volume 38, number 5
Temple UniversityFaculty Herald

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

Tokyo Subway Art Project by Michelle Kort (2007)

Men Running for Subway

Michelle arrived for this year’s program from the University of Connecticut as an advanced Art History major with Dean’s List in Fine Arts. She decided to focus her attention on “...one of the deepest public art spaces in the world”: the new Oedo Subway Line, some 30 to 40 meters under Tokyo. The 11-minute DVD she produced begins with the strange sound of live and recorded announcements reverberating down the ceramic-tiled tunnel walls as she walked smoothly towards the platform: “The doors are closing. Watch your step.” Suddenly, from both sides, two salary men carrying briefcases dart by and squeeze between the closing doors of the soon to depart train.


Altered Oedo Line Subway Map

The background sound and image goes soft, the title scrolls in, and then voice-over begins. Over a background montage of images of various sites above and below ground (Michelle made for her journal), she talks about the new Oedo Subway Line and the important art project that it houses. Her project focuses on the inner loop, some 28 stations, with a total of 29 installations. Out of a pool of 358 applicants, pieces were chosen by 15 design firms contracted by the Tokyo.

Yellow on Black Relief

Michelle’s narration mixes quotes from Japanese and Western art historians and critics and her original ideas to describe the importance of public art in general and the evolving postwar climate for public art in Japan in recent years (with Tokyo as its leading space and patron). The one rule to be followed by the commissioned artists in the current project was, “to create an atmosphere reflecting the character of the station’s respective area,” which Michelle emphasizes by reading in voice-over the intertitles she interjects into the montage. Recognizing that it would be a daunting task to go above and below ground as well as to interview the residents, the artists, and station patrons, to see if the rule was obeyed, she opts to focus first on the pieces themselves and leave the larger project for another time.


Green Brown Mosaic

How do the pieces function to “create an atmosphere reflecting the character of the station’s respective area”? To answer this question Michelle created a visual montage mixing several photographs of the pieces themselves from various angles (long shots, medium shots, close-ups, and extreme close-ups), sounds from the stations, and various forms of music and narration.

Texture and Light

What emerges is a film which evokes the animated spirit of the art work and how it functions in its social context. The pieces become characters in social dramas (the commute, the friendly visit, the errand, the drinking binge, the affair), protective deities which invite us above ground, then draw us back down again for a second Look. Michelle utilizes images and sounds to invite the art pieces to introduce themselves, their textures, the way the light interacts with them, even the sounds of trains and people bouncing off of them, in essence, the art work as a social actor. The viewer is invited to wonder, ‘How did they do that? Why did they do that? Is it decoration? How does it function to keep bringing us back as consumers?’ The ‘unfinished business’ (an anthropological term we applied to decorative art during the program) created by the piece supplied the tension which invited comparison and invitation to the outside. Michelle’s video DVD was well received by the group as it touched on many of the themes we returned to in our discussions of the ways in which objects like art are circulated for effect.