Nowhere do we come closer, involuntarily, to our neighbour than in the underground. The underground is a conspiratorial venue for human excesses: the enforced compression of anxiety, sorrow, pain, madness and fury. In the realm of the soulless underground, the suburban metro represents the ultimate test for today’s city-dweller, the place where the crucial focus of his inescapable anxieties, constraints, neuroses, desires and hopes is revealed. - Christian Schüle *
Michael Wolf is known for capturing the hyper-density of the city of Hong Kong in his large-scale photographs of its high-rise architecture. In his series Tokyo Compression, Wolf centres on the subsurface crush of the Tokyo subway, in which thousands of commuters make their daily journeys between work and home. Photographing individuals pressed against the windows of the crowded trains during the morning rush hour, Wolf’s images are a disquieting metaphor for the conditions of city-dwellers in today’s dense urban centres.
The images for Tokyo Compression were photographed at Shimo-Kitazawa station in Tokyo over a four-year period. Over time, Wolf has engaged with the evocative potential of abstraction, cropping and reframing his images to hone in more closely on his subjects. With skin pressed against the windows, the faces of the commuters are often partially obscured, blurred from view by condensation on the glass, or shielded intentionally from others by surgical masks. Closed eyes and earphones reflect an internalised retreat from the discomfort and overcrowding, as though suspending time until the journey is over, while some passengers squeeze their eyes tightly shut as a gesture of resistance to being photographed. On other occasions, they meet Wolf’s gaze, as in the example of Tokyo Compression #18 where one closed eye creates the mirror-image of the artist, training his vision through the viewfinder.
On March 25, 2013, the Odakyu subway line was relocated, thus bringing this series to a conclusion. A new book, the fourth and final edition in the Tokyo Compression series, Tokyo Compression Final Cut co-published by Peperoni Books, Berlin and Asia One Publishing, Hong Kong, is now available to purchase. Tokyo Compression will be an important part of the exhibition Life in Cities at Les Rencontres d’Arles, in collaboration with The Hague Museum of Photography from 3 July - 27 August.
Wolf has been shortlisted for the Prix Pictet photography prize 2017, for the series Tokyo Compression. The accompanying exhibition will take place at the V&A, opening on Saturday, 6 May 2017.
* Christian Schüle, Tokyo Subway Dreams , Underground Meditations, Essay in Tokyo Compression Final Cut, Peperoni Books, Berlin and Asia One
Publishing, Hong Kong, 2017.