The first Yokohama Triennale, held back in 2001, was a critical success, and so I was delighted to hear that the second incarnation of the contemporary art extravaganza has been set for September.
Now, if you can do basic arithmetic, four years later doesn’t quite make the time cycle for a “triennale,” but let’s not be sticklers — the fact that it is recurring (albeit a year late), gives us all something to look forward to. It was while reminiscing about the inaugural YT that I found myself wondering about Chiharu Shiota, a woman whose installation caught my eye back in 2001.
Shiota’s piece, “Memories of Skin,” featured a set of five identical women’s dresses, tailored to scale but standing a whopping 13 meters tall. Hanging from a wall where they were endlessly showered by a soft spray of water, the dresses dwarfed visitors and were the main focal point of the triennale’s largest exhibition room.
Shiota’s arresting visions were also seen in Spain at the International Biennale of Contemporary Art in Seville last year. However, save a couple of shows at the Kenji Taki Gallery, Tokyo has not heard from the artist since she made her first splash. As it happens, Shiota has spent most of the time since the YT living in Germany, a country that seems to encourage young Japanese artists — Yoshiko Shimada, Yuichi Higashionna and Yoshitomo Nara have all benefited from their years spent in Deutschland.
Now, Shiota, 32, and her big dresses are back in Japan, with a major exhibition at the Gallery Fleur in Kyoto, and a show at the Kenji Taki Gallery in Tokyo.
Shiota has brought a room-filling installation to the Kenji Taki. Titled “Fragmented Memories,” the new piece is a tangled web of stretched black-wool thread, the dense tangle punctuated by shards of shattered mirror and illuminated by five bright lights. The walls and floor around the piece have been stained to create an old, tired mood. Inspired by the story of the looking-glass in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” this quite ambitious piece is only limited in effect by the small size of the gallery.
In the back room at the Kenji Taki there are a set of four color photographs by the artist — documentation of her 2004 installation at Seville, where Shiota had more room to work with. The photographs document strangely serene scenes staged with vine plants overhanging hospital beds. Young women in pajamas repose on the beds or gaze out of windows on to a second space. Not evident at first, this second space has raw, unfinished walls and piles of building materials and refuse. These soft-focus images, when inspected more closely, become increasingly jarring, unsettling even.
Shiota developed the use of beds in Germany, specifically the functional yet impersonal white tubular steel frame single beds found in hospitals, as a principal motif in her installation and performance work.
“I can say that life and death is the theme and the reason why I use these beds,” explained Shiota from Kyoto. “A person dies in a bed and a person is born in a bed. I think a bed’s meaning is very deep . . . I feel there is a reality there.”
At the Gallery Fleur in Kyoto, Shiota’s largest exhibition ever in Japan, she is showing three large installations and video works. Included are about 600 windows she collected in the former East Germany — these windows, also, are an emerging motif in this very talented artist’s work. Also here are the large dresses, a new incarnation of her Yokohama Triennale installation.
I asked Shiota about the influences and inspirations she has experienced in Germany, and how they contributed to her current body of work. She has addressed feminism and sexual politics using menstrual fluid as a material, an area of exploration that would almost certainly be dismissed in many Japanese art circles.
“When I was in Japan I had an inferiority complex, being a woman, because Japanese society is quite male-oriented,” said Shiota. “But it is different in Germany, where people are viewed equally, or according to their talent, rather than their sexuality. In Germany I could do what I wanted, and they accepted it. I could develop my work.”
Chiharu Shiota is showing till May 14 at the Kenji Taki Gallery, 3-18-2-102, Nishi Shinjuku, Tokyo; tel. (03) 3378-6051. Open 12 a.m. to 7 p.m.; closed Sunday, Monday and public holidays. Also, till May 29 at Gallery Fleur, Kyoto Seika University, 137 Kino-cho, Iwakura, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto; 075-702-5230. Open 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; closed Sundays and public holidays.
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