  The experience of “everything” I found might change “everything” in the life of the person who sees it.

AM:  Are you talking about a fantasy?  Being a little brain-washed?

KT: This is not forced, however.  It is simply a matter of making people slightly conscious of what is noticed unconsciously in everyday life.

AM: In the show at Palais de Tokyo which will open in next March, a ball is used like a bowling ball to knock over sofas, shelves, and chairs like pins.

KT: Looking at the entrance to the exhibition space, I felt that I wanted to throw something into it.  There was a possibility of putting this way of using the place and space into images.  I simply found it.  I got the idea by continuing to look at the site.

AM: Are you preparing any other projects right now?

KT: There is a group show at the Mori Art Museum on the theme of “laughter.”  I filmed a scene of basins falling down.  It was a video installation, in which the actual basins were scattered in the space and the video was also shown there.  There is a trend in my recent work to create ambiguity between seeing images and the thing that actually happened in the images.

AM: Although the theme is “laughter,” this work seems to be saying something that has nothing to do with laughter.  I think your work is something separate from laughter.

KT: It is true that I am not thinking consciously about laughter.  And I am not thinking about making people laugh.  However, I have thought about humor.  Sigmund Freud wrote a short essay on humor.  He writes that humor is not always about laughing out loud, and that it may be associated with an attitude of finding a focal point of psychological liberation.  For example, a prisoner about to mount the gallows says to the executioner, “What time is dinner tomorrow night?”  Unlike the irony used to attack or criticize someone, this question induces laughter and relief.  The heavy atmosphere is liberated through humor.  I feel something similar in the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres.  For example, there is the piece in which he uses a quantity of silver candy with the same weight as him and his partner.  As the pieces of candy are picked up and taken away by visitors, the weight decreases.  This could be a metaphor for the decline of the body leading to death.  In fact, however, when the volume of candy in the gallery is reduced it has to be replenished.  Therefore, it is a metaphor of life as such and the extension of life.  One can hope that after the two men died, their love would be somehow revived by others so that their death would not be final.  The work has something humorous about it and left people with a pleasant feeling.  I would like to make art with humor of this kind.

AM: With respect to your own work, you have made art that searches for “the possibility of an infinite number of worlds.”

KT: Yes.  Previously, I investigated quantum physics and the theory of possible worlds and found it quite interesting.  It is the idea that there is more than one way of seeing the world.  At someone’s suggestion, I read a commentary on Dogen, a Zenist priest of the 13th century, and I discovered the interesting words, issui shiken (one water, many views).  This is the idea that the same body of water has different appearances because it changes.  To people, water is something to drink.  To fish, it is a place to live.  There are different ways of encountering water, whether looking at it or using it to wash the body.  Even if it does not change, it carries diverse within itself, and it is impossible to say, “This is water.”  By speaking of “the possibility of an infinite number of worlds,” I mean that the world is abundant.  I think that by giving oneself over to this abundance, one can have fresh and new experiences.  I would like to explore these diverse appearances with a simple method.

Interview held in Tokyo, early November 2006

(Translated by Stan Anderson)


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