Chiharu Shiota at the Art Gallery of South Australia

By Miriam Cosic
The Japanese installation artist tugs at the thread of life’s big questions

Chiharu Shiota, Japan, born 1972, Wall, 2010, Berlin, HD DSLR video, colour, sound, 16:9, 3'39''; Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

The works of Japanese-born Berlin-based installation artist Chiharu Shiota are almost impossible to describe in words. Transcendence, impermanence, viscerality, beauty, violence, memory, delicacy, attack, eternity. She creates all-enveloping drawings in space with the use of red, or black, or white thread. Kilometres of it. She draws. She moulds. Above all, she encases her very soul in her works, and pulls us into them as well.

It has nothing at all of the cosiness that you might associate with yarn. The artistry and the charm of her work partially mask hard-to-grapple-with concepts, like death, all the more so since her brush with cancer as a young woman. Blood is ever-present in her use of red. Eternity and the unfathomable night sky in her use of black. And white is Japan’s polar opposite of the Western “colour” of mourning. The red thread of fate, or of marriage (and so interpersonal connections), is a staple of Chinese, Korean and Japanese belief systems.

This is an artist who has crashed personal and national boundaries and worked her way to the core of what it means to be human. She has pondered, and rebelled, and broken through. She lives in Berlin instead of her native Osaka, with her Korean husband and their child. She broke through a period of stasis in her study of painting while on a student exchange to the Canberra School of Art in 1994: she dreamed that she was in a painting and, the next day, wrapped herself in canvas and red paint, poisoning herself in the process but gaining her direction in art.

A survey exhibition of Shiota’s work at the Art Gallery of South Australia, titled Embodied, includes the documentary photographs of that experiment. A sequence of four pictures, her hair and skin drenched in red, walls and floor and fabrics spattered with it, looks like the denouement of a horror film. Such is Shiota’s finesse, however, even then, that the pictures don’t evoke spoof but rather something terrifyingly deep at humanity’s physical and mental core.

The AGSA show includes a large-scale installation, which the gallery has bought and that, unlike most of Shiota’s work, will remain when the rest of the exhibition is taken down. Called Absence Embodied, it is a construction that one can walk into, spun of 180 kilometres of red string, tent-like in outline and anchored at ground points by bronze casts of Shiota’s lower arms and plaster casts of her daughter’s. The experience is so of the moment, I couldn’t even position my phone at an angle to take a picture that would work as a memory-jogger. It is the emotional aftermath that remains, and the memory of hands, as though recalling a medical emergency.

The survey is a thorough one, covering different aspects of a 24-year career that has developed in interesting ways and yet remained of a piece. Outside, on the North Terrace façade of the gallery, hang three of the famously gigantesque silk dresses, more than six metes long, with which Shiota has been experimenting for a while. This is the first time she has made them in red.

Upstairs from the red-thread installation, other aspects of her work fill three galleries. Most recent are some lithographs, using black and a touch of red on white paper, which are simultaneously visually simple and intellectually complex. My favourite: a simple outline of a vaguely house-shaped cube in black on white, partially filled with tangled lines that might represent activity inside, tethered by a red thread to an equally vaguely drawn black stick figure. It symbolises home and family, I suppose, but the figure is on the outside, not the inside. Is it the pull of blood? The genealogical link or the link of care that endures, through separation, from far away?

More documentary evidence of installations trace her link now with Germany and Christian culture. One is the photograph of a burning piano, an act that caused outrage when it was performed in Austria last year, even though one can see from the keys that the piano was derelict. It was, apparently, inspired by the memory of a neighbours’ house that burned down when Shiota was nine, and the charred remains of their piano she later saw in the ashes. Installations of a charred piano wrapped in vast webs of black thread have been shown, in biennales and churches and various other venues, from 2011 in Hobart and 2013 at Art Basel onwards. Titled In silence, these acts and installations and photos are intended to invoke the idea, not of absence, but of the memory of sound.

Less beautiful and far more unsettling is a video called Wall, which is on repeat in the farthest room of the exhibition. Shiota is naked and curled up in the foetal position. She is enveloped in a mass of clear tubes through which a red liquid begins to flow. More and more of the tubes begin to transport the “blood”, and the soundtrack of a heartbeat thuds insistently. She is videoed from several angles, some of them rather confronting.

At first I thought this had something to do with her illness and deaths in the family. But she has made videos of the Berlin Wall and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, so a different red thread is at work here. She has said that after those works, 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”.


Miriam Cosic travelled to Adelaide with the assistance of the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

Chiharu Shiota, Japan, born 1972, Wall, 2010, Berlin, HD DSLR video, colour, sound, 16:9, 3'39''; Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

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