Chiharu Shiota's installation Absence Embodied weaves its way through Gallery 14

At moments of artistic crisis or mortal fragility, Chiharu Shiota looks to herself to embody and determine her next steps. Indeed, in the year before the realisation of Absence Embodied, for the Art Gallery of South Australia, Shiota was diagnosed and treated for cancer, for the second time in her life. Describing the experience she said:

My body was in pieces, assembled together, but I did not feel whole. I wanted to scatter my body parts on the floor, the absence in me becomes embodied, but at the same time every single body part expresses much more emotion than my whole body could. By looking at a single contorted hand, fragmented arm or twisted foot you can feel an emotional state, a whole existence. While I was passed through the system, I felt absent from my existence, but in order to keep my existence I need to create art, I need to create Absence Embodied. Me, myself, my emotion, and the material are part of the ritual of creating art. It is not only an art piece but necessary for my life.

To ‘embody’ is to represent or make visible an idea or feeling, while ‘absence’ is defined as ‘the state of not being somewhere’, or ‘not being present’. With Absence Embodied, the artist attempts to represent the experience of being apart from her own body, the installation imparting a visceral recognition of her hopes and fears.

Although Shiota has historically employed found objects as manifestations of her memories and used stand-ins to speak for her experiences, for example, boats, empty chairs and suitcases, her approach in Absence Embodied has become more personal. On the ground sits a cluster of nine bronze casts of the artist’s own limbs, seven plaster casts of her daughter’s hands, and a sculpture of three entwined hands, a re-creation of the act of Shiota and her husband clasping their daughter’s small hand. These scattered fragments anchor a great charge of red wool, which extends upwards and outwards to form a three-dimensional labyrinthine web in gallery 14 of the historic Melrose Wing of the Art Gallery of South Australia.

This installation represents the first occasion in which the artist has cast parts of her own and her family’s hands and feet, importing elements of each into the space. Through these body fragments, the artist’s presence and her connection to family are realised in a way new to her installations, with the arching, muscular, almost painterly, expanses of red wool dramatically underscoring the connection to the body. The artist describes how in Absence Embodied,

The inside has turned outside as the red blood-like web envelops the exposed body parts. Blood is the essence of life, it is the common trait we all share, it connects us all

To form her dense web for Absence Embodied, Shiota unwound 1800 balls of red wool to paint in the air and,

weave in the whole room.

Within a single location, her line traverses more than 200 kilometres – Chiharu Shiota takes us far, but tethers us to her and to each other.

Leigh Robb is Curator of Contemporary Art at AGSA. This article first appeared in Articulate Issue 33.

1 Chiharu Shiota, pers. comm. 20 June 2018.
2 Shiota, pers. comm. 20 June 2018.
3 Chiharu Shiota & James Putnam, ‘A conversation between Chiharu Shiota and James Putnam’, in Caroline Stummel (ed.), Chiharu Shiota, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, Germany, 2011, p. 221.