State Of Being Chiharu Shiota
– Exhibition Review

Written by Coco Jones

Located at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, the exhibition State of Being (25 June-23 July 2022), featuring works by Japanese artist, Chiharu Shiota, displayed materially intricate artworks that offer insight into ‘the artist thinking’. Consisting of a singular large-scale installation and five thread and mixed media sculptures, the exhibition represents the connectiveness and complexity of our external and internal lives (Summers 2022). The artworks bring assertion to this connectiveness through both physical and intangible material (Summers 2022).

On entering the gallery space, we encounter a large-scale installation created from red rope and wire. The installation occupied most of the space and was joined to the metal railing of the roof and gallery walls. The piece formed a large net with the red rope knotted and weaved together. The rope netting appeared to have been weighted in the middle, pulling towards the ground. Anchoring the centre, a human figure appeared woven from red wire. I was drawn in by the shadows of the artwork that were casted onto the concrete floor and white walls of the gallery, with lighting, strategically selected by curatorial staff, to achieve this effect. The gallery silent. All that was heard in the space was the bodily movements of gallery visitors. Because of the scale of the installation, visitors had to adjust how they walked through the piece, being mindful to not accidently touch the artwork. The installation had rope that would hang down, making it nearly impossible for you not to accidently touch the artwork. I associated the piece with a cocoon or spiders web, a structure that something had previously inhabited. Indeed, due to the positioning of the wire human figure, the installation suggested that something/someone had passed away while living in this tightly conjoined net, conveying strong themes of a life cycle.

At the far end of the space were five sculptures installed on white plinths. The sculptures were various dimensions, but all cubes created from metal frames, thread and found objects. Four of the five sculptures were created from red thread while one was made from black thread. The material was intricate and highly detailed, the thread tightly woven throughout the metal frame, leaving only the smallest of holes. Within the thread held various objects such as an anatomy book, love letters, personal photo album and diaries. These objects conveyed a strong element of time, appearing frozen and static within the sculpture. There was also a a sense of liveliness to these objects, associations again emerging with body, personal experiences, life, and death.

The material presence and presentation in the exhibition State Of Being is significant to the explanation of the artworks. As stated by Michael Yonan (2011), associate professor of art history at the University of Missouri-Columbia, material meaning can be determined by the contexts in which it is experienced; accessing lost cultural meanings and how objects are perceived through sensory and emotional interpretation. In Shiota’s artworks, presentation and install are important in unlocking the context of the artworks. The installation as seen in Figure 1, has been weaved throughout the architecture of the gallery space, creating a site-specific work. There is a thematic process that occurs during installation with many of Shiota’s works, which invokes themes of body, time, and connectivity (Lennhoff 2017). Curatorial choices influence how the audience perceive and encounter this work. Lighting throughout this installation has been deliberately positioned to cast shadows of the rope onto the ground and walls. The shadows as previously implied emphasise this feeling of scale and infinite, innumerable connections throughout the artwork (Summers 2022). Because the rope installation is positioned at the entrance, it also influences how we as an audience move within the space. It is almost impossible not to accidently contact our body to the various ropes hanging from the installation. This brings a sense of connectivity to us and the artwork and questions our role within the exhibition space.

It isn’t active unless there is someone within the work, it’s the visitor entering the work and engaging with it that animates it and brings it to life (Lennhoff 2017).

In this way that Lennhoff describes, Shiota’s work isn’t active until gallery visitors are within the space to engage the work. The sculptures displayed have been installed on white plinths and positioned in a triangular focal point to draw the audience in. The plinths have been made to the measurements of the sculptures, portraying a sense of precision and strength but remain undistracting from the artworks. The lighting positioned frontal of the artworks for clear viewing of its contents. In doing so, the sculptures complex arrangements of thread suspend them in time’ amplifying feelings of infiniteness where the material has no end or beginning (Summers 2022). ‘It is a deliberate stillness where time has been frozen so that it might be more carefully observed’ (Summers 2022). Given these curatorial and installation aspects, it provides an intimate experience which assists in determining context of the materials meaning.

Chiharu Shiota’s exhibition State Of Being contains cultural and historical meanings within the chosen materials of the artworks. Many of Shiota’s exhibition works use embroidery thread and other materials to create her large immersive installations. Historically, soft materials have implicated a traditional female context; however, this is not the case with Shiota’s work. As seen in the exhibition Embroided Action (2004), Shiota and other artist’s works, are characterised by use of materials and do not settle into existing contexts or stereotypical themes tied to textile materials (Maor 2004). In today’s art world, soft materials are used to expand boundaries of art (Maor 2004). Shiota’s use of colour within her work is symbolic to her thinking and observations of the world. The artist predominately uses colours red, black, and white to represent different connections in life and through her artwork. As the artist suggests, ‘Red strings symbolize the relationships between people, black is the universe the deep, deep space, white is the start or beginning’ Chiharu Shiota (Bagheshirin Lærkesen 2022). Red is predominately used throughout the exhibition State of Being which brings to discussion themes of life and our relationships within the works. Red holds various meanings throughout her works with links to blood, family inside blood. Blood can entail one’s nationality, such as Chiharu Shiota’s Japanese nationality, and further portrays connectivity (QAGOMA 2022). Some artworks are made from black thread, representing the universe and the subconscious mind. Throughout the installation we see the idea of the subconscious and the universe reflected through the shadows of the piece, making a connection back to the singular black thread sculpture. Shiota has used objects in the five sculptures that are imbedded within the taut thread. They are reclaimed love letters, diaries and photos found by the artist in flea markets and represent other individual’s lives (Summers 2022). When observing these objects immersed within the sculptures, it creates the sense of intimacy as we are viewing snippets of others’ lives frozen within time.

