To Simryn Gill and Chiharu Shiota with thanks.  

Written by Jane Cocks

This essay will explore ways in which the transnational artists Simryn Gill and Chiharu Shiota have challenged the Euro/American paradigm. Both artists utilize materiality as an alternative voice to the dominant male western centric ideas of art making.   I have chosen these artists for several reasons: The work of both artists is relevant to the topic of material histories through the choice and significance of the material in their work, both artists are over fifty and have lived, as I have through a period where the teaching and exhibiting of contemporary art was focused almost entirely on Europe and America, both artists have moved from their country of birth and most significantly I have seen and love the work of both artists. I shall be concentrating on two bodies of work: Simryn Gill's ongoing bead-making project, begun in 1999 Pearls and Chiharu Shiota’s installation State of Being that I saw at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne in 2022.

Simryn Gill was born in Singapore to Indian parents on July 12, 1959, moved to Malaysia as a child, studied art in Australia and now lives between Malaysia and Australia (Gill and de Zegher 2013). Over her career she has made work in many mediums including installation, sculpture, drawing and photography. I shall be concentrating on the work Pearls, an ongoing project she has been working on since 1999. This work is a series of bead necklaces made from old books. To make the work she invites friends to give her old books that they feel hold significance for them. She then tears up the pages, makes them into beads, threads them onto necklaces and gives them back to the donor. In return she asks only that she may borrow them back for exhibitions. They become both private and public objects. Each bead has a few visible words, giving a glimpse of the book that it came from; some books are political, some old atlases, some novels, some history books, all with meanings to those that donated them. Gill describes herself as someone who might have been a writer but instead writes with material (Kelly 2013). The finished necklaces are both beautiful and fragile, marked by use, carrying a history of their former selves. The process is laboriously done by hand, imbuing a sense of care and connection with the giver. They carry echoes of the connection between the artist and the donor as well as the story of the book itself. Gill calls this process ‘embedded negotiations’ (Gill and de Zegher 2013). Once given back to the donor in their new form they hold meaning beyond commodity, they speak of human connection, transformation and relationship.

Chiharu Shiota was born in Osaka, Japan in 1972, studied art in Japan, Australia and Germany and has lived in Berlin since 1999. She works in a variety of mediums including drawing, performance and installation. I shall be focusing on the exhibition State of Being that I saw at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne in July 2022. As you walked into the gallery there was a large site-based installation made of woven red wool, filling up the space above and around the room like a large net. There were hanging threads that brushed your head as you walked through emphasizing the physicality of the material that you were surrounded by. Inside the work, woven in the same material and yet hard to discern was the outline of a body. The body was both present and yet only a trace, a fragile outline glimpsed within the structure. The traditional gallery space was completely transformed from the austere white cube into somewhere comforting, the work gently embracing the viewer. Behind this large installation was a group of smaller works utilizing the same red thread and including suspended very old handwritten postcards. Impossible to read, these communications were exchanged many years ago. There is an expression in Japanese: akai-ito de musu bareru, which means: two people whose lives are bound together with a red string. Shiota herself says that the woven red thread symbolizes the relationship between people (Shiota et al 2018).

Historically craft has been categorized as a lesser art form, dismissed as a non-conceptual activity done predominantly by women (Adamson 2007). The historical hierarchy within the arts with painting and sculpture as the most prestigious mediums is a male dominated idea. Using materials and methods associated with craft denies this history (Chang and Xu 2021). The reevaluation of craft and using craft techniques celebrates the history of women; the work becomes less elitist, more relatable (Corey 2016). Both Gill and Shiota use traditional craft techniques and feature the material and method used in making the work, Shiota with weaving and Gill with bead making. For both artists the meaning of the work is intrinsic to the material and the way it is employed. Interestingly Gill’s work is exhibited both in fine arts exhibitions and craft exhibitions (Chiu and Genocchio 2010).

Materiality is an important aspect of both artists' work. They use carefully chosen everyday materials with repetitive handmade processes to transform their materials into complex works of art. They use language as a material, with its traces of past meanings. The audience connects with the works physically, encased by Shiota’s woven threads and by wearing Gill’s necklaces. By requiring the physical involvement of the audience, the viewer’s body becomes a part of the material. They both deny these works as commodity, the necklaces are given in exchange and Shiota’s installation is temporary (Gill et al 2008).

Both artists were making their art before there was a digital world; there was no Internet, no mobile phones or social media, many of the things that have made contemporary art more global were not available to them. Digital communication technologies have undoubtedly helped us to have a more global art world and helped the growing global recognition of contemporary Asian art however this has changed our relationship with materiality (Langdon 2014). Today it is unusual to encounter any contemporary art that hasn’t involved some form of digital technology at some point in its making, which means we are distanced from the physical sensation of being with the work. We lose a sense of the scale of the work, the material is homogenized, and everything has the same surface and texture (Christiane 2020).

Both Pearls and State of Being celebrate materiality. Both artists deploy techniques that require manual labor, and the resulting works involve physical touch at a time when most of us access artworks digitally. There is an element of performance in a physical artwork, walking around the work, experiencing the space and seeing the tactile qualities of the work.

Globalization has helped to break down the dominant western centric ideas that dominated art history. We now have a broader worldview, which has enabled artists from locations other than the Euro/American paradigm to be more visible in the art world (Turner 2005). As an art student in Australia in the 1970s and early 1980s I found that access to information on contemporary art was limited to what was published and available in the university library. Both lectures and publications were almost universally about male artists from Europe and America. At the time it was a common belief that to be a successful artist necessitated living in a large Western city. Both Gill and Shiota moved to Western cities at a time when contemporary art was very much centered in the west (Turner 2005). Shiota studied art in Japan, Australia and Germany and now lives in Berlin (Shiota et al 2018) and Gill studied at the University of Western Sydney and now lives between Malaysia and Australia. She is defined as an Australian artist in Australia and in Malaysia as a Malaysian artist (Kelly 2013). Although both artists live in places different to where they were born, both return almost yearly to their home countries, and both have said that they see Asia as their home.

