“When people visit a museum, they’re often surprised and confused, especially when they come across contemporary art and are keen on finding meaning in the work they’re looking at. I want them to remember a sensation they’d forgotten”.
These are the words Chiharu Shiota uses to introduce the large installation she created at the Emma Museum in Espoo, Finland (open until 27 November 2022). These thoughts would also be a fitting description for the work “Over the Continents” (2011), that Francesca Alfano Miglietti chose to include in the Milano exhibition “Corpus Domini. From the glorious body to the ruins of the soul”, on display until 30 January 2022 at Palazzo Reale.
Two extraordinary artworks with very different meanings, but both extremely intense.
In Milan, a handful of red threads, straight and stretched as if they had been traced with a ruling pen in an architectural project, narrate migration’s drama and reality. The exodus of peoples towards not so promising lands, drawing the perspective lines of a silent multitude on an eternal journey.
Each thread’s end is an old shoe, an assortment of uppers of varying numbers, shape, material, colour, and gender. The composition is impressive with profound meanings, starting with the colour of those fiery rays: ‘red,’ -Shiota told Nina Tonga in an interview- ‘is the colour of blood and in blood there is everything: in our blood, there is nationality, family, religion, but also our connection with others. Red connects us all.”
Not to mention those twisted, worn and abandoned shoes, each of which contains a story. Taken as a whole, they embody humanity’s strength, desperation and tenacity. In an exhibition that speaks of humans’ identities and transformations, this work is the voice of the past, present and future, but it is also a cry for help, a necessary and urgent act of conscience.
Shiota’s installation for the Finnish museum is different. The thread, always scarlet, stretches for kilometres and kilometres in a braid that weaves a gigantic cocoon of intricate woollen webs, a connective tissue within which burrows and tunnels wind their way, occasionally interrupted by old wooden doors (a metaphor of memory) prelude of new corridors. “Tracing Boundaries” is the title of this site-specific work. Inside its belly, visitors are free to lose themselves and wander timelessly and without a defined destination.
There aren’t compulsory directions because the journey’s experience must be lived to the full. It is primarily a backwards journey: intimate, personal, made of anxieties, dreams, silences and memories. The visitors will cross those arteries of threads and “reflect on the journeys they have made in their lives. They may be disoriented and confused because there is no right path or entrance to take, but that is the most important aspect of the installation”.
In each of her works, among the myriad threads, everyday objects (old keys, worn doors, boat wrecks, used chairs and shoes) or relics of symbolic value, such as an iconic white dress or a burnt piano, find a place, suspended like ghosts or trapped like flies in a spider’s web.
They are ghosts that help to undertake an introspective, personal journey: an immersive, intimate, and at the same time scenographic experience, which arises from the artist’s life, but “the interpretations and impressions of each visitor are an inseparable part of the work”, explains curator Arja Miller.
“Shiota describes the stretched, knotted, tangled and interlaced threads as a symbol of the connections among people and the complexity of human’s relationships” today, more than ever before, in a world which is made out of virtual web, it is crucial to keep those ties alive, to stimulate the emotional sphere.”
“Shiota describes the tense, knotted, tangled and intertwined threads as symbols of the connections between people and the complexity of human relationships.” Today, more than ever, in a world of virtual networks, it is essential to maintain those ties active and stimulate the emotional sphere. “Whatever [the visitors] imagine their thoughts and feelings are important; if their imagination were ignored entirely, people would lose their humanity. We all carry a personal universe within us, and we need to keep expanding; this is vital for our existence. It’s part of our consciousness and our mind. Sometimes I wonder why […] even though we can communicate, we can never feel what others are feeling; we can never really get the other’s universe. And that’s why we need art. With art, we can communicate, express our emotions.”
Chiharu, originally from Japan (born in Osaka in 1972), has been living in Berlin since the 1990s and has been creating installations with thread since her school days.
He initially studied painting but found canvas and paper too limiting.
Searching for a more physical and holistic way of making art, she gradually started to create these weavings (of red thread, but also white or black) that have now become her trademark. She has been in the international spotlight since she represented her country at the Venice Biennale in 2015 and has not stopped since: she has exhibited in museums around the world and at art biennials in Europe, South America, South-East Asia and the Pacific region.
By addressing the significant issues of humanity, such as life, death, and relationships, Shiota helps us explore the meaning of existence and find the threads of our emotions and the map of our own identity amidst those tangles.
Artist Chiharu Shiota, by her exhibition Tracing Boundaries, 2021. © Paula Virta / EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern art