“History in itself is a kind of fiction, right?” — The Big Interview: Koki Tanaka

Koki Tanaka's love letter to Liverpool for Liverpool Biennial 2016, at Open Eye Gallery. Photo courtesy Rob Battersby

Time travelling with Koki Tanaka: Jack Roe tracked down the Japanese artist to ask him why an obscure student protest from the Liverpool history books was so key to his film installation for Liverpool Biennial…

The waterfront of Liverpool is a peculiar place; there may not be any hard data to go on here but one gets the sense that you could reach the junction at the bottom of Water Street a million times and never once fail to experience a slight catch in the breath, a brief moment of vertigo. Then again, that could just be us, but having a gallery as unobtrusive as the Open Eye in the midst of such imposing architecture can sometimes feel like a trick of the mind; like some cinematographer is gleefully playing with your perspective in real life.

Having heard about Koki Tanaka’s Liverpool Biennial artwork — a re-staging and re-examining of a mid-80s youth protest about the Government’s proposed Youth Training Scheme, and fittingly part of the festival’s “Flashback” episode — the latent rabble-rousers amongst us had hoped for an opportunity to speak with the 41-year old artist responsible; and, in a blur of rapidly cooling coffee and wide-eyed energy, The Double Negative got our chance.

The Double Negative: For our readers that aren’t familiar with you, please could you tell us a little about your background?

Koki Tanaka: I’m Japanese, and I just moved back to Japan three months ago. Before that I was in LA for 7 years. I studied art in Japan; basically I studied painting, so what I’m doing now is totally different from what I learned. My practice is more involved with performance and video documentation and also with participation.

“There’s always some kind of optimism in a protest, I think; an appetite”

The whole idea of the 1980′s youth protest (pic, below) is fascinating, and fits in nicely with Liverpool Biennial’s time travelling themes. How did you come across the story?

I don’t have any personal links with Liverpool; I was invited by the Biennial and so when I came here for the first time, almost a year ago, I was really kind of lost, in a way. I had no idea about anything to do with Liverpool. It’s far away, you know?

So then the curator took me around the city, different places like Chinatown, all the Greek architecture, that kind of thing, but still I had no idea. But the curator suggested for me to go to News From Nowhere, the bookshop. So I was there, I was browsing different books and I found the section about local history, I found David Sinclair’s collection, Liverpool in the 1980s. That’s where I found this photo of the school student strike.

Student strike; David Sinclair's collection, Liverpool in the 1980s.  Used as inspiration for Koki Tanaka's film for Liverpool Biennial 2010, at Open Eye Gallery

Other images in the book were presenting depressing moments in Liverpool — empty houses, empty docks — but when I look at this image of the school student strike it’s totally different than the rest.

For a start, there’s a lot of kids and also they seem to really enjoy what they’re doing; that march, like it was a festival. There’s always some kind of optimism in a protest, I think; an appetite. Recent protests, some of them bring music or whatever, but this is in the early stages I think, because it was just after the miners and the dockers which were very serious and the transition into this kid’s strike is kind of amazing.

“The past is not just a nostalgic prospect”

So what kind of response did you get from the people that you contacted who were originally part of that protest?

It’s kind of like a generational thing, because not to so many senior citizens or younger people know about this strike, so when I tracked down the original participants they seemed really happy for it to be exposed again. For me, for them, it’s a very important thing. Liverpool right now is probably still a radical city, but it seems somehow that these political moments have been swept away by a neoliberalistic structure.

For you, is there a strong link between art and protest?

I’m not sure, I’m just curious about these social movements, so I’m still learning these things. It was more in the spirit of documentary.

Still, Koki Tanaka, film for Liverpool Biennial 2010, at Open Eye Gallery

Your website talks of alternative perspectives and choices; are those ideas that still govern your work?

Yes, I think so, because looking back, the past is not just a nostalgic prospect. History in itself is a kind of fiction, right? Looking back, the past is a projection of the present, in a way. So I wanted to see the present moment through the history. Then, you have alternative point of view towards the present, and the present of course always leads the future. Somehow, for me, history is a way of looking at the present, with an element of choice, an alternative.

You’ve moved back to Japan; what are the plans for the future? Is there anything you’re working on now that you’re particularly excited about?

I’m working on a couple of projects in Europe, I can’t say too much because things haven’t been released yet, but one will be in Germany. I found a strange place, a nuclear bunker, which was right underneath this kind of ‘70s, ‘80s shopping mall. They have a 10-floor underground car park and the lowest level is a nuclear bunker, which has already been dismantled, but they still have that space. The plan is to use that place as the departure point for a workshop series.

Jack Roe

Images, from top: install at Open Eye Gallery, courtesy Rob Battersby; an historic image of the real student protest; still from Koki Tanaka’s film, made in response

See Koki Tanaka at Open Eye Gallery, as part of Liverpool Biennial, 9 July-16 October 2016 — FREE

Download or pick up in print now our Biennial Fringe edition of Culture Diary! Your indispensable pocket guide to a wide range of alternative events across Liverpool, happening at the same time as Liverpool Biennial 2016 festival of contemporary art (Jul-Oct 2016)

Read Jack Roe’s “Exhilaratingly, intentionally naughty”: Liverpool Biennial’s Ancient Greece Episode — Reviewed

Read Maja Lorkowska’s “Nervously looking forward”: Liverpool Biennial’s Flashback Episode — Reviewed

Read Katrina Houghton’s “Struggling to connect the dots”: Liverpool Biennial’s Chinatown Episode — Reviewed

Posted on 20/09/2016 by thedoublenegative