In 2016, the day after Chiharu Shiota was presented with 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 was going to separate from my body… I was afraid”, confides the artist today. “My daughter was nine years old. How can she survive without a mother? … There was a lot of thinking about the universe and the soul.
“I was on a treadmill until I died…and I didn’t know where to put my soul.”
Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Aspens takes over the entire ground floor of Queensland’s Qagoma, with over 100 works spanning the Berlin-based Japanese artist’s career, in which Australia played a significant role. A second Shiota exhibition, state of beingalso opens at Melbourne’s Anna Schwartz Gallery this weekend.
Unlike the large-scale installations and intricate aerial canvases that have characterized much of the artist’s work over the past decade, the closing work of 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 his daughter’s age. It is a deeply personal work.
Shiota asks children questions such as, “What is a soul?” “Where do you think it is?” “Do pets have souls?” “Does the soul disappear when someone dies?” And: “Does the soul have a color?”
“A soul has no color, but it can be very colorful,” concludes a young interviewee, with the carelessness of a child to contradiction.
“When I’m angry, my soul is red,” says another. “And when I’m sad, it’s dark blue. When I’m happy, it’s yellow.
Do plants have a soul? “The soul of a plant could be its roots, the roots are important for the growth of the plant. Maybe carnivorous plants have a soul…?
It is the humble and most understated end point of an exhibition that, by the standards of any large gallery, is on a very grand scale.
Among the many installations, sculptures, videos, photographs, drawings and scenographies are unique works that occupy the space of entire rooms; imposing in their scale as well as the ideas they examine: mortality, impermanence, loss and the cosmos.
Shiota’s expansive installation Uncertain Journey is a series of boat “hulks” connected by an intricate floor-to-ceiling membrane of blood-red thread.
“Life is like traveling without a destination,” Shiota said, in a video on Uncertain Journey when it first aired in Berlin in 2016. “We all need to go somewhere but we never know the real destination.
Accumulation – Searching for the Destination, another work exploring travel, hangs from the gallery ceiling hundreds of suitcases made in a pre-polycarbonate era. Some are fitted with internal sensors, causing the sea of luggage to gently bump, murmur and jostle in a restless and eerily disturbing way.
Her 2002 work, In Silence, was inspired by the fire at a neighbor’s house in Osaka when she was nine years old. The day after the fire, she reminisces about the family’s worldly possessions, including a piano, piled up in the street, still smoking in the snow.
“Burnt till it’s jet black, [the piano] seemed an even more beautiful symbol than before,” she wrote. In Silence is another large installation, featuring a scorched grand piano connected by thousands of thin black wires to rows of vacant, scorched chairs.
Born in Osaka, Shiota has lived in Germany since the mid-1990s. It wasn’t until 2001 that she received significant recognition in Japan, with Memories of skin, a collection of towering, seven-meter-tall earth-stained dresses hovering over a shallow pool of water, which was exhibited at the Yokohama International Triennial of Contemporary Art. In 2015, she represented Japan at the 56th Venice Biennale.
Mami Kataoka, now director of Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, was the curator who approached Shiota with plans for a solo exhibition the day before his diagnosis, in 2016. While Shiota was undergoing treatment, his illness began to influence everything about his art. Her husband recorded videos of the artist losing her long black hair. An array of chemotherapy paraphernalia as a memento of his Berlin hospital has become art. A steel-framed hospital bed draped in Christmas lights pulsated to a less celebratory rhythm more akin to the beating human heart, a lung that expands with breath.
Kataoka rejected everything.
“I wanted [an exhibition] it was a holistic representation of a career,” Kataoka says, appearing alongside Shiota in Goma. “I said to him, ‘I can’t show these pieces as your most recent work.'”
Strangers observing his relationship with Shiota accused Kataoka of being heartless, in his continued demands of an artist under extreme duress. Kataoka, who was also a cancer survivor, said: “It was very difficult, because I could really [understand] how she felt, like me, also a cancer survivor… but I didn’t want sympathy to dominate the artistic experience.
Almost six years later, with Shiota’s cancer in remission, Kataoka now believes her unwavering persistence has paid off. “Uncertainty is the food of Chiharu’s creativity,” she says.
Before moving to Germany, Shiota was an exchange student at the Australian National University’s Canberra School of Arts in 1993. In The Soul Trembles, she looks back on her time in Australia with a captivating new work commissioned by Goma: A Question of Perspective, a large installation made up of hundreds of blank sheets of paper cascading down from a central desk and chair without people. It depicts the young artist’s feelings as she traveled through 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 raises new questions”.
It was in Australia that Shiota’s creative journey 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 has become the main protagonist of his own work of art. It took months to remove the toxic red paint from her skin, she recalls.
“Now I want to do lines in the air,” she says, describing her incredibly intricate and impressive yarn art in her calm, self-deprecating way.
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