arts and design

‘I was on a conveyor belt to death’: the astonishing worlds of Chiharu Shiota

In 2016, the day after Chiharu Shiota was presented with plans for an ambitious solo exhibition spanning her 30-year artistic career, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of ovarian cancer.

“I felt my soul was going to separate from my body … I was frightened,” the artist says now. “My daughter was nine years old. How can she survive without a mother? … There was a lot of thinking about the universe and soul.”

“I was on a conveyor belt to death … and I did not know where to put my soul.”

Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles commandeers the entire ground floor of Queensland’s Qagoma, with more than 100 works spanning the Berlin-based Japanese artist’s career, in which Australia has played a not-insignificant part. A second Shiota exhibition, State of Being, also opens at Melbourne’s Anna Schwartz Gallery this weekend.

In Silence (2002/2019), burnt piano, burnt chairs, Alcantara black thread.
In Silence (2002/2019), burnt piano, burnt chairs, Alcantara black thread. Photograph: Natasha Harth/Qagoma

In contrast to the large-scale installations and complex aerial webs that have characterised so much of the artist’s work over the past decade, the closing work in The Soul Trembles – Shiota’s largest exhibition to date – is a low-key video installation, with Shiota discussing the nature of the human soul with German school children her daughter’s age. It is a deeply personal work.

Shiota asks the children questions such as: “What is a soul? “Where do you think it is?” “Do pets have souls?” “Does the soul disappear when someone dies?” And: “Does the soul have a colour?”

“A soul has no colour, but it can be quite colourful,” concludes one young interviewee, with a child’s carefree imperviousness to contradiction.

“When I’m angry my soul is red,’” says another. “And when I am sad it is dark blue. When I am happy it is yellow.”

Do plants have souls? “The soul of a plant could be its roots, the roots are important for the plant to grow. Maybe carnivorous plants have souls…?”

It is a humble and most understated finishing point to an exhibition that, by the standards of any major gallery, is on an uber-grand scale.

Where Are We Going? (2017/2019), made of white wool, wire and rope.
Where Are We Going? (2017/2019), made of white wool, wire and rope. Photograph: Natasha Harth/Qagoma

Among the many installations, sculptures, videos, photography, drawings and set designs are single works that demand the space of entire rooms; imposing in their sheer scale as well as the ideas they examine: mortality, impermanence, loss and the cosmos.

Shiota’s vast installation Uncertain Journey is a series of boat “carcasses” interjoined with a complex membrane of floor to ceiling blood-red thread.

“Life is like travelling without destination,” Shiota said, in a video discussing Uncertain Journey when it was first shown in Berlin in 2016. “We all need to go somewhere but we never know the real destination.”

Accumulation – Searching for the Destination (2014/2019), made from suitcases, motors and red rope.
Accumulation – Searching for the Destination (2014/2019), made from suitcases, motors and red rope. Photograph: Natasha Harth/Qagoma

Accumulation – Searching for the Destination, another work exploring journey, suspends hundreds of suitcases manufactured in a pre-polycarbonate era from the gallery ceiling. Some are fitted with internal sensors, causing the sea of luggage to gently bump, murmur and jostle in a restless and eerily disquieting way.

Her 2002 work, In Silence, was inspired by a neighbour’s house fire in Osaka when she was nine. The day after the fire, she recalls the family’s worldly goods, including a piano, stacked out in the street, still smoking in the snow.

“Scorched until it was jet black, [the piano] seemed an even more beautiful symbol than before,” she wrote. In Silence is another large installation, featuring a burnt out grand piano connected by thousands of fine black threads to rows of vacant, singed chairs.

Born in Osaka, Shiota has called Germany home since the mid-1990s. It was not until 2001 that she received meaningful recognition in Japan, with Memories of Skin, a collection of towering seven-metre high dirt-smeared dresses hovering over a shallow pool of water, that was exhibited at the Yokohama International Triennale of contemporary art. In 2015, she represented Japan at the 56th Venice Biennale.

Chiharu Shiota, pictured in front of her work One Thousand Springs at Kew Gardens, London, in 2021.
Chiharu Shiota, pictured in front of her work One Thousand Springs at Kew Gardens, London, in 2021. Photograph: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock

Mami Kataoka, now director of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, was the curator who had approached Shiota with plans for a solo show the day before her diagnosis, back in 2016. As Shiota underwent treatment, her illness began to inform everything in her art. Her husband recorded videos of the artist shedding her long black hair. A panoply of chemotherapy paraphernalia souvenired from her Berlin hospital became art. A steel-framed hospital bed draped in Christmas lights pulsed in a rhythm that is less festive, and more akin to the human heart beating, a lung expanding with breath.

Kataoka rejected it all.

“I wanted [an exhibition] that was a holistic representation of a career,” Kataoka says, appearing alongside Shiota at Goma. “I said to her, ‘I cannot show these pieces as your newest work.’”

Outsiders observing her relationship with Shiota accused Kataoka of being heartless, in her ongoing demands of an artist under extreme duress. Kataoka, who had also survived cancer, said: “It was very difficult, because I could really [understand] how she was feeling, as myself, also a cancer survivor … but I did not want sympathy to dominate over artistic experience.”

Almost six years on, with Shiota’s cancer in remission, Kataoka now believes her unswerving perseverance paid off. “Uncertainty is the food for Chiharu’s creativity,” she says.

A Question of Perspective (2022), polypropylene ropes, 80mg paper, found furniture, cable ties, staples.
A Question of Perspective (2022), polypropylene ropes, 80mg paper, found furniture, cable ties, staples. Photograph: Merinda Campbell/Qagoma

Before moving to Germany, Shiota was an exchange student at the Australian National University’s then Canberra School of Arts in 1993. In The Soul Trembles, she harkens back to her time in Australia with an acquisitive new work commissioned by Goma: A Question of Perspective, a large installation made from hundreds of blank sheets of paper cascading upwards from a central human-less desk and chair. It represents the young artist’s feelings as she traversed Australia in the early 1990s, the enormity and complexity of existence and, as she writes, the “moments of mystery and wonder, when suddenly a new perspective makes one ask new questions”.

It was in Australia that Shiota’s creative path took a sudden and dramatic turn: she decided that she could no longer paint. In response, she created her first installation and performance work, Becoming Painting – “an act of liberation” in which the artist became the prime protagonist in her own art work. It took months to remove the toxic red paint from her skin, she recalls.

“Now I want to make lines in the air,” she says, describing her incredibly complex and impressive thread art in her own quiet, self-deprecating way.


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