I recently attended a talk called ‘Labyrinthine Memories’ by the Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota at the Japan Foundation in London. She talked about how and why her work developped into the kind of installations she is making today and most importantly she shared with us intimate thought processes that explain how her creative work is irrevocably woven into her life. It was really a most fascinating account and so it was with great anticipation that I made my way to Eastbourne to the Towner Gallery where her installation called ‘other side’ is currently on show.
At first site, the scale and the apparent complexity of the piece are almost overwhelming. The installation fills the entire gallery space with five doors whose solidity contrasts sharply with the ethereal woven thread structure around them. Each door is an invitation to enter another world and each, upon opening or closing, produces its own unique sound coming from appropriately tuned squeaky hinges. The sound emphasises an atmosphere of the mysterious, uncanny, eerie or magical experienced as the door opens and the threshold is crossed. Most doors are salvaged and obviously used, even damaged in places, so they also imbue the place with their own memories and one of them, with yellow brown flaking paint, is especially evocative. The door isn’t simply a mechanical mean to enter into the other side as the choice of door directly affects the experience and resulting sensations.
Inside, the woven mesh of thread curves to fully envelop you, giving out an impression of strengths and fragility at the same time. Some areas are more dense than others and despite the slightly distracting fire exit sign in the background, the enigmatic beauty of the interior makes you feel completely removed from reality. Bright white lights hang to an almost blinding rhythm while in direct focus appear to diffuse the black thread around them into an almost white transparency. They also disperse shadows across the entire gallery surfaces further enhancing the feeling of immersion.
During her talk at the Japan Foundation the artist explained that she doesn’t usually produces preliminary drawings but works directly from her mind where her work gradually evolves as it comes to life. This is how, through her quiet determination and clarity, Chiharu Shiota invites the viewer to become part of her work. As David Elliott, who wrote the text for the exhibition catalogue, reflects ‘doors open onto five different, dimly lit spaces in a kafkaesque architecture of shadow and light where visitors are invited to project their own memories, hopes or fears. Each threshold defines a different character or sense of possibility; the yarn becomes a semi-transparent membrane between the fantastic and the real.’