12 JANUARY – 21 MARCH 2021

Her spectacular installation in the Giardini at the 56th Venice Biennale has left an indelible mark in our memories as one of the most impressive works at the event. Filling the entire Japan Pavilion, “The Key In The Hand” was instrumental in the international breakthrough of the Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, who has been based in Berlin for the last 20 years.

On entering the space, there was immediately a strong sense that this was about something quintessential – all too quintessential, in fact – that concerned all of humanity, without exception. Overhead was a handwoven sky of bright red yarn from which hung 180,000 metal keys from all corners of the Earth, floating like stars of life almost close enough to touch. Beneath them, resting on beams like bodies, were two old wooden boats, which, proclaiming the absence of people, had forever fallen out of time.

Rising out of the boats, knotted together like spider webs, the threads reached skywards. They interlinked not only the keys but also the Earth and the universe. In places they were so densely intertwined as to appear dark; elsewhere they were so loosely arranged as to let the light from above shine through like a symbol of hope. Forming a blood-red cloud-spectre, the threads suggested motion, calling to mind an upturned wave, and involuntarily conjuring associations with the oceans and water as the origin of all life. Around the boats, the floor was strewn with keys that looked like fallen leaves, as if their owners had lost part of their lives with them. Symbols of the threshold between inside and out, the keys were reminiscent of the shape of human silhouettes, with heads and feet.

Sounding like a universal poem to perpetuity, this installation bespeaks a wondrous silence that, slowing the pace of the observer, draws them into a meditative mood of reflection on fundamental questions of human existence, between birth and death. Who are we? Where do we come from? And: where are we going? Undoubtedly, human existence precedes this art, which gently gets under the skin and with which the performance artist knocks on the door to our collective unconscious. Everything that Shiota expresses with such loving tenderness and as poetically as in a dream is rooted in lived experience, whether sad and painful or uplifting and hopeful. The tragic crashes of being into nothingness, the experience of our inevitable finiteness and the unbearable foreboding of strokes of fate are as much a source to Shiota as the beautiful things in life. It is almost as if she is working on a harmonious balance between the extreme sides of life. Omitting nothing and integrating everything, she lends her sensuously conceptual works a literally untold complexity comprising individual as well as collective memories that are first and foremost felt and sensed.

The same is true of Shiota’s latest installation, I HOPE..., which ultimately links back to the Venice work. Again, she has chosen boats as a starting point, derived from the idea of two hands cupped together to form a bowl, which want to pass something on. But this time, rather than being actual, used boats, the artist has created her own vessels, metal constructions with lines like fragile skeletons resembling transparent bodies. And this time, rather than resting on solid ground, the bow of one of the boats is tilted upwards as though about to take off on an epic journey into the unknown, in pursuit of other vessels that have already set off. The present becomes a transition into an as yet undetermined future. Clearly, this journey into the unknown is a metaphor for the ups and downs of life – of a life whose trajectory we cannot know.

Replacing the keys of the Venice work – from which Shiota reads people’s multifaceted stories like a tracker, always looking for clues – are 10,000 letters sent to the artist from across the globe. Printed on red paper, they are attached to red threads that no longer form a labyrinthine web but hang straight down like cords from the lofty ceiling. The artist’s imagined world is in evidence once again, with its individual mythology that corresponds with the various cultures of the world, transcends the restrictive boundaries of consciousness and dares to venture into the cosmic realm.

As in Venice, Shiota’s red fibres – reminiscent of blood vessels and the circulatory system – reveal the hidden inner worlds of humans. But here they also serve to interconnect the letters from almost every corner of the Earth, which came in response to her invitation to people to write down their hopes. In contrast to the opacity the pandemic has suddenly catapulted us into, here it is the principle of hope that’s in charge. What’s more, having grown from the participation of representatives from all countries and cultures, this is no longer the work of an individual but of a temporary global collective of diverse individuals. It is as though the meaning behind all that she does is underpinned by the desire for a global community characterised by commonality rather than difference. All in all, Shiota could be described as an existentialist from the open-minded spirit of poetry.



Chiharu Shiota (b. 1972 in Osaka, Japan) is currently based in Berlin. Her university career spans several years: She studied at the Kyoto Seika University in Kyoto (Japan) from 1992 to 1996, was an exchange student at The Australian National University School of Art in Canberra (Australia) in 1993-93, and a student at Hochschule für Bildende Künste Braunschweig (Germany) from 1997 to 1999, and lastly at Universität der Künste Berlin (Germany) from 1999 to 2003.

Shiota’s inspiration often emerges from a personal experience or emotion which she expands into universal human concerns such as life, death, and relationships. She has redefi...
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