This article was originally published in the Japan Times newspaper on January 13 2018.
A spotlight shines on a miniature primary school chair. Its steel frame is crumpled like a child’s body cowering in fear. Soon, other chairs of differing sizes come into view, lit by a solitary woman, who crawls among them with a torchlight. She casts their mangled shadows onto a clinical white curtain, creating an eerie symbolic landscape of “uninternalized” repression.
“Each time I come back to Japan, I feel immense pressure to fit into a mold,” says Naoko Tanaka, 42, a Berlin-based Japanese visual and performance artist behind the production, which is titled “Uninternalized (light).”
The piece was presented at the Rohm Theatre Kyoto as part of the Kyoto International Arts Festival in October 2017.
It was Tanaka’s final installment in a trilogy of performance installations, which started in 2011, that used objects, light and space to explore what Tanaka sees as the “unknowable inner outside world” of consciousness.
She found the chair image while taking part in a residency program at a former elementary school during the Naka-Boso International Art Festival Ichihara Art x Mix in 2014.
Like many Japanese pupils from her generation, Tanaka first encountered these standardized light-wood, grey steel school chairs at her primary school in Kodaira city on the outskirts of Tokyo.
Tanaka grew up “in a typical Japanese nuclear family — comprising of a salaryman father, a housewife mother and an older brother — in a suburban apartment complex.” She was a shy and inward-looking girl who preferred to inhabit the worlds of the pictures she drew at home than go out to play with neighborhood friends.
Her artistically minded mother wanted her daughter to fulfill her unrealized dream of becoming a musician and encouraged Tanaka to take private piano lessons.
Tanaka enjoyed the lessons at first but, over time, her male tutor revealed a manipulative and abusive side to his character.
She endured the lessons by distancing herself from her body and imagining herself as a doll. This doll-like image re-appeared later on as a figure in “Die Scheinwerferin” (“The shine thrower”), the first part of her trilogy,
At age 13, Tanaka told her parents that she wanted to give up the piano in order to pursue drawing.
She was unable to tell her mother the true reason for this sudden change at the time. Instead, she decided to try and channel the traumatic experience into a form of creative agency.
Suffering from autonomic imbalance and eating disorder, Tanaka devoted herself to drawing in order to forget about her own body.
This ultimately led her to enter the prestigious Tokyo University of Arts straight after graduating from high school. Tanaka remembers this period as marked by deep inner conflict.
“I felt very fragile at the time. I was on the verge of survival,” she says, “but I managed to get through it by turning that overwhelming negative power into a fervent creative force.”
In university, Tanaka studied under Yoshiaki Watanabe (1955-2009), an influential artist-professor best known for his installation works with candles.
This encounter was instrumental in Tanaka shifting her main artistic medium from drawing to installation.
Following the advice of Watanabe and also that of Germany-based Czech artist Magdalena Jetelova, whom she first met at Dusseldorf Arts Academy as an exchange student, Tanaka decided to study at the academy upon completion of her master’s degree at the Tokyo University of Arts in 1999.
Tanaka’s desire to leave Japan was not only to escape parental pressure and the negative forces of the past, but she also wanted to explore an alternative lifestyle outside of Japan’s all-pervasive consumer culture.
In Jetelova’s courses, who was significantly influenced by the Prague Spring, there was always active and often heated discussion on arts and society among the students who came from a range of countries, including many from Eastern Europe.
This was an eye-opening experience for Tanaka who was accustomed to a more mono-racial, male-centered, authoritarian and almost untouchable arts academia in Japan.
In this liberal multicultural context, she avoided exploiting Japanese exoticism and chose instead to explore the intersection between psychology, memory and artistic representation.
Tanaka co-founded an art unit called Ludica in 2001 with the choreographer Morgan Nardi and created works that fused visual and performing arts.
Having reached the limit of this collaboration, she decided to pursue work as a solo artist in 2010.
This meant taking complete responsibility for all aspects of creative output from concept to performance.
Since then, her unique performance installations have attracted worldwide attention and have been performed in 15 countries and more than 30 cities.
When asked how she imagined the course of her personal and artistic life might have changed had she stayed in Japan, Tanaka replied, “I would probably have ended up in hospital.”
This is partly due to the traumatic past, but also a result of not fitting into Japanese social and gender roles.
In one sense, it is possible to read Tanaka’s work as a form of applied art, a medium for channeling past and present antagonisms, but also a space to rehearse new possible futures.
The twisted and contorted shadows that fill the stage of her performance-installation trilogy are symbolic of this sublimation process.
Cover photo: Artist Naoko Tanaka performs in an installation titled “The shine thrower” in Berlin, January 2011. | Copyright. Naoko Tanaka.