Artist interview: Kara Tanaka

Kara Tanaka is one of the young talented artists participating in ART FUTURES at ARTHK2012. Born in 1983, she lives and works in L.A., and works with sculpture, media, text and paintings, represented by Simon Preston Gallery in New York. I did an email interview with her prior to the opening of the art fair, to find out what her work is all about.

What can you tell us about the work that you are showing at ART HK?

“Bent-Light Night” is an installation about the search for elusive sacred mountains that are unmapped and invisible, ones whose fame has been passed down through myth and legend, but whose whereabouts are unknown. Nearly all cultures that lived in proximity to mountains mythologized them at some point, anthropomorphizing them into gods or claiming they are the abodes of immortals or the place where a human could transform into the divine. So it’s a common story across the globe, but I chose two strikingly similar sources: Rene Daumal’s novel Mount Analogue and the Buddhist myths of Shambala and Mount Meru. The installation is a triptych of circular aerial maps carved into cowhides accompanied by a trio of European alphorns (a mountain instrument that could spread communication a great distance).

Is this your first time exhibiting in Asia? How do you think the Asian audience will react to your pieces?

– I have the most fun when connecting several cultures’ resource material to make a broad analysis of how humans are all naturally drawn toward the same impulses and goals – in this case it’s a collaboration of European mountaineering and colonialism and Buddhist mythologies of holy mountains. Both set about their quests with a spirit to conquer the physical world and the immaterial realms. Ultimately these cultures, as well as many others around the world, came down to the same conclusion when striving toward the divine object – one must detach the self from worldly possessions and destroy the ego in order to reach the highest heights. This is my first time exhibiting in Asia and I am curious if the poetry of that act rings clearer in the work, as I believe the sensibility of the Buddhist attempt to summit the sacred mountain is done with different intentions than the conquering spirit of the Europeans.

Technology and how it affects our life seems to be a theme in a lot of your work. Would you agree with that and could you elaborate a bit further on what that means?

– I feel fortunate to live in an era where history and information are free and becoming more accessible every day as new data is added to the Internet. I rely on it heavily for accumulating stories because, with just a little bit of digging around, it is quite clear that the same situations and struggles have affected and continue to affect all of humankind, whether those are religious, political, biological, etc. In accumulating and distilling that information, one can paint the broadest portrait of humanity.

As with all periods of art history, the artist signals the shifts in qualities which are changing in the world and questions their lasting effects on behavior.

This was true especially during times of great economic growth. The Renaissance, for example, and its use of iconography reflected the enormous power and wealth of the Christian church, and Capitalism has produced a certain kind of commodifiable artwork and a hollowing out of meaning that reflects the movement of the market. The change that I am most interested in is the impact of technology on the way that we live and interact with one another, with a multiplicity of personalities and a frenetic panoptic vantage point over human history that allows for tremendous self-reflexivity and self-awareness. And all of this is illuminated by a feeling that our Homo Sapiens branch of the human family tree is on the decline, with our shortcomings being met by a new version of ourselves, a bodiless embodiment of human intelligence in machine form.

Do your projects follow somehow the same theme, or are they very separated from each other? Is there a continuous path in your work?

– Even though I break from every project completely and start from scratch each year, these ideas are all part of the same long-running narrative. Often the rejection of the physical body has come into play, which stems from a desire for humanity to move beyond itself, beyond the ridiculous animal qualities that are hard wired into our brains, that keep us from reaching a deeper level of intelligence. The body nags incessantly, wanting to be satisfied and fortified and to be given the opportunities to reach full biological potentials (as in dominance and procreation), and these are our innate animalistic qualities. They are responsible for propelling us to where we are today, but they are not delicate or refined. I think I just want more beautiful, poetic qualities from life and can see how human potential can flourish in the absence of the body.

You do both sketches, sculptures, text. What was your starting point as an artist? How did it evolve?

I’ve always used drawing as a tool for deconstructing the world and making some sense of how things work, for as long as I can remember. But I wasn’t attracted to large scale sculpture until I connected it as a way to highlight the absence of the body. That disjuncture between physical presence and absence made it work for me. Now I use them in tandem by abstracting the ideas through the sculptures and further complicating the conceptual structure and dialogue with the drawings.

I read one interview where you said you were excited about the future, it could only get better, and that your viewpoint was optimistic. Looking at your work, what kind of future do you envision? And what is your next project?

Next up I’m working on an animal project. One that exemplifies the biological nature and tendencies of humans. Through the struggle for adaptation and survival, we happen to be the most dominant animals on earth, but that will change again as it has before.

A lot of this thinking is influenced by the views of futurists, scientists and engineers as we head toward the Singularity, the point at which our dominance might be challenged by a technologically advanced version of ourselves.

There is a possibility that we are creating a species that is better suited for the environment than humans are at the present moment.

It would be a great irony for one species to invent another species that could usurp its supreme power. But it’s also something that’s never been done before, so that’s what makes it such a fascinating moment to watch as inventions and innovations inch us forward to meet this collision.

This is what makes art so meaningful today – artists born at the end of the 20th century have seen innovations that rival hundreds of years of slow technological growth and have the promise of seeing the turning point, the coming Singularity, in the next fifty years. There hasn’t been an opportunity to see this kind of transition since Neanderthals met Homo Sapiens. They played together for a while until the Neanderthal bloodline went extinct. It may seem a tiny tragedy that Neanderthals disappeared, but what excitement they must have felt at the sight of something that was simultaneously themselves and the other.

Being an artist today means having the power to collapse our history and tell the tale of Homo Sapiens while looking into the face of our successors.

Booth AF35, Kara Tanaka, Bent-Light Night. 2011. Presented by Simon Preston Gallery.



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