Meditations on the soul at major art show

Liz Hobday |

Uncertain Journey will be among major artworks at the  Chiharu Shiota exhibition in Brisbane.
Uncertain Journey will be among major artworks at the Chiharu Shiota exhibition in Brisbane.

The biggest solo exhibition ever staged by renowned Japanese contemporary artist Chiharu Shiota is opening in Brisbane.

The Soul Trembles explores 25 years of the artist’s work, including large scale installations, sculpture, and video performance at the Gallery of Modern Art.

Among the best-known works in the show is Uncertain Journey 2016/2019, a room-sized installation of large metal boats tied with thousands of strands of red wool.

The threads rise up to form a vast glowing network of caverns and arches, symbolising the uncertainty of life.

The idea took on fresh resonance for the artist in 2016, when her ovarian cancer returned and she had to have chemotherapy.

Shiota received the diagnosis just as she was preparing The Soul Trembles for Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, where it went on show in 2019.

“I wanted to make this show. I hoped I could make this show. I didn’t know how to survive,” she told AAP.

But even while undergoing treatment she found inspiration for her art, videoing herself pulling out her hair after chemotherapy.

“How can I survive if my body dies? And where is my soul going, my thinking and feeling? Where is it going?” she said.

Her experience led to a series of fresh creations for the show, including artworks in a new medium, glass. 

Gallery-goers will also find a set of video screens, showing 10-year-old children answering some of the profound questions that characterise Shiota’s artworks.

Among them, ‘What is a soul?’.

“The soul is like a home,” one child said.

“When it leaves us, maybe it is visiting other people and it becomes a memory,” said another.

According to the show’s curator Mami Kataoka, while much contemporary political art can lose its meaning when viewed by overseas audiences, Shiota speaks to everyone because she tackles fundamental questions about being human.

“Chiharu is one of the few, the handful, of artists who can do that,” the Director of the Mori Art Museum told AAP.

“This exhibition is structured in a way that you don’t have to use your brain. It’s more you have to be honest with your physical sense, your five senses.”

It is for this reason that even people familiar with online images of Shiota’s installations should visit the gallery to immerse themselves in her work, Ms Kataoka said.

“This is perfect timing for people who really want to come back to the physical world and experience the scale,” she said.

There are half-a-dozen large-scale installations in the GOMA show, which have to be re-made each time they are set up in a new gallery.

In Brisbane six studio assistants, some established artists themselves, worked on weaving Shiota’s webs for more than two weeks.

“They love her, everyone adores her … everyone becomes part of the installation. They really respect what she is doing,” Ms Kataoka said.

Born in Osaka in 1972, Shiota studied painting in Japan and has worked in Berlin for the past 26 years.

But travelling in Australia and studying painting at the Canberra School of Art in the 1990s had a formative influence on her work.

While in Australia, Shiota decided to leave painting behind, to work on the performance art and installations for which she is now renowned.

The exhibition, which features two new commissions for GOMA, opens on Saturday and continues until October 3.

AAP travelled to Brisbane with the assistance of GOMA.