CHIHARU SHIOTA, The Key in the Hand, 2015, old keys, wooden boats and red wool, installation view from the Japan Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. Photo by Sunhi Mang. Courtesy the artist. 

The Primacy of Matter

Chiharu Shiota

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

I meet Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, a short ferry ride from Cockatoo Island where her installation Conscious Sleep (2016) was on show as part of the 20th Biennale of Sydney (3/18–6/5). Cockatoo Island’s past is a checkered one, its incarnations including convict settlement, shipyard and, more recently, film set. In its latest role, as Biennale artistic director Stephanie Rosenthal’s “Embassy of the Real,” the island offered a stage to explore definitions of reality, the spaces in between the digital and the physical, fact and fiction. In keeping with her distinctive practice, which serves as a kind of ongoing meditation on how the past invades the present, Shiota’s installation engaged directly with the island’s dark history as a convict settlement. Conscious Sleep filled the cool dark space that once housed 170 convicts. Shiota strung upright a number of old-fashioned, wrought-iron beds, which she enveloped in a black thread that cocooned, but also imprisoned, them. In Shiota’s vision, the convicts, without room to rest horizontally, would have slept standing up. The installation’s single horizontal bed represented not only freedom and sleep but also death. If you could no longer stand up under those cramped conditions, lying down might have signaled defeat.

In talking to Shiota, one senses that she deals with her own unspoken, perhaps painful truths through her art practice. Born in Osaka and now based in Berlin, the 44-year-old artist is a thoughtful, soft-spoken interviewee. Reflecting on Conscious Sleep, Shiota tells me that the bed is an overlooked but important object. “We are born into a bed, we sleep and dream much of our lives in bed, and many of us will die in bed,” she states matter-of-factly. Many of the objects found in Shiota’s installations stand in for human life and its desires and dreams: beds, dresses, suitcases, keys, shoes. She uses thread to secure these objects in architectural installations that the artist describes as “drawings in space”: they are dark, cross-hatched pencil sketches brought to life in the real world. The thread is always black or red: black as representative of the universe and the mind; red for the bodily, the social, the human. And in this sense it is the dreams and imaginings of the mind, along with the desires and condition of the body, that control, nurse and envelop the objects found in Shiota’s works. Each individual puts their stamp on the world in one way or another, and each object found in the world is in some way connected to the human body and mind.

Shiota has been thinking about these connections for many years. Representing Japan at the 56th Venice Biennale, her single installation in the island nation’s pavilion, The Key in the Hand (2015), was an example of how our imaginings make their way through the world, and about the journeys we make through life. In the installation, a massive network of red thread strung up 50,000 keys within and alongside the decrepit hulls of two old wooden boats, like hands holding the memories of people, as if being pushed by a red tidal wave within which each key represents a single person “with its big head and small body.”

Although the work was not specifically about any one particular journey, the two boats brought to mind recent media imagery of refugees fleeing war via water. Shiota gathered the keys from around the world, through collection boxes in museums and from key-cutting businesses, where people could deposit old keys when getting new ones. “The keys tell so many stories,” she says wistfully. Among them is the artist’s own story. She tells me that a personal loss prompted her to make “something important, something human, meaningful,” and she felt that the key was particularly laden with symbolism. “The keys are the embodiment of something that is very personal, very important in every individual’s life. Without your key, you are lost,” she explains. “The giving of a key to a friend or relative—or, particularly, to a stranger—is a sign of trust.”

There is such psychological weight as well as visceral energy in Shiota’s work that, although the human form is completely absent in many cases, its shape is often invoked. Sometimes, however, Shiota does include the body in her work, and it is then that the performative potential of her pieces is realized. In several previous iterations of Conscious Sleep, real people lay in the beds; although, surprisingly, their bodies seemed completely organic within the artwork. In Berlin, during her student years, Shiota studied with performance artist Marina Abramović, under whose tutelage she mastered the theatrical power of the body. It was during that period that Shiota’s 1998 work Try and Go Home, in which she fasted for four days, naked, in a hole in the earth, proved her commitment to performance and endurance-based art forms. Since then, her work has been featured in opera, concert and dance production sets.

Berlin has been home to Shiota for more than 20 years now. I ask her how this affects her art practice. “When I am in Japan, I am Japanese. When I am in Berlin, I am not German,” she explains. “Outside, inside, something in between.” Shiota’s position “in between” is not unusual, but one senses it has given her the opportunity to extrapolate the personal on a grand scale. Indeed it is difficult not to view her pieces as archetypal statements about how we negotiate life’s big questions.

In the Beginning Was . . . (2015) is one such piece. Another installation that binds objects within black thread, it hints at the very origins of the universe, of the importance, the primacy, of matter. The black threads represent the dark web of the cosmos, and the objects suspended within are the shining planets and stars. Like her own life, lived outside the boundaries, Shiota’s art practice offers great movement and flux, but also stillness and stasis. And beauty.

Portrait of Chiharu Shiota. Courtesy the artist.