I’m an installation artist and I’m often asked, “Just what is an installation?” Some people think it means I create window installations for stores while others think it means I’m some type of building contractor. Attempting to clear things up, I usually say that an installation is not a discrete object but rather a work of art that includes the environment in which it is presented.
Installations can be site-specific or self-contained. A site-specific installation is dependent on the environment in which it is placed. It may be that the content of the work is based on the history or function of the site and to move the work elsewhere would be to lose this essential component. Or, the art may respond to the physical specifics of the space – the natural light or wall configuration. In work that is not site-specific (i.e. self-contained) the installation doesn’t depend on these outside considerations.There are of course hybrids – site-specific work that is adapted each time it is installed in a new environment.
Chiharu Shiota is an installation artist whose work centers around ideas of collective and personal memory. She often employs everyday objects that have a history of use – dresses, books, beds, windows, and keys that she collects from individuals around the globe. The installation in which they meet becomes a place of connection where individual histories are merged into a universal experience.
In the installation above, The Key in the Hand, Shiota has suspended 50,000 keys belonging to people from throughout the world. The weblike structure is characteristic of her work, creating a protective cocoon for the objects. Combined with the webs of thread the boats in the work add a dreamlike quality to the piece, a sense of being suspended in time and space, halfway between waking and sleeping, between life and death. Of the work Shiota says, “…keys are familiar and very valuable things that protect important people and spaces in our lives. They also inspire us to open the door to unknown worlds.”
The photo above shows several installations, all containing Shiota’s hallmark woven web of threads. Many artists who work with thread use it to refer to traditional women’s work but Shiota says that she uses thread to draw, likening it to a pencil or charcoal mark. According to her, the obsessiveness of her technique contributes to a sense of the never-ending, of infinity. When making the work she uses teams of people to assist in the fabrication. Her method is intuitive and she works without sketches, letting the piece evolve as it is made.
Although Shiota is known for her thread installations she also works with other materials. This piece, “Accumulation – Searching for the Destination,” takes different configurations depending on where it is exhibited. In one instance she has suspended the suitcases, mimicking her dense weblike thread installations, while in the other showings the suitcases take on a solid architectural form.
Shiota is Japanese but has lived in Germany for many years. In this installation, “A Room of Memory,” after the fall of the Berlin Wall she collected old window frames from destroyed buildings. The windows have in a sense “viewed” history from both sides – pre and post wall. The towering form in the installation is like a chapel, a place of remembrance and contemplation. Unlike the webs of her other works that keep the viewer at a distance, the curving walls let the viewer in, enveloping them in a light filled space.
You can find out more about Chiharu Shiota on her website.