The art of Chiharu Shiota – now on show in a major survey in Brisbane – tackles ineffable questions about absence. By Miriam Cosic.

Artist Chiharu Shiota

Artist Chiharu Shiota.
Artist Chiharu Shiota.
Credit: Joe Ruckli / QAGOMA

In repose, Chiharu Shiota’s face seems contemplative, even a little sad, and looks younger than the 50 years she has clocked up. She speaks tentatively, self-conscious about her grasp of English. At one point, she admits she is not comfortable talking to an audience and, after a brief pause, adds, “That’s why I am an artist.” The audience laughs warmly, but the artist looks a little hurt, as if she feels they are laughing at her, not with her.

When Shiota does speak about her work, her remarks go to the heart, hushing the audience. And even as one can hear how futile words, in any language, must be in her thinking process, what she hints at stays in the memory.

The Osaka-born, Berlin-based artist makes such powerful work, it is overwhelming at times. Her pieces explore concepts that have baffled the most powerful abstract thinkers throughout the history of philosophy: life, death, the reach of the universe, the meaning of eternity. Her installations are huge, sometimes storeys high. The colours she uses are stark: a terrifying blood red, the black of the endless night sky or the white of mourning.

At a panel discussion at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in Brisbane, where her largest exhibition to date – The Soul Trembles – opened a week ago, Shiota sits quietly between her curator Mami Kataoka, chief curator of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, and Reuben Keehan, curator of Contemporary Asian Art at QAGOMA and Kataoka’s go-between in the massive task of setting up. A second exhibition of her work was also about to open at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne.

Shiota’s medium is a commonplace for women: the yarn we have traditionally knitted. In her hands it becomes something monumental. The thousands of kilometres of handwoven threads are the means through which she reaches for the ineffable.

Her sublime installation Uncertain Journey (2016-2019) fills QAGOMA’s huge central atrium and forms the entree to the show. A gigantic web of red yarn carries outlines of small boats drawn in black metal from floor to walls to ceiling. Walking through and under it, visitors’ heads turn left and right and up and down, the ubiquitous smartphone camera working overtime. Elsewhere, the idea of travel – and not just travel but urgent, life-saving travel – inspires Accumulation – Searching for the Destination (2014-2019): dozens of old suitcases, held together by a more subtle use of slim red threads in a metres-high sweep from floor to ceiling. One of the deputy directors, craning upwards at the preview, told me that at night, when the room is empty, you can hear a faint clacking sound as the scruffy portmanteaus bump together in the slight airconditioning draught.

Another work that is both beautiful and frightening, In Silence (2002), is composed of a burned-out piano, its keys half browned, half missing, enshrouded by another string web reaching to the ceiling, all black this time. Wooden chairs surround it in a semicircle, also enshrouded in a black web, lined up as though waiting for an audience. It is difficult to decide on first examination whether they signify a catastrophe or are merely abandoned.

In Shiota’s exploration, however, they represent presence in absence: not pure silence so much as the memory of sound, in its absence. The work was staged in Shiota’s first Australian exhibition in Hobart in 2011, where she set fire to the piano in a Hobart street and then spent days weaving her web around it. It was shown in 2013 at Art Basel and later elsewhere. In Vienna, the self-proclaimed heart of European classical music, it caused some outrage.

There are seven installations in the exhibition, plus drawings, sculptures, videos and documentation of her performances photographed by her husband, Sunhi Mang. There are also photographs of work less well-known here, such as her opera designs, from Toshio Hosokawa’s contemporary Matsukaze to Wagner’s 19th-century repertoire, or the  transient Wall (2010), for which she lay naked, her body looped with transparent medical tubing that carries a red fluid resembling blood against the soundtrack of a heartbeat.

When I first saw Wall in Adelaide’s much smaller survey of her work in 2018, I thought it had something to do with the misery of the cancer treatment that she had endured. Too easy. She has made videos of the Berlin Wall and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and has said that afterwards she decided to examine “the walls present within my own bloodstream: family, race, nationality, religion and other boundaries tied up in the human condition that we find so difficult to move past”.

The briefest time in the company of her art reinforces that Shiota, despite her modesty in person, is adventurous and subversive in her art practice. And she is adventurous in life as well.

Shiota was born in 1972 to parents who worked in a factory. “It was a very repetitive manual job and witnessing that made me want to work in a creative field. I wanted to be free,” she said in an earlier email interview. She loved drawing and painting as a child: there is a sweet watercolour on paper of a butterfly and a flower in the Brisbane exhibition, which she made when she was five years old. By the time she was 12, she had decided she wanted to be an artist.

