Com­mon thread: Chi­haru Shiota’s instal­la­tion art exam­ines life’s big ques­tions. As such, she’s not expect­ing any answers soon.

Miriam Cosic
The Australian

Call­ing artists inter­na­tion­al” in our glob­alised art world has become a mar­ket­ing cliché, but Chi­haru Shio­ta has earned the adjec­tive. Born in Osa­ka, she had the aha!” moment of her artis­tic devel­op­ment in Can­ber­ra (of all ­places), and lives in Berlin with her Kore­an ­hus­band and their child.

Shio­ta is in the mid­dle of a quan­tum leap in her career. She has been admired in the art world through­out her 30-year prac­tice but has hard­ly been a house­hold name. That is chang­ing. Her exhi­bi­tion in the Japan­ese pavil­ion at the 2015 Venice Bien­nale was the most pho­tographed and talked-about art there that year. Called The Key in the Hand, it was a col­lec­tion of 50,000 keys, gath­ered from donors all over the world and rep­re­sent­ing count­less mem­o­ries, sus­pend­ed from a blood-red woollen sky over two wood­en boats evok­ing today’s count­less migrations.

The Key in the Hand (2015), Venice Biennale. Picture: Sunhi Mang, courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery
The Key in the Hand (2015), Venice Bien­nale. Pic­ture: Sun­hi Mang, cour­tesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

Shio­ta spe­cialis­es in using thread — string or wool, in black and vis­cer­al red most­ly but some­times in white — not as a crafty tex­tur­al medi­um but as a 3‑D stand-in for that most intim­ate of art forms, draw­ing. It is the line, ­pro­ject­ed. We think of drawn lines as two-­di­men­sion­al, but Shio­ta points out that draw­ing is a pro­jec­tion of the mind’s idea into space, via the hand and the draw­ing imple­ment, though finally­ con­tained on paper. Line is also the start­ing point for her cease­less explo­rations of mean­ing: of the cor­po­ral­i­ty of life, the inevitabil­i­ty of death and the out­er lim­its of art.

From Venice three years ago, in what Adelaide­ cura­tor Leigh Robb calls a precipi­­t­ous arc” in her career, Shio­ta also will have a ret­ro­spec­tive next year at the Mori Art ­Muse­um in Tokyo, a world pin­na­cle in con­tem­po­rary art. (Its chief cura­tor, Mami Katao­ka, was direc­tor of this year’s Syd­ney Bien­nale, which con­clud­ed last month.)

In between, start­ing next week, she will show sig­nif­i­cant works in Mel­bourne and Ade­laide: at the Anna Schwartz Gallery in Mel­bourne, at Schwartz’s pavil­ion at the Mel­bourne Art Fair and, final­ly, in a large-scale solo sur­vey exhi­bi­tion at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

The Cross­ing, which will show at the art fair, is an instal­la­tion of 100 books and white thread.

Some pages of the books are fly­ing in the air and the oth­er books are on the ground like roots,” she says. To me, books are a way to com­mu­ni­cate over time. I can hear the voic­es from peo­ple in the 15th cen­tu­ry and con­nect to peo­ple in futures unknown.”

Beyond Time (2018), Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Picture: Jonty Wilde, courtesy of the artist, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Anna Schwartz Gallery.
Beyond Time (2018), York­shire Sculp­ture Park. Pic­ture: Jon­ty Wilde, cour­tesy of the artist, York­shire Sculp­ture Park and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

At Schwartz’s Flinders Lane gallery, small­er framed works will place the instal­la­tion in ­con­text: objects such as masks or scis­sors — like the keys and books, Shio­ta often press­es every­day things into ser­vice — embraced in concaten­ations of thread.

AGSA, too, has com­mis­sioned an instal­lation, which will remain­ in the per­ma­nent ­col­lec­tion after the show. And one of Shiota’s famous dress­es — elab­o­rate cre­ations metres long — will hang from the North Ter­race por­tal where pub­lic­i­ty ban­ners usu­al­ly fly. More than 40 oth­er works will be on show.

Self-effac­ing and gen­tle almost to the point of shy­ness, Shio­ta apol­o­gis­es for not being able to spring from Ger­man straight into Eng­lish on the spot for our inter­view via Skype. Yet her work sug­gests some­thing tough and ten­sile ­exists below the surface.

Her humil­i­ty belies the inten­si­ty of her work,” agrees Robb, AGSA’s cura­tor of con­tem­po­rary art and cura­tor of Shiota’s exhi­bi­tion there next month. (Robb also has just been named direc­tor of the Ade­laide Bien­ni­al in 2020.)

