At twenty-one years of age, Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota went abroad for the first time. She was studying painting at Kyoto Seika University, but had begun to feel limited by paper, canvas, and paint. She wanted to find a new expression. First came the trip to the School of Art in Canberra, where Shiota sought out performance art to liberate herself from painting. In this new, permissive environment, she also discovered and investigated the expressive possibilities of thread.
After having returned to Japan to complete her studies, Chiharu Shiota set off for Germany in 1997. After the fall of the wall and Germany’s reunification, the country seemed to function as a magnet for newly-established artists from all over the world. For two years, Shiota studied with a performance focus at the Braunschweig University of Art (HBK) before settling in Berlin, where she has lived ever since.
Fifteen years earlier, the young, budding author Yoko Tawada moved to Germany from Japan. After studying in Hamburg, she also moved to Berlin, where she worked at publishing houses and simultaneously began writing. It is easy to see the similarities between both of these creative greats: Tawada, like Shiota, was searching for her voice, her own expression, and chose not to look for it in her homeland. But why?
A strongly contributing factor was probably Japan’s isolation and the Japanese people’s convulsive retention of the concept of “Japanese-ness.” For a long time—culminating during the Sakoku period (1633–1853) when the country was cut off from the outside world—the Japanese people developed a strong island mentality that still remains today. It appears not least in the Japanese language’s conscious vagueness and unwillingness to define. Clarity is seen as verbal inelegance, almost vulgarity: a true Japanese person should understand the message without underlining.
In Japan, the cherished national myth is that only a Japanese person can understand another. Consequently, this should mean that a European can never understand a Japanese person and vice-versa. For an author or an artist, this must present an interesting challenge: How far does my voice, my expression, carry in a strange land? To examine this fully demands that you make the break and settle in another geographical location. Both soon found a new way to express themselves in their new homeland: Yoko Tawada began writing in German, Chiharu Shiota traded in her brush and paint for thread. And their new voices did carry.
Moving to a new country—and returning to the unwritten page—means an unlimited creative freedom. But the price of freedom is the feeling of being uprooted. Yoko Tawada’s prose and poetry revolve around the limitations of language and the outsider’s perspective on existence, while for Chiharu Shiota the focus is loss and memory. All new associations mean a partial loss of those of the past: therefore memories become important, because we are the sum of our experiences. Chiharu Shiota makes this the focal point of her works, using objects, items with a history, in her installations: old shoes, worn suitcases, threadbare dresses. These are objects that have lost their purpose, their association to the world, to which the artist fastens her threads and thereby reconnects. Before the Venice Biennale in 2015, Shiota asked people all over the world to send her their old, unused keys—and she received 180,000. She used them in the installation The Key in the Hand in which thousands of keys hung on blood-red threads over two aged, weather-worn rowboats. The boats looked like two stylized, cupped hands ready to hold the keys. So many keys, so many stories, so many lives.
Shiota deliberately uses black, white, and red yarn or metal wire, which she combines with the colours of her chosen objects. As in many other countries, black is the colour of grief in Japan, red signals strong feelings, and white symbolizes innocence and purity. For Shiota the black colour instead represents the universe and the night sky, and the red colour also stands for the human body. The threads replace the dance of the brush over the paper: they depict the calligraphy of longing and remembrance translated into a three-dimensional form where the stroke of the sable-hair brush is transformed into threads.
In Japan, thread has a strong symbolic meaning which the artist makes full use of. Thread signals an interesting duality: both connection or anchoring as well as transition, a change to something new. Therefore, the Japanese traditionally eat toshikoshi soba, “year-crossing noodles,” on New Year’s Eve: the old year is said to exist on one end, and the new year on the other.
Similarly to other East-Asian cultures, Japanese culture also talks about “the red thread of fate” which the gods tie around the ankles—or little fingers—of people who are destined to meet each other or help one another in life. This thread of fate might get tangled up or stretched out, but the people who are bound to each other will sooner or later play a large role in each other’s lives.
When Chiharu Shiota settled in Germany, it was to find a new mode of expression, but like Yoko Tawada, she also creates in the space between two cultures while leaning against both. Both examine not only their roots, but also the consequences of the departure: uprootedness.
In the two artworks Chiharu Shiota is displaying at Wanås—Everywhere and Relationality—house forms play a central role. The word “house” in Japanese, ie, is multidimensional and loaded with meaning. It stands in part for the physical building, but also for the concept of family. This duality is inherited from the agricultural society where family units were formed by the members of a household of a farm. In Japan, which is seen as a collectivist society, the smallest unit is the family and not the individual. Belonging to a family is therefore important; it gives the individual his or her place in society. Consideration of the family comes first, the desires of the individual second, and family relationships constantly impact one’s individual life choices. Distancing yourself from or breaking away from your family means freedom, but also the loss of a large part of your identity. Who are you when you stand outside the collective?
Chiharu Shiota’s works have a burning relevance in our time, when so many people in the world exist in forced or voluntary exile. In a time when so many of us feel uprooted, she anchors us in existence with the threads of memory and dreams, and shows us that they are reaching towards the future.
– Yukiko Duke