Chiharu Shiota


What was so appealing about the Chiharu Shiota installation A Long Day, 2009, is the way the artist transformed the white cube into something completely unrecognizable. As is usual for her, this Japanese artist from Berlin filled the space by spinning a web of wool yarn that appeared penetrable but in fact took over everything. Behind the tangle of black, you could hear the clicking of computer keyboards and scraps of telephone conversations. The gallery had vanished behind the work. No going forward—that’s where the yarn was—but to retreat would just have meant walking back out of the gallery. You couldn’t help but hope to find a gap amid all the strings, where you might slip through so as to sit down on the chair in the middle of the room, standing beside a table covered with sheets of paper. But Shiota’s woolen web is neither an obstacle course nor a network. She weaves things into her net with a sense of finality. The table, the chair, the paper, the books—everything hanging in her web was fixed in place within these woolen strands, trapped as if these threads could freeze a moment in time.

Shiota’s art at first suggests a lyrical aesthetic, but it is the opposite of liberating. One might even say it’s a bit cynical or mocking. Her works recall flipped-out Fred Sandbacks or Yayoi Kusamas composed of threads rather than dots. Yet her roots are not exactly in Conceptual art; the names she cites among her precursors are Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, and Ana Mendieta—the names that are always invoked whenever art is performative, filigree, feminine, and concerned with the unconscious. Her manner of taking over rooms using simple strands of yarn projects a certain sense of insubstantiality, of the poetic and ephemeral. The chaos that arises and its attendant impenetrability are, on the other hand, both obsessive and brutal. These threads have a firm grip on the space, the object, even the world—there is no escape. Pieces of clothing lashed down, shoes tied up, pianos ensnared—in Shiota’s work, it is always the simple objects that fall victim to the thicket of wool, and you have the feeling that what she’s really trying to do is tie down memories, to fix thoughts that are threatening to slip away. The woolen strands do not merely fill up rooms; they are also meant to serve as an antidote for forgetting.

Shiota arrived in Berlin ten years after the fall of the Wall. At the time, the old GDR buildings were still being brought up to Western standards, a process that had begun in the early 1990s. In Berlin’s many construction sites, she found a number of old windows from which “people had still looked out at Socialism.” These views became the basis for her early installations. And just like those windows, the yarn she currently deploys seems to embody and frame historical and mnemonic views. A Long Day presented one such scene of safekeeping, a space of writing and research where stories and memories can be captured: chair, writing desk, book, paper.

Stefan Zucker

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.