Train travel inspires nostalgia. There’s no escaping it. It conjures up memories of childhood — playing beside the rail track at the bottom of the garden or with a miniature railway at home. However, politics and societal change have influenced and produced more controversial images of rail travel — images of restless kids huddled together with a handful of gravel between them and a catapult aimed at trains passing by. This more challenging imagery has gone on to influence a world of cinema, literature and art.
The newly renovated Tokyo Station Gallery explores some of these images and fascinations further. The recently restored Tokyo Station affirms the importance and necessity of traveling by train in Japan — something that is intrinsically part of the experience of both city and country dwellers. Reliance on trains to foster connections between cities and areas of the countryside is so explicit that rail travel, like flying by plane, elicits a network of sentimental thoughts, all bound by memories and new technology. These experiences are threaded together in Tokyo Station Gallery’s inaugural exhibition, “Waiting For The First Train,” for which nine very different artists each respond to their host’s namesake.
The space is tucked into the north entrance of Tokyo Station and occupies the floor above, with a viewing gallery that looks back into the central ticket hall. Some remnants of the old building have been allowed to remain exposed, while old English steelwork and red brick dominates the whole building. You would imagine that this makes the space hard to work with — and perhaps this is why art team Paramodel hides the walls and ceilings with a vast Siberian landscape constructed from Plarail toy train tracks.
Some of the other works, however, seem lost, settling for simply being visually arresting rather than attempting to tackle the nature of the gallery space. But of the works that do stand out is Ryota Kawakubo’s shadow installation, probably the most transformative work on display and one that holds the gaze of everyone who passes it.
A small room plunged in darkness, Kawakubo’s shadow landscapes flit across the walls and are cast by a toy train equipped with a flashlight, careering through a field of kitchen utensils. Reminiscent of Yuichi Yokoyama’s manga “Travel,” surrounding vistas are reduced to patterns and textures, and much like Yokoyama, Kawakubo creates a sublime industrial landscape, not flat this time but three-dimensional and cast in shadow.
Sayaka Akiyama presents the most curious work on display. Her hanging pieces are works in residence — a collection of objects found during walks in the area at which she exhibits, and stitched together as maps.
One of the show’s largest works is Akiyama’s map of Towada City in Aomori from 2009. The map features Towada City Station, on the Towada Kankou Dentetsu railway line that connects the city with Misawa in the north, which closed this April. The line used old trains from Tokyo operator Tokyu-Dentetsu. As Tokyu-Dentetsu upgraded its fleet, old trains from the Toyoko, Meguro and Ikegami lines were bought, providing a home for superseded equipment. Stainless steel construction suitable to harsher conditions meant they needed little maintenance and clearly cost less than brand new vehicles.
For the Towada-Kankou-Dentetsu line to continue running, though, the stations needed to contribute financially every year, since the central government stopped financial assistance across the country’s rail network. In 2012 the rail service was discontinued and line officially closed. Akiyama, strangely, appears to leave the irony her work now possesses unquestioned, which unfortunately reduces her map to merely a trace of her signature embroidery.
Other works by Daisaku Oozu, Yukihiro Yamagami and Naoki Honjo are more picturesque. Masaaki Hiromura’s projected video of people staring at red brick and Toshiyuki Shibakawa’s mock-archeological artifacts are enjoyable yet forgettable. While Michitaka Hirose’s ingenious projected 3-D map of past journeys stored on Suica cards is more an inspired piece of technology than work of art.
If shown individually, each work could easily explore its ideas more critically. When grouped together, however, the works focus on appearance rather than the strength of an idea. I keep thinking of who might attempt things differently and can’t help but think of U.S. artist Sarah Sze or Briton Mike Nelson. They would have insisted on prizing open plastered ceilings or lifting up existing floorboards, include a fake ticket room and perhaps a phantom departure lounge for good measure. If the gallery were to engage such forceful artistic practice it would no doubt be at the expense of the station’s costly renovation, but would create a much more powerful show.
Hopefully the next exhibition will be a lot less nostalgic and more spontaneous, like those kids taking aim at passing trains. I don’t imagine the East Japan Railway Culture Foundation would ever approve of such behavior, but it’s exactly this sort of inspired raucous abandonment that is needed and which currently, doesn’t exist.
“Waiting For The First Train” at the Tokyo Station Gallery runs till Feb. 24, 2013; open 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; ¥500. Closed Mon. www.ejrcf.or.jp/gallery.