Plastic cups are scattered across the ground at Koki Tanaka's first solo show in the United States. Like bunting at a baseball game or lava lamps at a '60s theme party, the cups are there to create the right mood. People who know him will get it right away: The cheap mugs are meant to be funny and evocative of a larger social issue. Koki Tanaka — born and raised in Japan and living in Los Angeles — is an art prankster who's trying to make it big in America.
Tanaka stages amusing scenes, often with himself at the center, as in last year's video from Beijing, where he stood atop a small house and flashed a sign at traffic that read, "Can I use your car to step to the ground?" His exhibition at Yerba Buena Center features new work that was done during a just-completed residency in San Francisco. The centerpiece is a 28-minute video, A Haircut by 9 Hairdressers at Once (Second Attempt), of a woman who volunteers to have her locks shorn by wine-drinking aesthetes at a high-end salon on Grant Avenue. Tanaka shows how a group interacts as it works on a single customer — and the result is a humorous tour de force that induces wincing and laughter at the same time.
The woman, Nicole Korth, who has shoulder-length blond hair, tells the assembled stylists that she wants to look like a "futuristic news anchor" and "part android" — or, as she restates it, like someone who belongs to "a funky order trying to save humanity." Practically salivating at the prospect, the hairdressers map out their plan of attack — then proceed to divvy up Korth's mane as if they're hyenas feasting on a carcass. "Whoever wants to take a whack, c'mon!" one says to the others as she sits in her chair, surrounded by scissors, mirrors, Tanaka, and his camera crew. In the end, Korth applauds the hairdressers and they applaud their work, but many viewers will believe her locks were mangled by those who didn't recognize when to stop.
Koki Tanaka is to museum videos what Michael Moore is to theatrical documentaries. Both men use humor to make more serious points. (In A Haircut, Tanaka suggests that group dynamics undermine good intentions.) Once Moore's audience got his approach, it preferred him to more traditional documentarians. So it is with Tanaka, who's an acquired taste. It's best not to judge him after just a few minutes. Those who do may laugh a little but fail to realize there's more to him than is first revealed. In the video Showing Objects to a Dog, for example, Tanaka tempts a canine named Sheday with different art objects, including one made of plastic cups. At one point, Sheday shows his lack of interest by urinating on the ground. Tanaka says the dog could be a stand-in for gallerygoers who encounter new art.
"Nothing Related, But Something Could Be Associated" covers Tanaka's complete repertoire — video, painting, photography and reworkings of everyday objects. At age 35, with exhibitions or residencies in France, Switzerland, China, and Canada, Tanaka knows the kind of humor that translates to different countries. Mannerisms and actions count more than words. In Cups on a Car, we see a woman named Kim Silva walk to a vehicle at a San Francisco parking lot, put her drink on the auto's roof — where it joins scores of other beverages — and then drive off through the winding lot, her cups somehow staying undisturbed on top. The bigger issue: How people collect things while ignoring their already-formidable possessions. The humor: Seeing Silva ignore her crowded roof, then watching the drinks somehow (without tape!) remain in their spots. "My work is not so much about questioning art — it's more about questioning our own, everyday experience," Tanaka says.
Tanaka's videos don't belong on TV or on theater screens. They're well-suited, though, to YouTube and a museum space like Yerba Buena, where visitors can get the full experience. That includes walking among cups and reading about his time at Community Thrift, the used-item store on Valencia Street where he donated a painting he valued at $1,000. A store buyer priced it at $8; Tanaka photographed the painting at Community Thrift, and the photo and a store receipt are framed at "Nothing Related," giving Tanaka a chance to say, "Is art better shown at a prestigious cultural center or a low-end thrift store?"
Tanaka succeeds because he has nerve and curiosity — curiosity to see what happens when he puts himself in strange public spaces, and the nerve to actually pull it off and document the episode. It isn't gimmicky because Tanaka picks places (like the Beijing roof) you wouldn't expect an artist to pick. And, unlike Moore, Tanaka isn't loud or flamboyant. He engages strangers with niceties. And he'll stay in the background of his films (we see him intermittently in A Haircut and not at all in Cups on a Car). His messages are also much subtler than Moore's, for better and for worse. Watching Showing Objects to a Dog, it's doubtful people will understand that Tanaka is also critiquing the art world's new hipness for everyday objects like plastic cups. (In recent years, cup-themed art has been ubiquitous, featured in institutions including the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut.) Tanaka has been using such objects for more than a decade, but "I'm now questioning their use," he told me.
Tanaka's agenda deserves to be considered. Social critics who employ humor are a rare breed, not just in art circles but the culture at large. Tanaka, who is living in L.A. on a three-year fellowship funded by the Japanese government, has the time to make a bigger name for himself in the United States. In Japan, he's already a well-known provocateur. San Francisco is his chance to prove himself in another country. So far, so good.