There are similarities in the histories and practices of both artists. They both started their practices at a time when artists with an Asian background were excluded from curatorial thinking (Turner 2005). They both moved countries to further their art careers.  Both reflect a wider diversity of experiences than the traditional colonial ideas of contemporary artists as being from Europe and America. There are also similarities in their use of materials and methods; material is at the forefront of both their practices. Both use low-tech materials; both collect and reinterpret existing objects and use laborious repetitive processes to make their work by hand. Both artists use objects suggesting place and travel in their work, they both use material objects that suggest global movement and exchange, Shiota with her old postcards and Gill with her old books. They both explore ideas of human connections and the body. There is a gentle quality in both of their works, a sense of care as a central concern. They transform material that is without value into work valuing relationships over economics (Millner and Coombs 2021).

Both artists have lived through a time of great change in the dominant European American art hierarchy. They both had to relocate from their homes in order to have a voice within what was a completely Euro/Western dominated art world. There was no Internet, art schools were teaching from an entirely Western point of view and people from any background other than white European or American were invisible in galleries and museums. Today the division between art and craft in contemporary art is often blurred and both artists have been ahead of their time in their prominent use of craft techniques associated with the history of women (Adamson 2007). For the last twenty years contemporary art has increasingly been framed by ideas of participation and social connection (Millner and Coombs 2021). Both Gill and Shiota have been forerunners in these fields. They have both challenged Western modernist ideas of the identity of the artist and have added the voice of women artists of Asian origin to a shifting art world. Shiota and Gill have helped to bring non-western perspectives and diverse voices to global audiences.

Shiota and Gill have contributed significantly to the breaking of hierarchical colonial art traditions and long standing biases and are now both recognized as leading artists globally. Their work is shown in biennials, art fairs, collected by major international institutions and is included in many publications both in the Asia–Pacific region and throughout the world (Elkins et al 2010). Both artists deserve to be celebrated.  

Figure 1: Simryn Gill, Pearls, Joseph Conrad 'Heart of Darkness' in Three Stories: Youth, Heart of Darkness, The End of the Tether, (London, J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1948), 2006. From Gill's ongoing Pearls series of paper necklaces, 1999 onwards. Private Collection, London.

Figure 2: Chiharu Shiota State of Being, 2022. Instal­la­tion view, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne. Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Chris­t­ian Capurro.

Adamson G (2007) Thinking through Craft, Berg, Oxford

Antoinette M (2015) Reworlding Art History: Encounters with Contemporary Southeast Asian Art After 1990. Leiden: BRILL

Chang W and Xu W “2021” ‘The Art-Craft Boundary in Contemporary Central China: The Case of Root Carving’ “14:2”; 141-154 The Journal of Modern Craft, DOI: 10.1080/17496772.2021.1961373 website, accessed 10 August 2022.

Chiu M and Genocchio B (2010) Asian Art Now Monacelli Press, New York

Christiane P (2020) ‘Digital Art Now: Histories of (Im)Materialities’ International Journal for Digital Art History, no. 5 (September) doi: 10.11588/dah.2020.5.75504

Corey P “2016” ‘Beyond Yet Toward Representation: Diasporic Artists and Craft as Conceptualism in Contemporary Southeast Asia’ ” 9.2”; 161–181 The Journal of Modern Craft,

Elkins J, Valiavicharska Z and Kim A (2010) Art and Globalization, Penn State University Press, U.S.A.

Gill S (2000-) Pearls [paper], British Art Studies website, accessed 18 August 2022.

Gill S and de. Zegher C (2013) Here Art Grows on Trees. Australia Council for the Arts, Strawberry Hills, NSW

Gill S, Morgan J, Storer R and Taussig M (2008) ‘Simryn Gill’ Walther Konig, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia

Kelly J “2013” ‘Being there simryn gill @ the venice biennale’ “261”; 9-13 Art Monthly Australia,

Langdon M (2014) The Work of Art in a Digital Age: Art, Technology and Globalisation. Springer New York, doi: 10.1007/978-1-4939-1270-4

Lange-Berndt P (2015) Materiality/ Documents of Contemporary Art Whitechapel Gallery London and MIT Press, USA

Midori Y (2014) ‘Beyond Japanese/Women Artists: Transnational Dialogues in the Art of Nobuho Nagasawa and Chiharu Shiota’, Routledge, doi: 10.1080/09528822.2013.867711

Millner J and Coombs G (2021) Care Ethics and Art, Milton: Taylor & Francis Group, doi: 10.4324/9781003167556

Mills C (2009) Materiality as the Basis for the Aesthetic Experience in Contemporary Art (Graduate Student Thesis) (accessed 5 August 2022).

Shiota C (2022) State of Being [wool], Anna Schwartz Gallery, Author’s photograph

Shiota C, Robb L, Kelty R and Lellouche A (2018) Chiharu Shiota Art Gallery of South Australia Adelaide, SA

Tagore-Erwin E (2018) ‘Contemporary Japanese art: Between globalization and localization’, Arts Marketing, 8(2): 137-151, doi: 10.1108/AAM-04-2017-0008

Turner C (2005) Art and Social Change: Contemporary Art in Asia and the Pacific, Pandanus Books, ANU Canberra.