In 2016, the day after Chiharu Shiota got plans for an ambitious solo exhibition spanning her 30-year artistic career, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of ovarian cancer.
“I felt that my soul would separate from my body… I was afraid,” the artist now says. “My daughter was nine years old. How can she survive without a mother? … A lot of thought went into the universe and the soul.”
“I lay dead on a conveyor belt…and I didn’t know where to put my soul.”
Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles manages the entire ground floor of Qagoma in Queensland, with over 100 works spanning the career of the Berlin-based Japanese artist, in which Australia has played a significant role. A second Shiota exhibition, State of beingalso opens this weekend at the Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne.
Unlike the large-scale installations and complex aerial webs that have characterized so much of the artist’s work over the past decade, the closing work in The Soul Trembles – Shiota’s largest exhibition to date – is a low-key video installation, with Shiota discussing the nature of the human soul with German schoolchildren of her daughter’s age. It is a deeply personal work.
Shiota asks the children questions like, “What is a soul? “Where do you think it is?” “Do pets have souls?” “Does the soul disappear when one dies?” And: “Does the soul have a color?”
“A soul has no color, but it can be very colorful,” concludes a young interviewee, with a child’s carefree insensitivity to contradiction.
“When I’m angry, my soul is red,” says another. “And when I’m sad, it’s dark blue. If I’m happy, it’s yellow.”
Do plants have a soul? “The soul of a plant can be the roots, the roots are important for the plant to grow. Maybe carnivorous plants have souls…?”
It is a modest and most understated end of an exhibition which, by the standards of a large gallery, is of a very large scale.
Among the many installations, sculptures, videos, photography, drawings and set designs are some works that take up the space of entire rooms; imposing in their enormity as well as the ideas they explore: mortality, impermanence, loss and the cosmos.
Shiota’s massive installation Uncertain Journey is a series of ‘corpses’ of boats linked together by a complex membrane of blood-red thread from floor to ceiling.
“Life is like traveling with no destination,” said Shiota, in a video about Uncertain Journey when it was first shown in Berlin in 2016. “We all have somewhere to go, but we never know the real destination.”
Accumulation – Destination Search, another work exploration journey, hangs hundreds of suitcases crafted in a pre-polycarbonate era from the gallery ceiling. Some are equipped with internal sensors, which cause the sea of luggage to gently bump, murmur and jostle in a restless and eerily unsettling way.
Her 2002 work, In Silence, was inspired by the fire at a neighbor’s house in Osaka when she was nine. The day after the fire, she remembers the family’s worldly goods, including a piano, which was smoking outside in the street and still smoking in the snow.
“Scorched till it was pitch black, [the piano] seemed an even more beautiful symbol than before,” she wrote. In Silence is another large installation, with a burnt-out grand piano connected by thousands of fine black wires to rows of empty, scorched seats.
Born in Osaka, Shiota has called Germany her home since the mid-1990s. It was not until 2001 that she received meaningful recognition in Japan, with Memories of the skin, a collection of towering seven-foot dirt-stained dresses hovering over a shallow pool of water, exhibited at the Yokohama International Triennale of Contemporary Art. in 2015, she represented Japan at the 56th Venice Biennale†
Mami Kataoka, now director of the Mori art Museum in Tokyo, was the curator who approached Shiota with plans for a solo exhibition the day before her diagnosis, in 2016. When Shiota underwent treatment, her illness began to affect everything in her art. Her husband recorded videos of the artist shedding her long black hair. An arsenal of chemotherapy paraphernalia, mementos from her Berlin hospital, became art. A steel-framed hospital bed, draped in Christmas lights, pulsed in a rhythm that is less festive and more like the beating of the human heart, a lung that expands with breath.
Kataoka rejected it all.
“I wanted [an exhibition] that was a holistic view of a career,” says Kataoka, who appears alongside Shiota in Goma. “I told her, ‘I can’t show these pieces as your latest work.'”
Outsiders who observed her relationship with Shiota accused Kataoka of being heartless, in her constant demands of an artist under extreme coercion. Kataoka, who was also a cancer survivor, said: “It was very difficult because I could really [understand] how she felt, like myself, also a cancer survivor… but I didn’t want sympathy to dominate the artistic experience.”
Nearly six years later, with Shiota’s cancer in remission, Kataoka now believes her unwavering perseverance is paying off. “Uncertainty fuels Chiharu’s creativity,” she says.
Before moving to Germany, Shiota was an exchange student at the then Australian National University’s Canberra School of Arts in 1993. In The Soul Trembles, she harks back to her time in Australia with an acquisitive new work commissioned by Goma: A Question of Perspective, a large installation made of hundreds of blank sheets of paper streaming upwards from a central humanless desk and chair. It represents the young artist’s feelings as she crisscrossed Australia in the early 1990s, the enormity and complexity of existence and, as she writes, the “moments of mystery and wonder, when suddenly a new perspective strikes you new. questions.”
It was in Australia that Shiota’s creative path took a sudden and dramatic turn: she decided she could no longer paint. In response, she created her first installation and performance work, become painting – “an act of liberation” in which the artist became the protagonist in her own artwork. It took months to remove the toxic red paint from her skin, she recalls.
“Now I want to create lines in the sky,” she says, describing her incredibly complex and impressive wire art in her own quiet, self-mockery way.
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