Chiharu Shiota
Absence Embodied

Chiharu Shiota, Japan, born 1972, Absence Embodied, 2018, Berlin and Adelaide, wool, bronze, plaster 16 hands; Gift of the Gwinnett family through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2018, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

About this work of art

In Japanese, the expression ‘akai-ito de musu bareru’ means ‘two people whose lives are bound together with a red string’. It offers a description of human connection.

Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota has created an entire room of red string, or to be precise, red wool – more than 200 kilometers of it – for her installation Absence Embodied. In August 2018 the artist travelled from her studio in Berlin, Germany, to Adelaide, and spent nearly a month here in the Art Gallery of South Australia constructing this unique, site-specific installation.

Shiota is a leading international artist who has studied in Kyoto and Berlin and who also has a long-standing relationship with Australia, dating back to a seminal experience she had as an exchange student at the Australian National University’s Canberra School of Art in 1993 and 1994. It was in Australia that she had a breakthrough moment whereby she rejected painting to develop her signature ‘thread installations’, for which she is now recognised globally.

To form her dense web for Absence Embodied, Shiota unravelled and threaded 1800 balls of red wool to create a drawing in space, or as the artist describes it, to ‘draw in the air’ and ‘weave in the whole room’. In this work, the labyrinth of red wool is anchored by a cluster of sculptures – nine bronze casts of the artist’s own hands and feet, seven plaster casts of her daughter’s hands and a bronze cast of three interlocked, clasped hands of the artist, her husband and their daughter.

Shiota explains the enduring importance of string in her practice as a way to locate herself in the world, to tether and ground herself. String, she says, ‘is like a mirror of my feelings. In making the work, sometimes the string gets tangled, or loses tension, or is cut, much like human relationships. Relationships can become tangled, lost or severed’. Shiota often uses only one of three colours – red, black or white – to create her installations. For Absence Embodied, the artist chose red for its symbolism, as ‘red string represents the body, blood or relationships between humans’.

Audio description of the work of art

Absence Embodied is a site-specific wool, bronze, plaster and steel installation created by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota in 2018.

‘Chiharu Shiota's labyrinthine installations weave a complex web from waking life and fading memories.’ - The Guardian

Filling Gallery 14 at the Art Gallery of South Australia, right across the ceiling, attached to all 4 walls and funnelling down to meet the floor in the centre of the room, Absence Embodied is gigantic, red and full of angles. A juxtaposition of organic and in-organic that is enmeshed and geometric. Interwoven, tautly suspended lines of red wool criss-cross the 12m x 17m room. At the centre of the room is a cluster of woollen tendrils and plaster hands and legs.

The gallery has two entrances, high, arched openings on opposite walls. The floor is highly polished golden-brown, wooden parquetry. Thin lines of the red, woollen web stretch down low onto the walls, in the corners of the room and either side of the doorways.

Absence Embodied is the growth of intersections, a layered web. Single red threads stretch from one point to another, overlapping, made from more than 180km of wool. The lines form geometric patterns and one interconnected canopy. A dynamic, see-through organic commentary of arches and a thick mass overhead through which light passes. The sculpture flows to the floor at centre and Absence Embodied is so vast it reclaims the room, a white- walled gallery space transformed by overlapping wool and a circle of appendages positioned within threads, reaching to the ground in the middle of the room. Criss-crossing shadows fall onto the walls.

Above head-height are hundreds of woollen lines, not tangled - detailed and precise. Below the canopy, around the room, a series of arches (something like a tree-lined canopy to walk underneath). At the centre, pockets of space, gaping nooks – inside a stem, reaching down to the floor. Tendrils from the stem stretch to meet a series of limbs loosely placed in an oval pattern.

Seventeen individual sculpted human parts, hands and feet - forearm to fingertips; shin to toe, are made from plaster and bronze. Nine bronze casts are of the artist’s own limbs, seven plaster casts are her daughter’s hands and wrists. With fingers extended and palms facing upwards, the hands lie on the floor, pointing outwards. The seventeenth sculpture is of three entwined hands, a cast bronze re-creation of the act of Shiota and her husband clasping their daughter’s small hand. The sculptures are either brown or cream and through them, red woollen thread is passing, attached neatly to the parquetry floor. Body parts are attached, involved, linked to the mass of red woollen lines.

One leg lies unattached to the threads and protected inside a loose circle of taut red lines and other limbs. One bronze foreleg stands on its clean-cut stump, with the sole of its foot facing upwards.

Above us are skylights in the gallery ceiling. Soft, round ceiling lights shine through the mass of threads. Light from above creates geometric shadows across the walls and floor. The light has a reddish tinge as it filters through the dense web of wool.