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How Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota harnesses fear in her art

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It might not be considered a noble material, but Chiharu Shiota has made yarn her signature medium in the creation of powerful, delicate and enveloping environments in which recovered objects like suitcases, shoes, dresses, bed frames, windows and doors are sometimes suspended in a web.

Inhabiting immense spaces with networks of string or wool interwoven in all directions, from floor to ceiling, that represent the complexity of human relationships, she builds monumental, site-specific artistic installations of architectural richness. Intended to be places of solace and contemplation, they invite visitors to wander inside and get lost.

Aware of the transformational quality of art, Chiharu incorporates highly personal physical and emotional experiences that she expands into something universal that speaks to the collective.

“My work is about fundamental human questions about relationships, life and death,” she says. “I try to express thoughts I am unable to talk about through my art, and I think many others have the same emotions. I have also become obsessed with human memories and existence, and have recreated a human presence without a physical body.”

Nonetheless, she’s aware that art is for the individual, so although some might feel connected and recognise the feeling that the work expresses, others won’t.

True to Self

There’s honesty in her creations as Chiharu shares the intimate and fundamental moments in her life, heavy with meaning and truth, and encourages audiences to reflect. Investing her mind and body entirely in her interventions, her innermost thoughts and feelings turn into works of art offering a penetrating glimpse into her soul.

Her entire oeuvre is somewhat autobiographical and somewhere between dream and reality. Discovering in 2017 that ovarian cancer had come back to haunt her after 12 years of being in remission, she became deeply conscious of her mortality and the close link between life and death.

“I don’t make art as a kind of therapy for internal anxiety. In my case, the fear is necessary to actually make art,” she notes. Harnessing her distress to create, she realised that her force lay in this battle with death and turned her anguish into a message of hope. She aims to connect her inner universe with the outer universe through her works, with art-making helping her to understand herself and her emotions.

Facing Death

Chiharu’s 2019 exhibition, Inner Universe at Galerie Templon in Paris, featured 40 new sculptures and paintings examining this very link between life and death. Previously, she believed that when death arrived, she would no longer exist.

Then she realised that her mind and her body act independently of one another. “Originally, I thought that if I die, everything else about me would also die. Now, I know that only my body dies – not my mind,” she discloses.

The clear and red glasses sculptures in the installation Cell resemble organs or cells entangled in wire-rubbed shoulders with outstretched bronze arms and hands cast from her arms and hands and those of her husband and daughter “to immortalise our connection”.

In Out of My Body, an installation expressing her connection with her body, Chiharu’s feet stand beneath net-like suspensions of red leather, creating a whirlwind of energy where her body once was. Her intriguing cubes containing clothing, a skull and anatomy books dangle amidst layers of knotted string, while a maze of threads appears to dress the canvases in “skin”.

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From the Start

Born in 1972 in Osaka, Chiharu’s parents ran a factory producing wooden fish crates in the Japanese port city. She recalls the noise of machines whirring from early morning until late evening, churning out 1,000 boxes per day. “It was very frantic,” she recollects.

“I hated the factory system working with machines, almost like a machine. I was very young when I knew I wanted to do something more spiritually fulfilling with my life. I wanted to be an artist. I was always drawing and painting, and when my mother took me to a Van Gogh exhibition, I was inspired. I don’t think my parents cared about what I was doing.”

She adds: “My brothers would study and work, and I think they believed I would marry and become a mother. They only later understood what I was doing when I was on Japanese TV.”

After studying painting at Kyoto Seika University, Chiharu settled in Berlin – where she’s based today – in 1997, having acknowledged the challenge of exhibiting in galleries or museums in Japan as a young artist. She would have to make a name for herself overseas first before gaining recognition in her home country.

In Germany, she switched to performance art, training under Marina Abramovic and thereby liberating herself from the constraints of a 2D canvas to focus on the limitless 3D universe of performance and installation art. She remembers a dream in which she was trapped inside a painting and couldn’t breathe because of the oil paint being poured onto her.

“During my second year of studying painting, I felt stuck,” she explains. “I could not continue on this path anymore. I had the feeling that painting had so much history, but it was not part of my history.”

In 2015, Chiharu was invited to take over the Japanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, where she stretched compact, criss-crossing geometries of red thread throughout the space in which rusty keys floated above old rowboats, speaking  of memory, displacement and moving from one culture to another, in her installation, The Key In The Hand.

There was power in absence as one felt the presence of these immigrants – although their bodies weren’t there physically – through salvaged everyday objects that once belonged to them, each with their own story to tell and bearing traces of human life.

Showcasing a charred piano and chairs enveloped in layers of black thread, In Silence took Chiharu back to a disturbing childhood memory in which she had witnessed a fire at her neighbour’s house, while in Accumulation – Searching For The Destination, a collection of moving suitcases containing people’s entire lives, formed a staircase to the sky, either departing on an adventure or returning home.

At the Le Bon Marche department store in Paris, she had a fleet of 150 white wool boats sailing in the air. Their contours were defined by wire, as if they were shipwrecks in an expanse of ocean.

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What Comes After

Going where the ball of wool takes her rather than adhering to a set plan, Chiharu allows herself to be steered by a venue, building her installations directly in the exhibition space. This usually takes changing directions, pulling the thread more or less taut, forming lines and angles, and working swiftly and painstakingly at a sustained rhythm, usually with a team of five to 10 assistants for 10 to 14 days per installation.

Likening weaving to meditation, she may have mastered the technique after having practised it for the past two decades, but each time is still a struggle.

“The single thread is like a line in the air,” she points out. “When I create an installation, it is like drawing in the air. When you draw on paper, you don’t make a sketch of what you are going to draw. You just begin to draw. If you draw a wrong line on paper, you can erase it. When I draw a wrong line with thread, I cut it.”

Despite the thousands of metres of string used and the number of work hours, she’s aware that some of her gigantic installations are ephemeral and will be destroyed at the end of a show, only to remain as a lasting presence in people’s memories.

She explains her choice of colours: “Red symbolises blood and therefore human relationships. Black forms a surface like a night sky, which gradually expands into the universe. White is a representation of life; it is pure and infinite.”

In the works are exhibitions in China, Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, Indonesia and Australia, although many have been postponed to next year or even later due to Covid-19.

Describing her role, Chiharu says, “As an artist, I am an individual. But society is a team. You cannot go through life without connecting with other people. It is not possible. We need connection. But I believe art helps you return to yourself. If you meet too many people, you can lose yourself. But if you look at art, listen to music or read literature, you can relate to a feeling and become an individual again.”

Concerning her views on Asian contemporary art, does she foresee more Asian artists gaining in prominence and becoming international icons in the future?

“Yes,” she says. There are so many private contemporary museums in Asia now that want to show national artists. There is a much bigger platform than when I was young. I think Asian artists have a better chance now, and I look forward to seeing more of their works.”

This article was originally published in Home & Decor.

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