Portrait

Unravelling inspiration with Japanese installation artist Chiharu Shiota. By Anna Krien.

Artist Chiharu Shiota

Chiharu Shiota is small and squat. She darts from the street, on a typical cold and blustery Melbourne day, into the gallery to meet me. She is wary, both of me and of her own work, a vast network of red yarn that fills the gallery space, a complicated web that funnels in the centre to reveal two empty chairs. She stares anxiously at the installation, which took her and her team four days to complete. “It is not good. This is what I think when I am at the hotel,” she says. “I am in bed thinking this. I do not sleep. But now, I am here and I think ‘No, it is good.’ ” A pause. “Then I leave, and, again, I think, ‘It is not good.’ ”

I would like to pat Shiota at this point, to allay her grappling, but I imagine this nail-bitten, work-to-the-bone ethic is knotted deep in her subconscious, that her work is inseparable from her anxieties. Born in 1972, Shiota grew up in Osaka, the family home next door to her father’s factory. “Always,” she recalls with a grimace, “the sound of machines.”

Shiota and her two older brothers often joined their parents on the factory floor, working until 11 at night, making up to a thousand wooden crates for fishmongers each day. “I hated it,” she tells me. “We were, like a machine.” At this, she makes her arms straight, her hands splayed, and pushes out, as if from a swimming pool’s edge. She does it again and again, a widget in an assembly line. “We just did the one thing, over and over.”

It is here that Shiota brooded, filling with grim determination as her father ordered his employees and his family alike. The repetitive motion Shiota showed me was not just a chore she had to do as a child – it was to be, in essence, her future. Her father had believed girls needed only to know how to use an abacus, sew and cook – a life of small and confined movements. Instead his daughter went on to fill entire buildings, sections of museums, the Japanese pavilion in Venice, with gestures of her own, enormous in scope and intimate in detail. There are rooms filled with intricate webs, corridors and towers of salvaged window frames. Perhaps best known is her work During Sleep, in which women sleep on metal hospital beds, the linen a luminous white, the beds woven together in a mesh of black thread, the web filling the entire room. As the audience picks its way around the edges of the installation, peering carefully around the static thread at the cocooned women, it is difficult to tell what the onlookers have become – hungry spiders or nightingales.

In some of Shiota’s creations, there are worn hulls of boats lifting into great storms of red thread. There are hundreds of pairs of shoes, donated to Shiota, defying gravity on the side of a building, their stories attached. One pair came from a man in a wheelchair, sneakers he had bought when he hoped he would walk again. He would not.

In a former psychiatric hospital, she pinned an old chair she found in the building to the wall with thread, amid the peeling paint. You can feel the chair’s struggle, its former occupants’ entrapment, and yet this is too simple a conclusion to draw from her work. For there was and is sanctuary to be found in asylums, a reprieve from expectations, and perhaps this is the nub of Shiota’s own conflict, her anguish over her work’s merit. In her creations there is a twofold complexity of a creature earthbound – grit and blood and bone – and an ethereal beauty, be it cascading thread or the tinkling of a thousand keys. In the snare of these two worlds, she often places an object, both banal and imbued in mystery as if discovered in lost and found. A part of her will forever be stranded on the factory floor.

There is a photo of Shiota, taken 15 years ago, sitting on the floor in a tiny East Berlin apartment, sewing. She is surrounded by frothy, undulating lengths of cream-coloured material. In a second photo, taken from the street, she has hung a huge dress out her window on the fourth floor, so she can see it properly. It is a carefully crafted, tailored dress, for a favourite doll perhaps, except its scale is huge, two metres across and 13 metres long. It is a prelude to perhaps one of Shiota’s most compelling works, Memory of Skin (2001), in which she suspended five of these dresses like banners in a monolithic space at the first Yokohama Triennale. As if holding hands, the sleeves of the adjacent dresses were joined. Prior, she’d soaked the dresses in mud, turning the linen a mottled copper colour from neck to hem. Above each, a showerhead was installed through which water flowed. Viewers to the show were dwarfed by the wet, slightly menacing dresses, and the effect was very much like the cult film Brazil, a great clunking dystopia in which one can only find purity in fantasies. Shiota’s streams of water over the dirtied dresses seem to, if anything, spread the stain further. “Memory of skin,” Shiota says to me, rubbing the top of her hand with her fingers. “It cannot be washed away.”

Today Shiota lives in Berlin with her husband, a Korean chef whom she met while working as a kitchen hand and studying. Together they have a nine-year-old daughter and live in a sepia-coloured apartment block once used by the Stasi. Two black cats, brothers King and Kong, like to tussle with her balls of yarn.

It is funny, I’d come to meet Shiota expecting to talk about webs. I know my webs – funnel webs, orb webs, tangled webs, woolly webs, sheet webs. I even babbled to her about the day it rained spiders and great big clouds of silk in Wagga Wagga – “Wagga Wagga?” she asked – and how entire paddocks had been woven together. She had looked at me for a moment. A space between us. No thread. Then finally she said, “It is not spider what I do. It is like, painting.” Her hands moved again, gesturing, and I look at her work in front of us, the burst of red thread, the walls stitched with staples, the two chairs at the back, positioned slightly towards one another, an imprint of an “in conversation” long abandoned. All that was said and unsaid.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 15, 2016 as "Narrative thread". Subscribe here.

Anna Krien
is a Melbourne writer and journalist. Her most recent book was the award-winning Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport.