volume 38, number 5
Temple UniversityFaculty Herald

Visual Anthropologists Take on Japanese Visual Culture
Richard Chalfen and Lindsey Powell, Temple University Japan, Tokyo

Keiko’s Shudo by Courtney Stoll (2005)

Calligraphy Demonstration

Courtney, too, was a graduate student in Visual Anthropology at Temple when she joined the program in 2005. Trained as an archaeologist, Courtney had a special interest in objects and their roles in society. For the program she produced a DVD video on the practice of calligraphy. When a viewer looks at calligraphy, what do they see?


Scramble of Daily Life

To explore this question, Courtney isolated the issue by nestling it in between scenes of busy outdoor activities around the city. A contrast is created between interior and calligraphy and exterior and daily life. Shots of perambulating people on sidewalks and cars stopping and starting at intersections reinforce the first revelation: Calligraphy is about movement. It is about controlling ones movements in certain ways. Brush strokes are likened to having gas pedals and brakes.


Calligraphy Discussion


A semiotic analysis of a shudo piece might reveal the meanings of the characters (Peace and Love or Harmony and Spirit or even Japanese Spirit, with its touch of wartime nuance), but Courtney takes the investigation a step further. Her video sets out to use simple juxtapositions between shudo and daily life to reveal a more complex anthropological theory of the practice, that shudo is best described and portrayed as a congealed performance, an act that is a recording of itself. This leads to the second connection with the outside that Courtney reinforces with transitions to stopping and starting in the busy world: Shudo is about circulation. A shudo piece circulates in physical and social space like people circulating in the street.




Courtney asks Keiko to narrate each step she takes. She begins with the sitting and the meditation that takes place as she prepares the brush, ink, and paper. Certain questions must be asked of the self. What characters express my inner intentions, attitudes, and emotions right now? Am I feeling bold or timid, calm or agitated? These intentions will be revealed in the strokes, shapes, and densities that I create. By placing her signature on the piece, Keiko creates a stand-in for herself as she was at the moment of creation, an off-shoot which circulates for her and does her bidding in the outside world. The contrast returns, a third revelation emerges: shudo is a way of getting the inside out, not just as a short-lived, passive expression, but as an active long-lasting agent. In this way, objects in society can be seen as if they were people, too, or at least mini-people, mini versions of their creators pushed into the act of circulation.

Bunka Mura Street Crossing


Courtney returns to the crossroads and video images of perambulating people. She chooses Culture Village Crossing in Shibuya-ku to reinforce the theory of shudo she is visually proposing. In the background Keiko makes some final observations about the practice.