ESSAY: The presence of absence
A question of perspective 2022 is major installation by Berlin-based Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, originally commissioned for the QAGOMA presentation of her mid-career survey ‘The Soul Trembles’ (2022). A dense arrangement of thick black polypropylene ropes and sheets of paper suspended over an empty table and chair, it touches on themes of absence and vulnerability within Shiota’s practice, especially the sense of being confronted by the enormity and complexity of existence. It is designed to fill the centre of the space in which it is installed and experienced from around its edges, triggering associations in the viewer.
Chiharu Shiota / Japan/Germany b.1972 / Installation view of A question of perspective 2022 in ‘The Soul Trembles’, GOMA, June 2022 / Polypropylene ropes, 80gsm paper, found furniture, cable ties, staples / Commissioned 2022 with funds from Tim Fairfax AC through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: QAGOMA / © Chiharu Shiota / Photograph: Merinda Campbell, QAGOMA
Since the 1990s, Shiota has developed a performance and installation practice that explores intangible concepts such as memory, dreams, anxiety and silence, drawing on both personal experience and universal themes. She is best known for her expansive, encompassing, room-scale installations of black, white or red threads, attracting widespread attention with her work from the Japanese pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, The key in the hand.
Chiharu Shiota / Japan/Germany b.1972 / Installation view of In Silence 2002/2022 in ‘The Soul Trembles’, GOMA, June 2022 / Burnt piano, burnt chair, Alcantara black thread / Dimensions variable / © Chiharu Shiota / Production support: Alcantara S.p.A / Photograph: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA
Shiota’s practice can be seen as a contemporary manifestation of the Japanese ‘off-site’ and environmental sculptural practices that flourished in the 1970s, and the post-Mono-ha ['School of Things'] tendency of the 1980s, which similarly married emotional and philosophical investigations with large-scale installation. At the same time, her work is determinedly cosmopolitan, the artist attesting to the influence of international installation and performance-based artists, in particular Maria Abakanowicz, Rebecca Horn and Marina Abramovic. In her statements, Shiota regularly invokes the intersection of self and world, with installation operating as a direct extension of the gritty, bodily performance of her early career, which continues to inform her current practice.
A question of perspective was developed as a site-specific complement to the six other large-scale installations in ‘The Soul Trembles’, a touring exhibition organised by the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. Particular consideration was given to the artist’s experience in Australia, where she spent a formative year as a young art student at Canberra School of Art in 1993–94, making important early steps in performance and installation, having abandoned painting as her primary medium the previous year. An active traveller, she traversed the continent’s expanses by bus, visiting Uluru and observing the vast desert plains around it. This brought to mind the planet’s circumference, the movement of the stars and the scientific questions that once ‘deprived Galileo of his sleep’.
Chiharu Shiota / Japan/Germany b.1972 / Installation view of Uncertain Journey 2016/2022 / Installation view in ‘The Soul Trembles’, GOMA, July 2022 / Metal frame, red wool / Dimensions variable / © Chiharu Shiota / Photograph: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA
The ‘black universe of ropes’ in A question of perspective is intended to evoke a similar experience of mystery and wonder. At the centre of a hanging cluster of ropes and copy paper is a desk with a single empty chair, a representation of what Shiota describes as ‘the concept of the presence of absence’, where viewers derive their own interpretation of the absent human figure. Rather than imposing a particular reading, Shiota prefers to leave the possibilities open, as she does with the broader existential questions she approaches. Looking back to her experience in the desert, she suggests that she is more interested in the moment of wonder, ‘when suddenly a new perspective makes one ask new questions’.
Reuben Keehan is Curator, Asian and Pacific Art, QAGOMA. A question of perspective 2022 was first installed for 'The Soul Trembles', a major survey of Shiota's work curated by Mori Art Museum (Tokyo) and shown at QAGOMA in 2022.