Chiharu Shiota

Haus am Lützowplatz

Chiharu Shiota, born in Osaka in 1972, settled in Germany in 1996, initially to study with Marina Abramović; she has lived in Berlin since 1997. Her path of development is paradigmatic for its time: Her studio rooms in Mitte were in a building formerly occupied by squatters; later she participated in exhibitions that focused on her Japanese heritage, underscoring Berlin’s new multiculturalism and openness in its dealings with foreigners. Shiota soon found herself growing uneasy about this reference to alterity, though. “Often, when there’s a show here, people who come to look think, ‘Ah, a Japanese artist!’ and that makes me . . . smaller,” Shiota remarked in an interview. “It’s true that I have a Japanese name, I’m called Chiharu. They can see it next to the work. But that’s just a detail. And then you’re invited somewhere because you’re from Japan,” she concluded skeptically.

The works that Shiota is showing at Haus am Lützowplatz under the title “Raum” (Room) seem to struggle against such pigeonholing: They explore the intimacy of life beyond nationally determined cultural characteristics. The three installations, each quite extensive, have to do with dreams, memory, and death—experiences that can only be grasped personally and are, for this reason, more easily conveyed by atmospheric than by concrete material means. For During Sleep (all works 2005), Shiota created a room with wool threads—a material she often uses—making an impenetrable labyrinth in whose center a bed floats surreally, surrounded by a forest of cobwebs. With its fragile construction, the arrangement recalls the work of Eva Hesse; but it also has the character of a minimalistic stage, such as might appear in a work by Rebecca Horn. The accompanying drawings—in which, for instance, a naked female body is fused with a web of roots or is pressed down upon by a great wool spiral—seem on the other hand intended to burn into one’s psyche; as with Louise Bourgeois, here, too, the thicket of the dreamworld transforms into a physical threat.

As part of a four-hour performance, Shiota stood behind the bed in the During Sleep installation, mute and completely motionless, her back turned to the observer. Her embodiment of the dream state suggested by the title contained a twofold separation: The audience was spatially distanced by the weave of threads, and then there was the lack of any kind of communication from Shiota—the artist’s silence as an empty projection screen. The other spaces appear similarly transparent yet closed off: House of Windows, made of old window frames and glass panes, some broken, evokes the inevitable process of urban transformation, in which the individual history of the buildings is lost in demolition and renewal; and Closed Daily Life, a tiled room covered in a slimy gray mixture of paint and dirt, is like a prison cell in which life finds its escape by way of death.

Certainly Shiota is also attempting with this work to assuage the existential pressure of her serious bout with cancer last year. But her drawings and installations are not merely mirrors of her own situation; they are also fictions by which she can move the observer, and which provide an in-between place where memories, fears, and even death may have a home. She defines her subject as “unstable feelings”—that is, ones far removed from the fixed forms of nation, origin, and cultural identity.

Harald Fricke

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.