CHIHARU SHIOTA, Absent Bodies (detail), 2016, red yarn and wooden chairs, 15 × 4.5 × 4.5 m. Photo by Zan Wimberley. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne. 

“Absent Bodies” and “The Home Within”

Chiharu Shiota

Anna Schwartz Gallery & Various Locations
Japan Australia

Melbourne’s weather from September to November is unpredictable, from hour to hour it can transform from clear blue sky to thunderstorms. One thing that is certain about spring, however, is the city’s annual Melbourne Festival, a cultural affair that brings together local and international artists and performers for a few brief weeks in October. Among the lineup this year is Osaka-born, Berlin-based performance and installation artist Chiharu Shiota. Her exhibition, “Absent Bodies,” is being held at the Anna Schwartz Gallery, while her new public installation The Home Within (2016) was also recently displayed at various venues around the city.

As gallery-goers enter the white-cube space of Anna Schwartz Gallery, they are greeted with an intricate, hand-woven labyrinth made of bright red yarn darting in all directions. In the center of the maze, a tunnel directs the viewer’s eyes to the other end of the room, where two vintage wooden chairs sit in conversational position. The warm hearth created by the red string, titled Absent Bodies (2016), varies in density as one moves across the gallery. Like an abstract expressionist Mark Rothko painting, the vibrant red string pulses with depth and warmth. At once the string appears random and systemized, organic and patterned, kinetic and static, as it projects in sharp turns across the room. Of the color red, Shiota explained in a recent interview with art historian Andrea Jahn that she uses it to symbolize “the color of blood and therefore human relationships connected to one another. When the red string behind a rope is visible, you can view the connections in society.”

Shiota thinks of her strings as a metaphor for the complexity of human relationships that manifests on both a physical and conceptual level. The string intertwines and creates different meeting points, just as our physical bodies do with various encounters in everyday life. Used on geographical maps, and in the process of tracing conspiracies or criminal investigations, the red string has been used to symbolize the movement of bodies and the traces between people. Shiota’s own geographical movements have been vast, having studied in Kyoto, Canberra and Germany, and held exhibitions across the world.

CHIHARU SHIOTA, State of Being (Book II), 2016, metal frame, vintage books and red thread, 20 × 20 × 20 cm. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne.
CHIHARU SHIOTA, State of Being (Book II), 2016, metal frame, vintage books and red thread, 20 × 20 × 20 cm. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne.

Meanwhile, attached to the opposite wall is the series “State of Being” (2016), where cubes are cocooned in the same red string. Inside one cube, suspended by the thread, is a set of old keys; in another are miniature books that look as if they are swathed in a web. Here, Shiota has created a world where objects are suspended in time and space. In her work, she explores the significance and weight of objects around us, weaving them into human narratives where our bodies are symbolized by the red string. Keys have also featured in the artist’s previous work. In an interview with ArtAsiaPacific earlier this year, the artist explained: “The keys tell so many stories . . . [they] are the embodiment of something that is very personal, very important in every individual’s life. Without your key, you are lost.”

Another interpretation of “State of Being” is that it is an analogy for human memory. Just as we can remember the fine details of an immediate action with clarity, the red string when seen up close is clear and defined, its textures palpable. However, if we step back and take in the image as a whole, everything becomes blurred and less defined, a warm flood of red, like distant memories. When contemplated in this sense, the tunnel to the chairs perhaps symbolizes nostalgia. In the way that an unexpected encounter with a familiar smell, touch or taste can evoke nostalgia and transport us back in time, Shiota reminds the viewer that the past is always intertwined with the present.

CHIHARU SHIOTAThe Home Within, 2016, steel, aluminum and wool, h: 7 meters. Installation view at Melbourne Town Hall, 2016. Photo by James Henry. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne. 

As the exhibition title, “Absent Bodies,” suggests, Shiota does not appear in the artwork herself as she has done in her previous performance pieces. However, in the show, the human figure feels present in some form, its traces suggested by marks left behind in string. Perhaps it is the artist’s technique of hand-weaving the labyrinth herself that gives the viewer a further sense of the human body and the sheer physical labor put into the work.

Meanwhile, The Home Within—a large-scale installation that first debuted at Federation Square’s theatre space, Deakin Edge, then later traveled to locations such as Melbourne’s Meat Market and the Melbourne Town Hall throughout the month of October—allowed viewers to walk through the tall chapel-like structure. The installation consisted of red thread wrapped around the skeleton framework of a house. Viewers were able to immerse themselves in the structure and look through the hectic, web-like ceiling as they traversed the seemingly never-ending network of red string.

Perhaps what is most appealing about Shiota’s work is the heaviness of the human condition she expresses through her works. The red thread denotes strength, fragility and the boundless networks of human relationships and interactions. One leaves her spaces with a sense of having grappled with big questions and bigger narratives surrounding the nature of time, memory and one’s relations to objects. Shiota’s work is both challenging and provocative in this sense, but also quiet and meditative.

Chiharu Shiota
Absent Bodies is on view at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, until November 5, 2016. Her installation The Home Within traveled to three locations in the same city, Federation Squares Deakin Edge, the Meat Market, and the Melbourne Town Hall, as part of the Melbourne Festival, which concluded on October 23, 2016.