Known for her monumental thread installations, Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota explores the connections between past and present, object and memory. 

Art Radar talks to Chiharu Shiota while her solo show at the Japanese Pavilion of the 56th Venice Biennale captivates audiences from around the world. 

Chiharu Shiota, 'The Key in the Hand', 2015, Japan Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. Photo by Sunhi Mang. Image courtesy the artist.

Chiharu Shiota, ‘The Key in the Hand’, 2015, Japan Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. Photo: Sunhi Mang. Image courtesy the artist.

Chiharu Shiota (b. Osaka, 1972) is a Japan-born, Berlin-based performance, installation and multi-media artist best known for her large-scale thread installations that fill entire rooms. Taught by Marina Abramović and heavily influenced by the Cuban American performance artist Ana Mendieta, Shiota’s oeuvre is marked by a powerful nostalgia that is dark, poetic and deeply affecting.

“The Key in the Hand” (2015), Shiota’s current solo exhibition at the Japanese Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, features an immersive labyrinthine installation of keys entangled in red string. Underneath, catching the net of interlaced metal and yarn, are two rustic wooden boats. Hitoshi Nakano, curator of the Kanagawa Arts Foundation, says about Shiota’s work:

Shiota’s choice of materials and the spatial structure of her installations maintains a sense of preeminent beauty without losing any freshness or power, quietly permeating our minds and bodies […] Shiota convert[s] [personal] experiences into the lingua franca of pure and sublime art without averting her eyes from the reality that all human beings must face “life” and “death” […]

Chiharu Shiota, 'Seven Dresses', 2015, Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, Saarbrücken, Germany, dresses, thread, dimensions variable. Photo by Sunhi Mang. Image courtesy the artist.

Chiharu Shiota, ‘Seven Dresses’, 2015, Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, Saarbrücken, Germany, dresses, thread, dimensions variable. Photo: Sunhi Mang. Image courtesy the artist.

Shiota’s work has been widely exhibited around the world; in the latter half of 2015 alone the artist will go on to exhibit in Brasil at SESC Sao Paulo, at the Seoul Museum of Art in South Korea, and at the Foundation Sorigué in Lérida, Spain. Art Radar catches up with the artist to talk about her unique choice of medium and materials, her exhibition at the Venice Biennale, her Japanese identity, and more.

Chiharu Shiota 'State of Being (Keys)', 2015, metal Frame, keys, thread, 57 x 57 x 53 cm. Photo by Sunhi Mang. Image courtesy the artist.

Chiharu Shiota, ‘State of Being (Keys)’, 2015, metal frame, keys, thread, 57 x 57 x 53 cm. Photo: Sunhi Mang. Image courtesy the artist.

You studied painting before you began to weave with string and thread. Why are you compelled to work with this medium? 

I began to weave and use yarn at some point after having finished university – at the time I was starting to feel that painting on a two-dimensional surface wasn’t sufficient. The reason I use yarn has nothing to do with handicrafts – yarn allows me to explore breadth and space like a line in a painting. An accumulation of black lines forms a surface, and I can create unlimited spaces that seem to me to gradually expand into a universe. When I can no longer trace a yarn installation or art object with my eye, it begins to feel complete.

My creations with thread are reflections of my own feelings. A thread can be a cut, a knot or a loop, or can be loose or sometimes tangled. A thread to me is an analogy for feelings or human relationships. When using it, I do not know how to lie. If I weave something and it turns out to be ugly, twisted, or knotted, then such must have been my feelings when I was working.

You use a lot of everyday objects in your works, all of which are powerfully evocative. Could you speak to us about the nostalgia of objects – the poetics of everyday things?

I can see people through these objects. I can recognise who they are or who they were through the objects they have used or the books they have read. People move, travel, change, but they leave something on everything they touch and use: clothes, shoes, furniture, houses, even after they have gone away.

Chiharu Shiota, 'Seven Dresses', 2015, Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, Saarbrücken, Germany, dresses, thread, dimensions variable. Photo by Sunhi Mang. Image courtesy the artist.

Chiharu Shiota, ‘Seven Dresses’, 2015, Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, Saarbrücken, Germany, dresses, thread, dimensions variable. Photo: Sunhi Mang. Image courtesy the artist.

The weight of the nostalgia exceeds the desire to represent it – the exclusion of the body that once inhabited the objects doesn’t keep us from feeling or seeing. The absent body invokes the death of the subject and, at the same time, the life of the objects. The object or objects no longer represent what is expected from them, so they become material and susceptible to a new semiotisation. They take on an iconic character that they previously did not possess.