For me, black is like the uni­verse — you can­not fol­low just one string and they all ­become end­less,” Shio­ta says by email when her spo­ken Eng­lish and my Ger­man fail us. Red is the colour of blood and sym­bol­is­es for me human rela­tion­ships, how we are all con­nect­ed to one anoth­er. In a way, they both speak of the same thing: how we as humans are always a small part of some­thing much bigger.

And white to me is a blank colour, pure, like a fresh start. In Japan, it is the colour of death, but death doesn’t mean the end to me, it is more a form of blank­ness and also a new beginning.”

Chiharu Shiota’s In the Bathroom (2002).
Chi­haru Shiota’s In the Bath­room (2002).

Who could have guessed that the lit­tle girl who first engaged with art by cut­ting out ­pic­tures of famous paint­ings in the news­pa­pers her par­ents bought would end up a ground­break­ing artist in her own right?

Shio­ta was born in Osa­ka to a com­fort­ably off fam­i­ly. Her father’s busi­ness was man­u­fac­tur­ing card­board fish box­es and she had two broth­ers. None of them were par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in art. I didn’t like the fac­to­ry sys­tem of work­ing with machines, like a machine,” she says. Which is prob­a­bly why I want­ed to ­become an artist. I want­ed to live in a more ­humane way, to seek out some­thing that would sat­is­fy me in a spir­i­tu­al sense.

Art first cap­tured her atten­tion when she was already a teenag­er. There was an image of an art­work in the news­pa­per every Sun­day. I col­lect­ed them and glued them into an album, which became my trea­sure. It was main­ly paint­ing, clas­si­cal or impres­sion­ist, so I want­ed to be a painter.”

She went on to study art at Seiko Uni­ver­si­ty, which had an exchange pro­gram with the Aust­ralian Nation­al Uni­ver­si­ty. It was in Can­ber­ra that she made her cre­ative break­through. Paint­ing wasn’t work­ing out for her: per­haps it was the freer atmos­phere of Aus­tralian soci­ety, perhaps­ it was just being away from home, but she began to experiment.

It was 1994, and she was already seek­ing a release­ from being trapped in 2‑D. There seemed nowhere to go with paint­ing. She made a kind of what-does-it-mean? per­for­mance piece, called Becom­ing Paint, in which she ­cov­ered her­self in red paint and wrapped her­self in can­vas. A ­fel­low stu­dent pho­tographed the process. It made a last­ing impres­sion — not least because the acrylic paint was poi­so­nous, burned her skin and took months to remove completely.

It was a dra­mat­ic shift from can­vas to body and the lat­ter has remained a con­stant in her work. She was already inter­est­ed in the use of thread as a 3‑D pro­jec­tion of line. In anoth­er work, Accu­mu­la­tion, she used black string and acorns to explore inte­ri­or­i­ty and exte­ri­or­i­ty across the ANU campus.

Shio­ta has trav­elled exten­sive­ly. But her next lengthy over­seas sojourn was in Ger­many study­ing with Mari­na Abramovic, who was ­already a ­famous per­for­mance artist with controversia­l, even dan­ger­ous, works in her catalogue.

With hind­sight, it seems like an ­obvi­ous step to have tak­en, except that it was an acci­dent. She was very inter­est­ed in the work of Pol­ish artist Mag­dale­na Abakanow­icz, who also used fibre in her work, but, between her grasp of ­Euro­pean lan­guages and Latin script, end­ed up apply­ing — and being accept­ed — to study with Abramovic in Braunschweig.

Mari­na Abramovic broad­ened my under­stand­ing of art,” she says now, and gives an ­exam­ple. We went with a group of stu­dents to France and lived like monks, didn’t eat and speak for a week. These ideas of art were new to me.”

Lat­er she would study at the Uni­ver­si­tat der Kun­ste in Berlin. After she fin­ished study­ing in 2003, she remained in Berlin: it has been her base ever since.

After the wall fell, it was so full of ener­gy. Many artists came and Berlin became a very ­inter­est­ing place to be,” she says. Today it is changed, but I still like the cre­ative ener­gy and the inter­na­tion­al crowd that lives here.’’

She may have fin­ished study­ing for­mal­ly but con­tin­ues to study the world around her. Teach­ing has remained an inter­est: from 2010 to 2013, she was a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at her alma mater, Seiko Uni­ver­si­ty, and in 2011 was a vis­it­ing artist at the ­Cal­i­for­nia Col­lege of the Arts. Despite some detours — more allied explor­ations than a search for the new, like the dress­es that are still explo­rations of the body, albeit ­absent ones — the 15 years since she grad­u­at­ed have been utter­ly focused. It feels like one ­jour­ney to me. I keep com­ing back to the same inter­ests,” she says, adding with some irony: I am ask­ing the big ques­tions, so I don’t think I will man­age to find an answer soon.”

She grew up in a Bud­dhist house­hold but has no reli­gion. It is a hack­neyed con­cept, but her art real­ly is her religion.

Per­for­mance to me can be also a per­son­al thing,’’ she says. Today I main­ly do it for ­myself, to con­nect my thoughts and my body, to feel myself, almost like a spir­i­tu­al ­exer­cise. When I think of per­for­mance, I do not think of doing some­thing for an audience.”

The lack of reli­gion, the spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, the ­impor­tance of the body, the motifs of life and death, the inter­nal focus: all those motifs run like red threads through her body of work.

It allows her to cross bound­aries that today’s iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics often places out of bounds.

Take her instal­la­tion last year in Berlin’s oldest­ church, St Niko­lai Kirche, which recent­ly has been con­vert­ed into a con­tem­po­rary art space.

Called Lost Words, the work tan­gled thou­sands of sheets of paper torn from Bibles writ­ten in many lan­guages in her sig­na­ture black thread, which filled the nave with webbed ­tun­nels. The piece was com­mis­sioned to mark the 500th anniver­sary of the Protes­tant Reformation.

I want­ed to link it to the his­to­ry of Chris­tian­i­ty in Japan,” she told art​net​.com at the time. In the 16th cen­tu­ry, Por­tuguese Chris­tians came to the island as mis­sion­ar­ies but Chris­tian­i­ty was banned short­ly thereafter. 

Japan­ese Chris­tians prac­tised their reli­gion in hid­ing. You couldn’t pub­lish the Bible or even own one, so an oral tra­di­tion of the Bible devel­oped in Japan.

The pas­sages used here were cho­sen by the church, and all per­tain to immi­gra­tion, which is part of the con­cept, as I was think­ing about ­men­tal immi­gra­tion through storytelling”

Migra­tion is anoth­er idea that informs Shiota­’s work: not sur­pris­ing per­haps for such a migra­to­ry bird and one who has fetched up in a coun­try expe­ri­enc­ing increas­ing polit­i­cal ­tur­moil as a result of its gen­er­ous refugee policy.

Yet it is nev­er forced or even obvi­ous. ­With­out the boats in the Venice instal­la­tion, the keys were intend­ed to sym­bol­ise uni­ver­sal ­expe­ri­ences and emo­tions: that every­one carries­ at least their house key, and that key accompanie­s them through all the vicis­si­tudes of life. In many of her dis­cus­sions of the work at the time, she left it there.

Her works, even the large-scale ones, are often ephemer­al, so it is a depar­ture for AGSA to intend to ­incor­po­rate its com­mis­sion into its per­ma­nent col­lec­tion. It may seem sur­pris­ing in these days of smart­phones and Insta­gram, but peo­ple through­out his­to­ry have relied on their mem­o­ry to retain the art they have seen — and Shiota’s works are cer­tain­ly mem­o­rable. They tend to imprint them­selves on the retina.

The rea­son most of the instal­la­tions are short-lived, she says, are most­ly logis­tic. Yet she doesn’t expe­ri­ence them as ephemer­al. Peo­ple tell me how they remem­ber my instal­la­tions, so I feel all of them still exist in the minds of the ­vis­i­tors,” she says.

Her instal­la­tion in Mel­bourne will deal with books and communication.

In Ade­laide, she ­returns to the body; in fact, the show will be titled Embod­ied. I will have an instal­la­tion with body parts, deal­ing with the idea of us humans being a bro­ken or defec­tive body and the dif­fi­cul­ties we have of grasp­ing that.” It sounds grue­some, yet Shiota’s work is so lumi­nous­ly beau­ti­ful, even while it is com­plex and ethe­re­al and end­less­ly ques­tion­ing, that what­ev­er its theme it is bound to remain com­fort­ably in our col­lec­tive memory.

Chi­haru Shio­ta: New Works will be at the Anna Schwartz Gallery in Mel­bourne from Thurs­day to August 11. The Cross­ing will be at the Mel­bourne Art Fair, August 2 to 5. Chi­haru Shio­ta: Embod­ied will be at the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia in Ade­laide from August 24 to Octo­ber 28.

Arti­cle link: here

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