A fire in a neighbour’s house when she was nine provoked an ongoing trauma that would haunt her work. Woken by the smell of burning, she alerted her parents and they watched the destruction. She was scared when she saw the charred piano in the ashes the next day and ran home. She wanted to play her own piano to replace the lost sound, but her mother said it would be disrespectful. She was already thinking in metaphysical terms.

“This happened 20 years ago,” she told the Hobart-based community art platform Detached Cultural Organisation, when she first made In Silence in Hobart. “I always carry this silence within me: deep in my heart. When I try to express it, I lack the necessary words. But the silence lasts. The more I think about it, the stronger it gets. The piano loses its voice, the painter does not paint anymore, the musician stops making music. They lose their function but not their beauty. They even become more beautiful.” She reiterated those ideas in Brisbane last week.

Shiota visited a show of Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz’s sculpture and fibre-work in Shiga before enrolling at Kyoto Seika University to study oil painting. “When I started painting, I was influenced by the works of Salvador Dali,” she says. “After I graduated, I became interested in Mark Rothko and later the performance artist Ana Mendieta. My influences have changed a lot throughout my career.”

Then a visit to Australia completely derailed Shiota. At what was then the Canberra School of Art, studying as an exchange student in 1993, she realised traditional media were not for her.

It was there she decided she would no longer work in oils: she painted her last, and very striking, abstract work in Canberra. She began to obsess about the idea of becoming an artwork, to the point of dreaming about it. She wrapped herself in canvas covered in bright red enamel paint. Photographs show her standing in the canvas, her hair bedraggled, the red paint dripping all over the walls and floor. The paint burned her skin badly and took six months to come off entirely. She had to cut her hair.

It was an extreme experiment, but its documentation shows the first clear step in the direction she would take, provoking her strange fusions of beauty, horror and bewilderment in performance and installations.

Her interest in Magdalena Abakanowicz stayed with her. A colleague offered to help set up an internship with the artist after Shiota graduated. However, her colleague confused the names and Shiota instead found herself in touch with the famous Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović, another artist of extremity. Abramović pushed the meditative quality of Shiota’s thought. At what Kataoka calls “boot camp”, she fasted, walked long distances around a lake, went naked at times and preserved a monastic silence. She was required to write a single word on paper to describe the contents of her mind in the moment when she woke. The experience affected her profoundly. “It was a huge change,” she says simply.

After studying further in Germany, she settled in Berlin in 1996 – and has remained there. The newly opened city was a haven for artists from all over the world and the mood was exciting. She eventually married Sunhi Mang, a Korean chef as well as her photographer, and they had a daughter, now 15. Kataoka believes that self-imposed exile is another source of energy for Shiota.

“I think she needs to place herself in an outsider position,” Kataoka said from Tokyo, while preparing to come to Brisbane. “It brings her fear, but also it becomes a driving force for her to make art – overcoming that fear of uncertainty.” Shiota also speaks of her own anxiety fuelling her creativity.

“That was the time the Western art world was starting to look at non-Western artists,” says Kataoka of the late 1990s. “She started to be invited to some of the group exhibitions in Berlin. Because she was counted as Asian and as a woman artist, it was about political correctness. But because her work is not about Japaneseness or womanness, gradually people understood the essence of her message. Berlin is also very respectful of her. Because the city has its traumatic history and that history is so resonant with what she does.”

Kataoka became interested in Shiota’s work early. She saw her at the Yokohama Triennale in 2001, when she surprised visitors with her dresses: five of them 10 metres long, hanging from ceiling to floor, with muddy water cascading down them. Shiota was 29, one of the youngest artists exhibited in Yokohama. Several dresses adorned the face of the Art Gallery of South Australia when she showed there in 2018.

In her 30-year career so far, she has participated in more than 300 exhibitions. Kataoka’s decision that it was time for an authoritative survey of Shiota’s work led to The Soul Trembles for the Mori Art Museum in 2019. From there it went to Busan, South Korea, but its arrival in Brisbane was delayed for two years by the pandemic. Its original creation had been delayed by another dreadful illness.

The day after Shiota delightedly accepted the survey idea, she was told the ovarian cancer she had survived six years earlier had returned. She went through the treatment all over again.

The new work for this show is inspired by the vast distances of Central Australia. Called A Question of Perspective, it calls on Shiota’s memory of Earth’s curvature that she was able to see from the top of Uluru when she travelled around Australia in the early 1990s, before climbing it was forbidden by the traditional Anangu owners.

Another new work, A Feeling, explores her preoccupation with emotions and inner life. Shiota asked children here and in Berlin about their understanding of the soul, about where it is located and what it does. Their answers are surprisingly profound and, like all her work, both moving and memorable.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2022 as "Threads of loss".

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Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist, critic and author.

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