Chiharu Shiota’s breaking point

Life lines of blood are stretched to breaking point in Shiota’s exhibition, writes John Neylon.

For those with memories of knotting macramé owls or creating parabolas with cotton thread stretched between nails in a piece of chip board, the experience of walking into the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) and being enveloped by a complex web of threads will be epiphanic.

Shiota’s international reputation has been largely built on this ability to cast string/thread as a vehicle through which a wide range of concepts and emotions could be expressed. In 1993– 94 the artist left Japan to take part in a semester exchange at the Australia National University (ANU) School of Art in Canberra. Gradually abandoning dreams of being a painter and being subjected to cross-disciplinary experiences offered by ANU, Shiota experimented with installation and performance modes of expression.

Her performance Becoming Painting proved a watershed in opening up possibilities for giving expression to the inner life. In this work, the artist wrapped herself in a roll of canvas which had been spattered with red paint. As a series of photographs in this exhibition shows, pigment covered much of her body and matted her hair. It was a transformative act. No longer would the art work be something held at arm’s length but a fusion of self and materiality.

Chiharu Shiota, Photo: Sunhi Mang. Courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery
Chiharu Shiota, image: Sunhi Mang, courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery

Incrementally the artist was drawn to the idea of everything being connected and materials such as cloth, paint and thread acting out symbolic narratives about the fluid nature of existence. This formative period of experimentation also positioned the artist’s body as the departure and return waypoints for subsequent work. The figurative pendulum swings constantly. At times the presence of body parts (body castings) skewers the work with tangible, corporeal immediacy. An example is Belonging in which cast fragments of the artist’s hands and feet do service as anchor points for a huge structure composed of interwoven, stretched threads. Another is a bronze cast of the artist’s own hands offering up a delicate mass of brass threads (Absence Embodied).

While planning this work, Shiota made three paintings (Red Line) on large sheets of paper by coating her palms with red pigment and leaving imprints of her hands crawling across the page. Curator Leigh Robb comments that this strategy equates to an “escape route in and out of her practice”. What does this mean? The answer may be that the Shiota is in a state of constant negotiation with an outer and inner identity. In other words, she’s an artist on the run.

For Shiota, dealing in recent times with illness, having one’s body subjected to analysis and procedures, induces a state of being dis-embodied, where the inner capillaries, organs and bones compete with a sense of body as defined by its outer shell. This line of investigation has introduced notions of the body as an effigy or a second skin. This ‘second skin’ concept has found some extraordinary expressions, including a series of dresses, some extending to the ground from a fourth storey window and others (Memory of Skin) soiled with mud and subjected to ineffectual cleansing.

In State of Being (Dress), this tug of war between purity and contamination, outer and inner layers, containment and freedom reaches some resolution in a caged unit containing a single white dress floating in a web of stretched threads. While people may feel comfortable with Shiota’s work through the agency of ‘web of life’ resonances, her practice has deep and dark moments. In the exhibition, the specter of the artist as a haunted, obsessed creature is fueled by the sight of the artist smeared with red pigment staring sightlessly into the future, sitting in a bath tub of fetid water or crawling, naked, out of a hole in the ground.

Chiharu Shiota Installation, Saul Steed
Chiharu Shiota Installation, image: Saul Steed

To appreciate why not only Shiota but other artists have elected to subjugate themselves to such scrutiny or abasement, context is useful. It’s all about knowing your Gutai from your Mono-ha, or your Fluxus for that matter. Shiota sliding out of her muddy foxhole closely resembles the actions of the Japanese Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga’s Challenge to the Mud (1955) in which the artist dived into and wrestled with a pile of mud mixed with rocks and cement. Gutai was one of a number of art movements (including Mono-ha) to emerge in post-WWII Japan, which essentially declared war on art conventions. Gutai’s founder Jiro Yoshihara urged his fellow artists to “do what has never been done before”.

Remarkably, Shiota’s philosophy of life and indeed her multifarious forms of expression (including a compelling series of drawings) regards these threads that characterise her practice as representations of a truth – that there are in fact threads of connection that bind us all. The fact that objects, entire sites and even the artist herself are often wrapped, swaddled, swallowed, submerged or subjugated by webs, water, paint or mud is an invitation to see life as a transformative experience in which nothing is fixed, everything is fluid. “I believe,” Shiota says “that the truth emerges from a work for the first time when you can no longer see it with the eye.” Life is on the slab in this brooding exhibition in which lifelines of blood are stretched to breaking point.

Chiharu Shiota, Embodied
Art Gallery of South Australia
Until Sunday, October 28
artgallery.sa.gov.au

Header image:
Saul Steed

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