Artistfacts: Chiharu Shiota

Artistfacts: Chiharu Shiota


This week we are leaving far behind the American art world, for a wonderful young Japanese artist, Chiharu Shiota, who lives and works in Berlin, Germany. She first came to my attention as the artist representing Japan at the 56th  Venice Biennale in 2015 with the magical and mystical piece “The Key in the Hand”.



I guess you would describe Chiharu Shiota as a sculptor/installation artist. She fills rooms with webs of thread  into which are hidden or interlaced concrete objects such as keys, stones, children’s’ clothing, musical instruments. Such objects at times seem caught like a fly in a spider web, at others like hidden gifts to be sought and carried off by the viewer. Although there is something eerie about these installations, they are also hauntingly beautiful and encompassing. Not only are the objects caught up in the web, the viewers feel that they could easily also be caught or cocooned within the pieces depending on the perspective or memories that the viewers carry within their psyche.

Chiharu Shiota’s works are made through a painstaking manual process. The threads are intricately woven as well as disruptively knotted, tangled or broken. Glue is applied at times after the woven panels are created to harden them. The shape of the latticework is often a triangle as a line is too direct and does not accurately portray the tangle relationships between people, memories, the world. Triangles upon triangles create a dense, impenetrable wall through which it is hard to see, let alone pass, yet often a pathway through or around is suggested or available. This path often also presents itself as a tunnel, an excavation to the past, to a memory.  The scale of many of the works is monumental. 50,000 keys were used in the Venice Biennale piece, 150 boats in the piece “Where are we going”  at the Bon Marche and pictured below,  and of course yards and yards of thread in all the pieces.

Memory, cultural associations, fear of death, presence in the midst of absence, identity, belonging, for Chirahu Shiota objects carry memories and meaning, the threads mark out or draw your attention to the points of connection, the complex relations within the world and all humans. By using yarn instead of paint she says she has freed herself from the limitation of painting, moved  from 2 dimension to 3 dimension yet kept the presence of the artist, the gesture of painting.

For Art Basel 2013 she wrapped an burnt piano in thick black thread and surrounded it with blackened broken chairs also tightly wrought with thread. The piece is called ” In Silence” and is based on a memory the artist has. When she was nine years old, a neighbor’s house burnt down and she saw a charred piano among the ruins. It has been remade under various titles and is a repeated theme in her work.

In “After the Dream’  and “Seven Dresses” or “Labyrinth of Memory” she ensnares long white dresses in the yarn-  are they wedding dresses, religious habits- clothes for Shiota are a second skin that are show the world who you are or who they want you to be, identity or desire to assume an identity, to be accepted, to be invisible. The absence of the body, the fact that we are looking at empty dresses is quite disquieting. These dresses, as well as the shoes used in other pieces,  are a ghostly imprint of the people who used to wear them.

“During Sleep” 2002 and “Sleeping is Like Death-2016”  or “Conscious Sleep” came about after her illness and like her earlier performances under the guidance of Marina Abromoviz dense, are visceral and difficult.  You are immersed in  a dream where life and death are forced upon you. The use of hospital beds give the work an added somberness when wrapped in the black thread, yet they become a source of hope in Flow of Life- 2017 where they take off like birds, soaring to new heights, new life.


In ” Accumulation- “Searching for the destination”  and ‘Dialogues” she uses suitcases. The suitcases move, bump into each other, like a crowd of travelers, or fly off in a crazy magical voyage. Once again she is playing with our feelings, are the people they personify off on a trip, moving to a new country, going home, are they filled with hope or despair, at the end of the road or the beginning?


A piece in Setouchi Japan ” Father Memory- 2010″ uses doors, removed from their original frames and sites and placed in a dense labyrinth where they evoke the loss of home, jobs and population, the dismemberment of the community that has occurred in rural Japan and other rural communities around the world, the displacement of people in our world.

A similar piece initially made in  Germany “The Room of Memory” uses windows. Doors and windows are borders, frontiers but also points of entry. Windows are eyes out from home but as these windows were originally gathered from abandoned homes in East Berlin they also represent estrangement from the homeland. An empty chair, often included with the windows and in other installations  personifies the absence of a being, the memory of a person or perhaps the presence of the artist.

“In the beginning was…”, wraps stones, This work departs from others as the object used is not man made but rather an essential building block, a more direct link to the cosmos. The web she has made with the stones seems to show them as an exploding energy field. Interestingly, she has said that what first drew her to the stones was the sound they made tumbling out at the factory .




The strength of Shiota’s work is that it cannot be pinned down to a singular, absolute meaning, It is enigmatic and its enjoyment and impact are very physical, you have to interact with the work.  You bring your ‘state of being’ or “baggage” to the work.  Because her large works are generally installations, the works are different each time they are installed. Are the objects in a cocoon, safe, isolated from the reality of the world or caught up in a web leading to death? What about you the viewer?


“I like to work with objects that have a trace of memory,” she says. “Old objects always have a story behind them. I start thinking of who could have used it before, and my imagination runs free.”


Chiharu Shiota generally uses black or red thread. Black to her is interestingly more neutral, representing the cosmos. Red represents blood and blood ties, the inner world. She has said that in Japan there is a legend that a red string links people through time to their destiny, that a thin wire connects the heart to the pinky finger, and a red thread then connects from your pinky finger to your future lover. The red string may become tangled, postponing the meeting point, but it can never break. The thread symbolizes human relations, a 3 dimensional web connecting everything. Depending from where you view the installation, at the start or more outside or closer to the skeins, your perception changes dramatically. The closer you get to the web the more a feeling of anxiety, claustrophobia may set in. By suspending the objects, having them float around you she plays with your notion of  time and space, emphasizing the displacement of such objects from their original owners and their original use.

All the objects used have a meaning. A key represents opportunity. Clothes or shoes are a second skin- your culture, how you present yourself to the world. Suitcases are disconnection.  Threads are connection. Shiota says as to boats: ‘’our lives are like a journey without a destination, even though we don’t know where we are heading, we cannot stop. I wanted to emphasise this feeling of travelling with nowhere to go whilst alluding to a search for a sense of belonging.” However her installations are anything but didactic, the viewer can  make up their own story around the object, you use your own history or memory or just plain imagination.

“A long day” has papers flying  around, like a mad wizard’s laboratory orin  caught up in a hurricane, the end of a dream. Papers are also used in”  Letters of Thanks” as does part of “where are we going”. Since I am drawn to the written word, I find these pieces to have a very intense feeling of hope, of messages being sent, of a whirlwind of ideas flowing.




I have never had the pleasure to see some of her performance art pieces. Chiharu Shiota studied under Marina Abramovic and early on in her career created some endurance based performances whereas today her performances are often done without an audience and recorded, and usually involve the making of the installations. At the beginning of her artistic career  the performances were far more difficult as in ” Becoming Painting” 1994, she says she dreamt of being part of a painting, and used poisonous paint and covered herself with it exploding the idea of what painting can be and ” Try and Go Home” where after fasting for 4 days she attempts to enter a tiny cave.

Fortunately for those of us who do not have private museums, she does make some smaller pieces that echo the power and beauty of the larger ones.



Chiharu Shiota has a wonderful website and I was able to get most of the photographs of her work from that site. I thank her for that generosity.


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