I’m very attracted to things people have used in their daily life. I read or watch their stories in these things, and I gradually come to see their existence (Chiharu Shiota qtd. In Bagheshirin Lærkesen 2022).

In State of Being, personal objects are repurposed in Shiota’s work and conveys a narrative and themes of memory, life, and time. Materials that are not deemed physical are apparent in State of Being such as time, space, and the audience’s role in the works. The artworks are not entirely solid or whole creating this sense of emptiness and this separation of body and soul (QAGOMA 2022). The idea of these never-ending connections and personal lives which we encounter in Shiota’s work creates an intimate experience and brings visual and physical interpretation of these works. As a Japanese artist, Chiharu Shiota’s culture and personal experiences have contributed to the context of her works. Shiota started as an oil painter, but the artist stated it felt very limited which led to her using embroidery thread, ‘using strings to draw in space’ (Bagheshirin Lærkesen 2022). Her choice of embroidery thread is representative of the artworks meaning:

Strings break, get tangled or tied together just like people cut relationships, get tied together or tangled (Chiharu Shiota qtd. In Bagheshirin Lærkesen 2022).

Chiharu Shiota’s use of material provides insight to her mind. With the artist’s Japanese nationality, colour does provide a cultural interpretation whether the artist meant it or not. White, red, and black are considered primary colours in Japanese culture and are the three predominate colours the artist works with. For example, red is symbolic of strength and joy and used in important events such as weddings and other gatherings. We can see that there is a loose connection to Shiota’s individual meanings she has associated with colour and her culture. Red is symbolic in Japan of such strong emotions and important social events and reflects how the artist has formed her own symbolism of the colour with life and relationships. The installation in Figure 1 is very similar to a previous work that was displayed at exhibition The Soul Trembles (2022). This work was created after learning her cancer had relapsed, ‘perhaps the painful treatment along with the confrontation with death is a tribulation to create honest works’ (Chiharu 2018 in Shen et al. 2022). In reference to the work in State of Being, the installation may hold a similar meaning and relate to her personal experiences. The rope installation holds a wired body at the bottom of the net like her work in The Soul Trembles (2022) exhibition. Whether this was the artists intention, Shiota’s personal experiences and outlook on the world is predominately projected through her artistic practice. Chiharu Shiota’s artwork is closely influenced by her personal life and uses art to express her feelings and reflect questions about human existence (Shen et al 2022).

State Of Being at Anna Schwartz Gallery was successful during the time it was exhibited. The atmospheric nature of the gallery space, stilled in silence with deliberate and careful curatorial choices, accurately captured Chiharu Shiota’s artwork. Given the size of the space compared to the artist’s larger exhibitions for example The Soul Trembles, it retained the essence of the artist’s installation and the connection the artwork has to the space. The lighting, shadows and position of the artworks were curatorially chosen to influence how the audience moves throughout the artworks and almost activates the artworks with the movement of bodies in the gallery.  The bodily movement and sound from the viewer contribute to the relationship between the interconnectivity of our conscious and subconscious being.

Subsequently, I was in awe of the exhibition and Chiharu Shiota’s works and felt extremely personal and intimate towards the artworks. It displays human nature, subconscious and conscious minds and provides a physical form to our invisible webs of attachment. It is representative of our own humanistic complexity, a mind map to one’s life that is infinite and never truly starts or ends. Material significance in Chiharu Shiota’s work contributed to the themes and contexts of the artist and invites us into the artists world of thinking.

Figure 1. Chiharu Shiota (2022), State of Being [Installation], Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, Photographer: Christian Capurro.

Figure 2. Chiharu Shiota (2022), State of Being [Sculpture], Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, Photographer Christian Capurro.

Bagheshirin Lærkesen R (22 April 2022) ‘Artist Chiharu Shiota Uses String to Draw in Space | Louisiana Channel’ [video], Louisiana Channel, Youtube website, accessed 24 September 2022.

Elderton L (2016) Chiharu Shiota, Berlin Art Link website, accessed 20 August 2022.

Hainge G (2016) ‘Art Matters: Philosophy, Art History and Art’s Material Prescence’, Culture, Theory and Critique, 57(2):137-141, doi: 10.1080/14735784.2016.1161903

Lennhoff S (1 January 2017) ‘Brilliant Ideas: Chiharu Shiota’ [video], Foxtel Arts, Informit Website, accessed 24 September 2022.

Maor H (2004), Embroidered Action, Herzilya Museum website, accessed 24 September 2022.

Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art (13 July 2022) ‘Keynote Discussion/ Chiharu Shiota reflects on 25 years of her artistic practice’ [video], QAGOMA, Youtube website, accessed 27 October 2022.

Shen X, Wang L and Ge M (2022) ‘The Soul Trembles: An Exhibition of Shiota Chiharu’s Art and Design Work’, The Design Journal, Ahead of Print (Ahead of Print):1-10, DOI: 10.1080/14606925.2022.2088103

Shiota C (n.d) Chiharu Shiota Profile, Chiharu Shiota, accessed 20 August 2022.

Summers C (2022) Chiharu Shiota State Of Being, Anna Schwartz Gallery, accessed 24 September 2022.

Yonan M (2011) ‘Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies’, West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, 18(2):232-248, doi: 10.1086/662520