Could you talk about the process of designing and installing your works? How long does it take to move from an idea to an installation? And for the process of installation, which is time- and energy-consuming, and almost like a performance in itself. Is it like a ritual for you?

Mostly I do not design my works. I have to see the space first – once I see the space I immediately know what to create. I then do some very simple drawings before commencing the installation, which is quite a meditative process. It is indeed like a ritual for me – the act of weaving, and the process of seeing the knots develop, is like meditation.

The work is very physically challenging, however. I started out as a painter, so I don’t really trust other people’s skills. But when I have to work on a bigger scale in order to make work for larger spaces, I don’t have enough time to do everything myself. I cut and sewed pieces of 50-meter-long cloth to make the dresses for Memory of Skin (2001), the work I showed at the Yokohama Triennale in 2001, but by the time I finished I was in terrible condition. That’s when I decided that in order to achieve the same level of completion without being overwhelmed by the scale of a work, it would be better to adopt a more humble approach and ask someone to help me, even if that meant creating a collaborative work, rather than damage my health.

Chiharu Shiota, 'The Key in the Hand', 2015, Japan Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. Photo by Sunhi Mang. Image courtesy the artist.

Chiharu Shiota, ‘The Key in the Hand’, 2015, Japan Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. Photo: Sunhi Mang. Image courtesy the artist.

Please tell us about your phenomenal work at this year’s Venice Biennale. How did it come about? 

In the past few years the Japanese Pavilion has presented works based on the earthquake and the tsunami that followed, so this year I decided to convey not only the past but also the present and the future. After having to face the deaths of family members, the feeling of needing to ‘keep’ something pervaded my being. I linked this strong feeling to all the possible meanings that a key can have. The boats carry and gather all those human features, emotions and feelings that coexist within us on a daily basis and shape our own selves. Humans are then connected to each other in this World by the red threads.

You used to use a lot of black, and now you use red. What does colour mean to you?

I started out with black string. Black is the color of ink – the substance that a calligrapher uses to connect two points in a space with a stroke. A charge of meaning is added immediately to the shape that it takes on. The complexity of relationships that unite and divide a subject through verbal communication or silence is endless and impossible to tackle, and such a complexity is represented by the infinite reproduction of threads that make up a fabric of unlimited connections – just likes the ones set up between the self and the world. The resulting webs are not improvised; they are the product of a rhizomatic writing system that is hand-crafted.

I imagine the threads as delineating either a personal or a universalized space. Black threads refer to a more universal, all-embracing space – like a night sky, or the universe – and in my works the color black suggests universal truths and ideas that tend more towards the abstract. Red, on the other hand, with its associations to blood, suggests lineage, the physiological way in which we trace our ancestry and origins, and by extension all the interconnections within society. Normally these relationships are invisible to the human eye, but once we try to visualise them with red thread, we can observe the multitude of relationships as a whole.

There is always, of course, an overlap between the personal and the universal, but I make no decision arbitrarily.

Chiharu Shiota, 'Other Side', 2013, Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, UK, old doors, thread, dimensions variable. Photo by Alison Bettles. Image courtesy the artist.

Chiharu Shiota, ‘Other Side’, 2013, Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, UK, old doors, thread, dimensions variable. Photo: Alison Bettles. Image courtesy the artist.

You were born in Japan and now based in Berlin, and you’ve exhibited works all over the world. Do you think that culture and self-identity play a part in your art, whether consciously or subconsciously?

Apart from a period of time spent studying in Australia, I lived in Japan until my graduation. Since 1996, I have lived in Germany. Although I am an individual person named Chiharu Shiota, the role I am asked to assume – a Japanese artist or a German or Berlin artist – always changes, depending on the exhibition’s content or the perspective of its planner.

Because of such experiences, I have come to want viewers to accept my works as they are, unmediated by information. And I have articulated this desire in interviews. In some cases knowing the background can be an aid to understanding, but my experiences have taught me that such information, to the contrary, sometimes becomes a wall preventing understanding – something that inhibits thinking so that one becomes blind to the other and maybe even blind to oneself.

So I do not think about Japan or my background. Once I have completed a work, however, I see that there is a Japanese element in everything I do. It is like a passport, a visit card, an inseparable sign. I have been living in Europe for many years. This is where I have my exhibitions and where I live my life, but I still miss Japan. However, when I go back there, I do not find what I seek.

To you, what is/has been the greatest reward for making the art that you make? 

It has always been my dream to participate in the Venice Biennale. This dream has come true, and I am very glad.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Japanese artists, thread, textile artinstallations, sculpture, mixed media, interactive artinterviews

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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