The New Art Gallery Walsall
17 January - 30 March 2014
Review by Anneka French
Approximately 400 vintage suitcases meet the viewer on entering the first space of New Art Gallery Walsall. Suspended from the ceiling from thick red cord, these objects form the first installation in Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota’s exhibition ‘Dialogues,’ and are arranged in a gradient that slopes upward so that at the furthest end they reach high above the visitor’s head. Appropriately titled ‘Accumulation - Searching for the Destination’ (2014), the suitcases embody a presence that relates to one’s own body, like so many clenched mouths unable to speak, set in rigid tension. Web-like shadows from the cases, ropes and the nets to which they are attached extend the form of the work beyond its material confines, encompassing the viewer. In Shiota’s installations, then, there is much that deals with darker aspects of psychology, the unconscious, silence and the struggle for expression.
In ‘Letters of Thanks’ (2014), Shiota employs her most recognisable material in huge quantities. Over 1500 balls of black wool, dramatically and theatrically lit, criss-cross this second huge space in an immersive labyrinth which must be bodily navigated. Here the artist plays the role of Ariadne spinning her thread, whilst simultaneously referencing fairy-tale forest thickets and brambles - beautiful and threatening spaces that connect with the mind and the memory as viscerally as the body. Within this web are trapped a series of handwritten letters. These are ghostly but more gentle than some of the other larger and more evocative objects she has ensnared previously (wedding dresses, hospital beds, staircases). The letters are somewhat overwhelmed by the densely worked wool in, as she notes, ‘an indescribably deep black.’
This space is infiltrated by discordant piano music from six nearby video works. Displayed in pairs on small monitors, these explicitly address the body in interaction with soil, mud and blood, and were made after the artist last year suffered a miscarriage. In the claustrophobic, ‘Earth’ (2013), an unseen body animates a mound of soil with their breathing and slight movements, almost, almost breaking through the surface. In ‘Red Line’ (2013) Shiota paints a transparent surface with what seems to be blood smeared onto her fingertips. The blood gradually fills the whole frame of the video. Obliterating one’s view of the artist, it remains on the monitor and stains the retina of the viewer scarlet.
If the two large-scale object-based installations are bound up in collective memory drawn from objects and materials with their own histories and cultural folklore, then these six videos are brought forth from the intensely personal. Shiota has described her perspective on making thus: ‘I’m frightened because when I work I throw all of myself out, and throw all of myself into my work even if it kills me.’ These hugely painful video works tap into a violence, sacrifice and a destruction of the self that struggles to explain the inexplicable, to divest oneself of trauma and to come to terms with unimaginable loss. In doing so, they resonate most powerfully with the viewer, not only in terms of the being of a woman, but in being human.