Real Live Rebellion Koki Tanaka at St George's Hall. Photo Mark McNulty

Real Live Rebellion

“People in Liverpool have a strong sense of justice and they believe in fighting for what’s right…”

Celebrated international artist Koki Tanaka has been profiled in the Guardian, named Deutsch Bank ‘Artist of the Year 2015’ and heralded as one of Japan’s five ‘most essential’ creative voices.

Koki has come to Liverpool to create a flag-ship installation for this year’s Liverpool Biennial. Fittingly, I meet him in Liverpool’s Bluecoat gallery, to talk about his involvement, but Koki is nothing like we imagined.

Unassuming and conservatively dressed, Koki arrives early, with no assistant or fanfare. Can this really be the award winning artist who turns haircuts in multi-master-works of art and piano music into genre busting collaborations?

But Koki he is and after a little general chat, we go straight into the interview. To kick things off, I ask Koki to tell me what type of artist he considers himself to be. His opening statement takes me back bit.

10,000 children skipped school to protest against the Thatcher government’s policy. Photograph: David Sinclair
10,000 children skipped school to protest against the Thatcher government’s policy. Photograph: David Sinclair

“I’m not a very good artist” he sincerely states, and I get the sense that this statement isn’t for dramatic effect. “Artists in the 19th century had very specialised skills, like painting or sculpting. I enjoy working across art forms, but I see myself as more of an event organiser or director. I bring people together to create something new.”

At Biennial’s request, Koki visited Liverpool in October 2015, to research the city and develop a concept for his Biennial installation. I ask Koki what he felt was unique about Liverpool. Koki doesn’t hesitate.

“The architecture and the people. The buildings are from all from different time periods and borrow from all different styles, giving Liverpool a character of its own. The people also surprise me. I’ve worked a lot in London, but people here are very open, very interested and very polite.”

Despite Liverpool’s impressive buildings and welcoming nature, Koki had trouble getting inspired at first, until he popped into Bold Street book shop ‘News from Nowhere’, finding a relatively obscure moment from Liverpool’s past that got his artistic juices flowing.

In Collaborative
If there were two things that unite Koki’s Tanaka’s work they are collaboration and an interest in human behaviour. Koki often brings different disciplines of the same art-form together to see how they collaborate, influence each other or even how they fail.

Signature pieces include ‘A Piano Played by Five Pianists at Once’ and ‘A Haircut by 9 Hairdressers at Once’. We ask Koki if the haircut looked good, in the end. “Err, it was different, you know hair, you can’t put it back on, it just got shorter and shorter!”

“At fists I was a bit lost, I didn’t really have any idea what to do. I visited the docks, St George’s Hall, Cain’s Brewery, Granby Four Streets and The Pier Head, but I wanted to learn more about the city’s history and I was directed to this little indie book store called ‘News From Nowhere’.

“I came across a number of photos by Dave Sinclair, who had captured Liverpool’s Youth Training Scheme (YTS) protest of 1985 and they struck me as very ‘Liverpool’. The scheme took advantage of students, making them work, without a guaranteed job at the end. It was exploitative and people, particularly young people, were strongly opposed to it.

“There were other strikes in other cities, but Liverpool’s was the biggest, with 10,000 participants. From my research into the Dock strikes, I knew that people in Liverpool are very socially conscious, they have a strong sense of justice and they believe in fighting for what’s right.

“But Dave’s YTS strike photos were different from the images I had seen of Dockers on picket lines. Both showed serious reactions to unfair political policies, but the YTS pictures had a different outlook. They weren’t as solemn, there was hope.

“What struck me is that YTS protest participants seemed to enjoy having their voices heard. They almost appear to be revelling in it. It was a different time, they were mainly university students, but you get the sense that these young people learnt to be politically aware from their parents, but they were expressing their frustration in their own way.

On Sunday 5th June Koki staged a re-enactment of the YTS protest with a selection of original participants and their families. Footage and photographs from the event will be used as part of a new multi-discipline art installation at Cains Brewery, Stanhope Street.

Reenactment of the Liverpool YTS strike of 1985
Reenactment of the Liverpool YTS strike of 1985

I ask Koki if he thinks Liverpool is a creative city and about the role that institutions like Biennial and the city’s galleries and museums play. True to form, his honest answer takes me back once more.

“Biennial can kill creativity because it becomes the focus of it. Art shouldn’t be confined to spaces or time periods. I’d like to see more alternative viewpoints and naturally occurring creative expressions in Liverpool, outside of Biennial and the museums and galleries. Biennial is important because it brings a new level of creativity to the city, but it shouldn’t replace it.

Our interview has ran a little over time and comes to a sudden end. But we exchange emails and Koki promises to send me some of Dave Sinclair’s photographs to use in the feature. As we prepare to leave something interesting dawns upon me.

Koki may not have an entourage, he may dress conventionally, he may unpretentious and even self-effacing, but he’s every bit the artist as he reminds us of its true purpose, to shine light on issues, offer insight and, of course, to surprise people.

Liverpool Biennial starts from 9 July – 16 October 2016.

For more information read ’13 Things You Need to Know About Biennial’ or visit



Published: 07/06/2016