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Memories and emotions imbue Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles at the Museum MACAN

Chiharu Shiota, Uncertain Journey (2016-2022). Installation view of Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles. Image Courtesy of Museum MACAN.

It’s hard not to fall in love with Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota’s romantic orchestra of red, black, and white threads. Tied and pulled repeatedly from one corner or object to another, these threads delicately create impactful site-specific installations that awe us as we stand within them.

The technique of using threads is probably what Shiota is most recognised for, yet her recent solo exhibition Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles unravels even more as it takes us closer to the crux of her life as an artist. As Shiota emphasised, “Mami Kataoka (Director of Mori Art Museum and curator of the exhibition) wanted to show my art and why I make it. She wanted to show me—after more than 25 years of being an artist.” 

The exhibition arrived at Museum MACAN, Jakarta, in November 2022, following its previous exhibits at leading museums across Asia and Asia Pacific, such as the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (Japan), Busan Museum of Art (South Korea), Taipei Fine Arts Museum (Taiwan), Long Museum (Shanghai, China), and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (Brisbane, Australia).

Aaron Seeto, Director at Museum MACAN, expressed the importance of the works’ only appearance in Southeast Asia through this Jakarta showcase, “After the pandemic, this is one of the first times that we are able to do programming at this scale; it signals a return. Shiota is one of those artists who has made a big impact for the last couple of years.”

Shiota’s works greet Indonesia at a time when the country is recovering from the pandemic. As Seeto added,

“Ideas about memories, dreams, isolation, existence, presence in absence, and the contemplation of life and death, are things that we can all relate to especially in the past two years (after the pandemic).”

Following this, Chiota noted,

“When a visitor sees the artwork, they might say “I know this feeling” and they want to know more. This is very important for me. It is not only about me, but [it is] universal.”

Albeit casting light on the artist’s profoundly personal experiences, the exhibition also presents a mirror to the world we live in. Universal themes such as human consciousness, displacement, life and death, mental states, as well as transformation surface through the artist’s honest outtakes on lived realities.

Shiota’s works always leave room for audiences to connect with at different levels. Indeed, Seeto stated that the programme at Museum MACAN is “designed to connect the audience with issues that are going around the globe.” About 100 works and archives, ranging from site-specific installations, drawings, photos and videos of performances, curated for the exhibition embody Shiota’s stirrings of the heart, while invoking feelings that anyone can reflect upon, from longing, reminiscence, and solitude, to fear.  

Recollections of the past 

While the first gallery welcomes visitors with intense red threads in the installation Uncertain Journey (2016-2022), darkness permeates the work In Silence (2022). A piano sits as the centrepiece, yet in complete quietness, as the title implies. Thick black threads envelop the burnt instrument as well as the broken chairs arrayed alongside it.

Despite the absence of actual sound, the piano’s melody is made visible through the artist’s visual interpretation of it. As Shiota suggested,

The string makes the music; you cannot hear it but you can see it.”

Mystery fills the air as the work refers to a tragedy that Shiota witnessed during her childhood when a fire broke out at her neighbour’s home. Witnessing the burnt piano, which her neighbour had left outside their home after the fire, was a deeply moving experience that continued to haunt her memory. Shiota clings to that image as a symbol that mingles death and rebirth, the end and a new beginning. 

Soul searching

Shiota decided to become an artist as early as 12 years old, and it was this decision that ignited her courage to journey abroad to pursue her dream. Following her studies in oil painting in Japan, she moved to Australia and then to Germany, where she studied and developed her installation- and performance-based practice. 

Currently based in Berlin, the artist has exhibited widely across the globe for the past 25 years of her career. Travel, displacement, and human migration are therefore themes close to her heart. Shiota approached them through a critical lens in Accumulation – Searching for Destination (2014-2022) as she questions the purpose of travelling itself: where are we going, and what are we seeking? 

“Everyone is searching for a sense of purpose in their destination,” said Shiota. Like in most of her works, a particular experience inspired the piece. “I found an old suitcase at the flea market in Berlin. When I opened it, I found a personal memo inside. It was a written list of what they (the past owner) should bring: socks, [a] t-shirt, etc. It was maybe 50 years old. I never knew the person but through their objects of memory, I felt their presence, their existence today.” 

Shiota grew her suitcase collection, each one representing the soul of the individual who once owned it. Hundreds of suitcases, suspended at different heights by red threads, respond to the space of Museum MACAN. Some suitcases are kinetic; shaking slightly, adding an eerie yet still elegant movement to the installation, while they cast dramatic shadows beneath.

Reflecting on life and death

Laying bare her life story to the audience, Shiota speaks of her fears and ponders over one’s loss of life. Shiota explained that after being invited to show at the Mori Art Museum in 2019, she received the diagnosis from her doctor that her cancer had returned. This meant that she had to undergo an operation and chemotherapy while preparing for the show.

One of the gallery spaces presents three works that she has realised recently in response to her illness. Striking, one of the works, Out of My Body (2019) consists of bronze body parts laid helplessly on the floor while materials akin to a net float in space—as if they have been torn into pieces.

As usual, an impressive play of composition and lighting seizes our attention. This work is climactic as it emerged from Shiota’s internal reaction upon discovering that her cancer had reappeared after 12 years; a painful experience which has also influenced how she engaged intimately with the show’s themes, particularly that of existence. As she elaborated,

“In that process (of treatment), I thought a lot about death and where my soul is going when I am gone, so the soul and death became the themes of this show.” 

Articulating personal memories

Accompanying the exhibition is the Mini Museum of Memories, Museum MACAN’s dedicated area for children and families. Here, they are invited to contribute their personal stories and participate in a growing display, inspired by one of the artist’s works, Connecting Small Memories (2019). 

On this, Seeto explained, “Museum MACAN has a deep sense of responsibility to art education. We constantly make projects where children, who are an important part of our audience, are able to engage with the big ideas in the exhibition.”

Walking through the gallery spaces of Museum MACAN feels like going through a labyrinth of memories and emotions endured by the artist as she grows, travels, hits rock bottom, and rises again–all through her art-making.

Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles’ deciphers and gives faces to these feelings that words can’t articulate, which indirectly affirms the role of art in our lives.

Offering multiple interpretations, the exhibition also provides visitors with an introspective space to explore the works’ relevance with their persona;l narratives—because every story deserves to be remembered. 


Feature image: Chiharu Shiota, Uncertain Journey (2016-2022). Installation view of Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles, Museum MACAN, Jakarta. Image Courtesy of Museum MACAN.

Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles runs until 30 April 2023 at Museum MACAN, Jakarta. Click here to find out more.

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