Chiharu Shiota: Drawing Memories in the Air Posted by Priyanka Sachet

Trace of Memory, The Mattress Factory, 2013 (Photo: Priyanka Sacheti)

I remember being thoroughly enchanted the first time I encountered Japanese installation and performance artist, Chiharu Shiota’s work, Trace of Memory at The Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the United States. Utilising both the spatial landscape of an abandoned 19th century row house as well as specific objects such as a wedding dress, hospital bed, and a pile of suitcases, Shiota enmeshed it all in intricate black wool-thread creations. Everything was visible and yet, not; it was not unlike cobwebs studding the dusty corners of an abandoned house, simultaneously representing decay and life. In a sense, Shiota’s work resurrects an otherwise dead house, creating a physically tangible web of narratives through the confluence of thread, space, and air. Perhaps, enchanted was also an appropriate word to describe my engagement with her work, for there was a fairy-tale, other-worldly quality to her work that I had never previously witnessed or experienced elsewhere. Researching further and talking with the artist herself, I discovered that the wool-thread is a signature motif of her work and through which she quite literally binds memories, past, people, and objects.

Born in Osaka, Japan, Chiharu moved to Berlin, Germany in 1997, where she studied with Marina Abramovicand Rebecca Horn, forerunners of the performance art movement; she has exhibited all over the world, presenting her installation art in both solo and group exhibitions.

What does installation art specifically mean to her? “I love empty spaces; the minute I come across one such as an abandoned building or an empty exhibition space, I feel as if my body and spirit transcend a certain dimension – and I can then start from scratch,” Chiharu says, presenting the abandoned or blank exhibition space as one void of references or associations and which she is subsequently free to re-interpret and realise her imagined worlds in. What particularly excites her about installation art is the immediacy of communication and engagement with the viewer. “[The viewers] can immediately feel as to what I am trying to show…unlike a painting or sculpture where you may have to engage with it for quite a while before distilling its meaning,” she opines.

While her work is largely rooted in the soil of her personal memories and concerned with theme of remembering and oblivion, it also sprouts and entwines itself with larger collective memories as well; one glimpses it in installations such as Dialogue from DNA in Krakow, Poland and which was subsequently recreated in Germany and Japan. Currently living and working in Germany, Chiharu reminisces about how it is linked to the time she returned to Japan three years after moving to Germany. “I wore my old shoes and experienced a curious situation; they didn’t fit me any more even though they were the same size. This sense of dislocation persisted even when I was interacting with my parents and old friends. Nothing specifically had changed – and yet, I felt differently about them,” she says.

The scenario made her start thinking about the gulf between the idealised memories when one is away from the home and yearning to return to it — and actually being in home itself. “I began to interrogate the idea of missing and memories and I fused it with the idea of old shoes and the memories associated with them,” she says, elaborating that the installation consisted of 400 disused shoes that people had donated along with notes containing specific memories associated with the shoe. Looking at the installation (below), it is almost as if the threads anchor the memories in form of the shoes in place, lest they vanish into nothingness and being unremembered.

Chiharu has often remarked that working with thread is a bit like drawing in air. “When I began working as a painter, I felt that two-dimensional drawings were limiting me. I needed more space so I started working on installations and using thread in order to achieve a three dimensional drawing, so to speak. The threads since then have been a fundamental aspect of my work,” she says. These threads represent multiple meanings in her diverse output of work, whether of connections or ensnarement or opacity.
Apart from the threads embroidering the surface of Chiharu’s installation spaces, they are also home to objects which Chiharu frequently and quite literally weaves into her works; these objects are plucked from the quotidian, facilitating both the unspooling of a narrative while crucially being a narrative in themselves. They also signify absences, absences which become the works’ fundamental bedrock. “Specific objects inspire me when I experience a personal association or link with them as I did when putting on my old shoes. Abandoned objects are laden with even more memories and associations,” she mentions, suggesting that this surplus of memories adds further narrative texture to her work. “The object itself has a meaning, being a signifier and then my role would be to weave its memories and meaning together using the threads.”
Chiharu Shiota, During Sleep, (2004), Saint-Marie-Madeleine, Lille, France, Thread, Beds, Performers
Photographer: Sunhi Mang
While objects frequently figure as the central components of her installation works, her works are also distinctively body-oriented, as evidenced in works such as During Sleep, which features real-life women asleep on hospital beds and the space enshrouded in her customary fog of thread, bringing to forth gendered associations with the fairy-tale Sleeping Beauty.
She has also chosen to introduce her body as a vehicle of narrative into her works, two of her performances depicting herself with either mud being poured onto herself or naked and smeared with mud. She has also sewn her own umbilical cord into a work; this ultimate symbol of mother-child connection manifesting itself as one of the multiple threads of connections constituting her work. “There is presence in the center of absence; however, when I sometimes sense that there is still a touch of incompleteness, I then choose to put a body,” she says.
Chiharu Shiota, Trace Of Memory( 2013), The Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
Thread, Various Materials, Photographer: Tom Little

Having only seen her work at The Mattress Factory gallery in person, I still feel that the exhibition there is a cumulative presentation of much of her preoccupations: space, thread, objects, memories, remembering, and the binary of absence/presence. “I was inspired and nourished by the lives of someone who had already been living there, as opposed to a [blank] cubic gallery installation,” she says of Trace of Memory. “I was using the threads to weave someone’s personal memories.”

What she accomplishes through Trace of Memory is to render the house and its inhabitants’ memories visible. What we see as potential barriers in the form of the complex web-clouds of black web are in fact portals to the memories of the people which inhabited the house; we see the traces they leave behind of themselves through the objects that once belonged to them.  The thread-work immerses the house in a sea of remembering, the submarine quality ensuring that nothing is quite like what it is above in the open air. It also hints toward how people and events are altered when glimpsed through the veil of memory. If one were to shear away through the threads, allowing the cold, harsh of contemporary reality to fall upon it, the house will simply be reduced to an abandoned shell of a structure. Seen through the Chiharu’s intervention of thread-work, the house assumes another function of that of a memory portal.

Chiharu transforms absences into presence through her thread air drawings; she invites us to remember and simultaneously pay homage to the act of the remembering.

If you would like to learn more about Chiharu’s work, you can visit her website.

Picture credits: All pictures except the first one courtesy of Chiharu Shiota.
http://imowblog.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/chiharu-shiota-drawing-memories-in-air.html

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