Koki Tanaka had been living in L.A. for just two years when the Tohoku earthquake hit Japan on March 11 last year, triggering the devastating, 133-foot tsunami. When the artist returns home to Tokyo these days, he feels strangely out of place. "I feel like people think, 'You do not physically understand,' " Tanaka says, and they're right — he didn't feel the shaking or have to find his way home amidst post-earthquake chaos. Instead, he was in SoCal and on Twitter, the only communication outlet that seemed to be working in Tokyo that day, using it to help people find escape routes out of train stations and out of the city. He was stuck in an "in-between situation," not there but fully involved.
In a sense, he's still stuck between two places. Just two weeks ago, on May 14, the Japan Foundation announced that Tanaka would represent Japan at the 2013 Venice Bienniale. That same day, he was finishing the installation he developed for "Made in L.A.," the inaugural Los Angeles biennial that opens at the Hammer Museum, L.A. Municipal Gallery and LAXART on June 2.
It surprised him when, a year ago, the biennial's curators — Anne Ellegood and Ali Subotnick of the Hammer and Lauri Firstenberg, Malik Gaines and Cesar Garcia of LAXART — asked him to participate in the exhibition. "No artist that had lived in Japan for so few years would be asked to be in a show like this there," he says.
But "Made in L.A." takes a loose approach to regionalism.
If Pacific Standard Time, the six-month celebration of postwar SoCal art that swept through Greater L.A. from last fall to this past spring, aimed to prove that important, historic things have happened here, "Made in L.A." is out to show that what's happening here now is important everywhere.
It's also out to make sure important art keeps happening here, and a jury will select five of the show's 60 artists to be voted on by the public, with the winner receiving a $100,000 prize.
The epigraph to the "Made in L.A." catalog essay, from urban planner Ed Soja, begins, "Everywhere seems also to be in Los Angeles," and the five curators titled their co-written essay "Los Angeles Is Everywhere."
This city's art "deviates" from norms, they suggest; it collides "myth and experience," feeds on "transnational experience," welcomes "contamination."
L.A. art starts to sound like contagion, infecting the rest of the world with chaotic creativity, and then wooing the world's artists to L.A.
So it makes sense that a fair number of the 60 artists chosen for the show would have ties to other places. Of the three profiled here, Meg Cranston has exhibited mainly in other cities, Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle does work about a faraway world buried in the past, and Koki Tanaka recently arrived from another country.
Meg Cranston: The unsung Californian
The first thing you see when you enter the Hammer for "Made in L.A." is Meg Cranston's mural-sized California image of a blond girl with two mouths, red polka dots over her eyes and nose, and huge, pear-shaped earrings, one yellow and the other blue. There's an ad for $3 off Tylenol PM in the bottom corner. Cranston first collaged the image together six years ago, for a New York exhibition that would be sunny and full of pop references and spruced-up junk. "I wanted to engage all these clichés about L.A. and show them in New York," says Cranston, who has been working here since the 1980s, when she graduated from CalArts, and teaching here almost as long.
Anne Ellegood, chief curator at the Hammer, remembers talking about Cranston with other "Made in L.A." curators. They all admired the way Cranston could infuse abstract work about issues like death and capitalism with so much casual personality. But they assumed she was too established for their show — after all, she'd won a Guggenheim Fellowship — until they tried remembering the last solo show she had in L.A. They could think of only three since 2000, and her one survey exhibition had been in New Zealand. "She'd be perfect," they realized.
"She's this really important artist," Elle-good says, "but a lot of people don't know her."
They asked her to develop something for the lobby stairwell, a notoriously difficult space for artists.
"There's a lot of marble, a lot of white," Cranston says.
At first she wanted to interrupt the stairway with something sculptural. But when curators encouraged her to think two-dimensionally, she remembered the California collage.
"To me, it's always been about aspiration," she says, like L.A. itself, perpetually on the brink of becoming whatever it's supposed to be.
Next to her double-mouthed, smiling California girl, on the way up to the main landing, she hung an image of disposable Bic lighters, all colored in hues Pantone predicted would be popular. Companies like Pantone command thousands of dollars for color forecasts into the far future, but she used predictions for now, June 2012.