A bold but necessary exhibition that shows what is missing in Australian art

Her signature material is bright red wool yarn, used to create a dense web in which objects are cocooned or suspended. One could see there an extended variation of Marcel Duchamp’s installation of 1942, his string, in which a surreal exhibit was entangled in hundreds of meters of string. Shiota took the germ of an idea and turned it into a vast body of work. Already in this country, the Art Gallery of South Australia has a room-sized installation called Embodied absencewhile Hobart is the home of A key in the hand, the gigantic piece made by Shiota for the Japanese Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. The installation, which includes 180,000 keys, was purchased by Tasmanian collector Penny Clive.

Connecting the small memories of Chiharu Shiota.

Shiota filled the cavernous central corridor of GOMA with a work called Uncertain journey (2016-), in which torrents of red thread spring from the thin metal frames of the boats. As we walk through the installation, red fills our field of vision. It is reminiscent of blood or fire. The boats appear to have burst with cold flames, perhaps as a metaphor for the soul leaving the body.

Shiota’s threads – red, black and, more recently, white – evoke many associations. They are like spider webs, the nerves and arteries of the body, or perhaps the cyber-networks that carry information across the planet. When a work is installed in a different space, it is reinterpreted a little differently, like a piece of music.

A matter of perspective.

A matter of perspective.

Installation, Silently, features a burnt piano amidst a dense mesh of black strings. The inspiration was a childhood memory of seeing next-door neighbors’ furniture dumped in the street after their house caught fire. The motif suggests music that has been soothed and silenced, with rows of scorched chairs reducing the audience to equivalent silence. Like so many of Shiota’s works, the shadow of death is everywhere.

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Shiota was working on death when she was still in her twenties, but she received an extra boost in 2005, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She overcame the disease and was able to become a mother, but she would return in a more powerful form in 2017. She learned the bad news from her doctor the day after she was invited to create this investigation-exhibition at Mori. The soul trembles was his personal choice for a title.

For the following year, as she undergoes surgery and chemotherapy, Shiota offers work that Mami Kataoka rejects. The curator argued, rightly I believe, that 25 years of work should not be summed up or dominated by photos of the artist losing her hair or chemo bags outfitted with twinkling Christmas lights. Shiota’s last successful bet was a piece titled out of my body (2019), in which sheets of loosely woven red fabric float over a set of bronze body parts. The confrontational aspect of his earlier ideas softened into a more oblique poetic form.

A new room-sized commission for the Queensland Art Gallery, A matter of perspective, deals with the mystery of artistic inspiration. It features a desk from which pieces of blank paper rise and remain frozen in midair. We see the work through a curtain of black strings which produce a slight strobe effect as we move.

I don’t have the space to discuss Shiota’s other installations or his impressive scenographies for theater and opera – including three works by Wagner! His concern for mortality remains constant from start to finish, even though it takes a multitude of forms. The final piece is a series of video interviews with children from Berlin and Brisbane, in which they relate their impressions of the soul. Some responses display surprising depth.

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In the end, it is clear that we have been in the presence of a compulsive personality for whom making art is not an option but a necessity. Life, death, childhood, loneliness, travel, homesickness, love, illness, ecstasy and sadness… all of human existence is in this exhibition. The most breathtaking aspect is how Shiota pulls off the impossible feat of combining great theatrics with a sense of intimacy. Its string installations dazzle our eyes but also offer a refuge as if we were locked in a nest. These large-scale works are deeply personal in the best sense – not a celebration of the ego, but an invitation for each viewer to recognize the same signs and omens on their own life’s journey.

Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles is at Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane until October 3.

John McDonald was a guest at the Queensland Art Gallery.

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