Chiharu Shiota, born in 1972 in Osaka Japan, is a performance and installation artist who uses wool, blood, metal and earth to make her works. She is well renowned for her large-scale installations that have been made using string, sometimes connected to everyday objects such as keys, windows, dresses and boats. These installations have been exhibited around the world including Melbourne, Tokyo, Venice, Madrid and now Adelaide. Shiota’s work explores themes of motherhood, lifecycles and geographical displacement. These are deeply connected to her personal experience as a woman, an artist and an immigrant.

Absence Embodied is a site-specific installation in Gallery 14 in the Melrose Wing at the Art Gallery of South Australia. In addition to the dense mass of red wool which forms a three-dimensional labyrinth, the installation also includes a cluster of bronze and plaster casts of the artist’s and family members’ hands and feet.

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. Red string symbolises the body, blood or relationships between humans. There is an expression in Japanese, akai-ito de musu bareru, which means ‘two people whose lives are bound together with a red string’, it describes human connection
Chiharu Shiota

This section of the resource has been written through a Mathematics lens. To undertake some mathematical investigations suggested below you may need to know some specific information:

■ Chiharu Shiota used 1,800 balls of wool, each 133 metres in length, to create Absence Embodied.

■ Gallery 14 dimensions are 13.72 metres x 9.91 metres

■ Gallery 14 wall height is 4.5 metre

  • Choose an item in your classroom and cover it using your favourite coloured string or wool (eg. pencil, ball or ruler). How many times did you wind the wool around your object until it was covered? Compare your results to other students who selected the same item. If you ended up with different numbers brainstorm some reasons why this may have been. Were there some areas of the surface that remained exposed, or did you wind your wool more tightly than your classmate? As a class, arrange your objects in order of those which needed the most wool through to the objects which needed the least.
  • Discuss how heavy the wool used to create Absence Embodied would weigh if it were to be collected into one giant ball. Make a list of other objects which would be heavier or lighter than the wool used in Absence Embodied.

After looking closely at Absence Embodied what shapes can you see that have been created by the red wool? How many different combinations of common shapes can you create using wool or string?

  • Calculate the amount of string Shiota has used in Absence Embodied and then estimate the percentage of space the wool is occupying in Gallery 14. You may need to take reference photographs of the work. This may be useful when estimating the space and or volume of the room. Dimensions available above.
  • Shiota has used 239.4km of string to create Absence Embodied. How many balls of string does this equate to? Now measure your height. How many lengths of your body would be required to create Absence Embodied?
  • Let’s imagine taking Shiota’s string (239.4km) for a walk. What destination would you arrive at if you travelled, north, south, east or west from where you are currently located?
  • Photograph sections of Absence Embodied including the shadows cast on the Gallery walls. Within Shiota’s overlapping lines, identify 6 different triangles (Scalene, Isosceles, Equilateral, Acute, Right and Obtuse). What other shapes can you see within the installation? Establish the formulas to determine the areas of these shapes.

Shiota is familiar with migration, having left her home country as a young adult and residing in Berlin since 1996. Look at different examples of public transport networks or airline flightpaths from around the world. Document your movements over a week and plot these on a map using pins (also known as nodes) and link each point to track your journey. Use coloured string to represent the different mode of transport you took. Remove the map from beneath your design so that only your string network diagram remains. Calculate the distances you travelled on foot versus in a car or on public transport. What was your total distance for the week?

Take it further

What else could you make a network diagram about?

Visual Arts
  • Divergent thinking test! Make a list of all the things string can be used for. Consider all the places you have encountered it. What are the possibilities and limitations of string?
  • Some of Shiota’s previous work has combined simple everyday objects, which are often collected or hold sentimental value. Sometimes these objects can signify special moments or events. Consider an object at home which is important to you as an individual or collectively as a family. It might be an item of clothing, handwritten letters or a book. If this object could talk, what story would it tell. Use this object as the prompt to write the story of this object.
  • Investigate the history of the colour red and its use in artists’ work. Research other artists throughout time who have predominately used red, or another singular colour, in their works. How does their choice to use a single colour differ to Shiota? TIP Louise Bourgeois, Lindy Lee, Anish Kapoor, Yves Klein or Mark Rothko. Compare the work of Shiota to Louise Bourgeois and discuss the role the body plays in their work.
  • Shiota loves to sketch and takes her drawings everywhere she travels. Using a viewfinder select a section of Absence Embodied to create a series of observational drawings. Select sections of the installation that vary in mass. For a week, take a sketchbook with you everywhere you go and sketch interesting patterns you find in your everyday environment.
  • Wool or thread has become a signature characteristic of Shiota’s work since the early 1990s. Challenge yourself to create a work of art using a single material and of one colour. Experiment with everyday materials such as paper, toothpicks, wool or fabric. Test its limits – tear, cut, bend, stretch, twist or layer your chosen material.
  • Shiota is ever-present within Absence Embodied, physically mapping the random coordinates with thousands of staples which result in a rhythmic overlapping pattern of red wool. Focus on one of the coordinates and follow this line until it meets another, and so on. Using paper and pencil, document the pattern you have observed.
  • Rhythmic movements have interested artists throughout time including Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.Create your own drawing using rhythmic pattern by repeating and overlapping your pattern to create a sense of dynamic movement. TIP You might like to listen to music to identify different rhythms as a starting point for your mark making.