What artworks see

Masashi Kawamura’s new photo project reverses the relationship between artwork and viewer.

Anyone who has stood in front of the "Mona Lisa" in the Louvre will know what it feels like to be watched by a painting. Her eyes seem to follow wherever you go. It's not tricky to work out what she sees.

Thousands of people flock past iconic artworks such as the "Mona Lisa", the "Sphinx of Hatshetsut" or Degas' "The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer" every year – and their images are seared into the popular imagination. But what happens when you flip the relationship? What’s the view like from where they stand?

It’s a playful conceit, explored in an ongoing series called What They See by Masashi Kawamura, a celebrated creative director and the founder of creative lab PARTY. Kawamura is well-known for using technology in unconventional ways to make music videos. He applies the same imaginative approach in this small sideline project, as he tells us in this Q&A:

What prompted you to think about what the artworks’ perspective is like?

I wanted to give a fresh perspective of the act of viewing art. You look at the surface and context of an art piece, but I thought it would be interesting to look at them as characters living in the museum.

Did the idea come about while you were visiting a museum?

Yes. It's a fun side project of mine. I was visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art last weekend, when I saw “Study of a Young Woman” (above) by Vermeer. That’s when the idea came to me and I was curious about how she and the other artworks saw us. So I began wondering around the halls and started shooting photos with my phone from their viewpoint. I'm hoping I can add to it whenever I visit a museum. The difficult part is that some museums, especially in Tokyo, don't allow photography, so it might take me longer than expected…

What can we learn from seeing what they “see”?

I took about 30 different photos and chose the most interesting ones to put onto Tumblr. I picked the ones that had unexpected views. I personally like the ones where there’s “eye contact” with the audience at the museum. Once I started to take these photos, I started to see all the artwork as material for another form of art, which gave me a completely different way of looking at these famous artworks. I hope the viewers will get a similar sense when they look at my Tumblr site.

Any major museums on your hit list?

I'd love to do this at the Louvre and all the other major museums around the world!

Visit What They See here.

Watch the Talk with Masashi Kawamura