The red is almost impenetrable, crawling across the vastness of BlainSouthern’s Berlin gallery walls, crosshatching and blending with the white cube that only just contains it. Scattered through the space are cast iron skeletons of rowing boats, which the shadowy red reaches out of, sprouting angular, tensile color into the air, as if they’re being transported into the domed ceiling. The installation, Uncertain Journey, is the latest work from Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota. Although she is based in the German capital, this is her first show here in eight years.
Originally trained as a painter, Shiota’s work attempts to paint into space itself: “The string is a connection, a network. I wanted to make drawing in the air. So I started using string to make the drawing.” The results are often sprawling, cascading installations of connected yarn that have previously been shown in the Japanese Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale (The Key In The Hand). The visitor response to the show at BlainSouthern has been phenomenal: the boat-spaced arches of yarn are chockablock with visitors for the whole of Berlin Art Week (which coincided with its opening) and beyond. Interestingly, visitors have noted the significance of the iron vessels in a way that Shiota wasn’t expecting: “Lots of people thought it was about the migration crisis, with the boats.” And certainly, their severe, ghostly appearance within the blood-red mesh of the installation above seems to refer to the pathos of the countless current tragedies on the borders of Europe, of families fleeing their homes, trusting their bodies to the seas.
Although she is interested in this interpretation, Shiota had a different idea in mind when she begun the installation, which took three weeks and ten assistants to complete. “I wanted to talk more globally. More about humanity and human beings. It is entitled Uncertain Journey, so we don't know where to go, where the end destination is. Technology is changing our lives, every day we get a lot of information, but we don't know where to go with it. Also subconsciously, we're in the boat, moving, not accepting: going somewhere but we don't know where.”
For Shiota, the scarlet yarn represents the ocean of life, a tumultuous expanse that visitors are afforded a bird’s-eye view of on the first floor of the gallery, where they can see the intricacies of the network Shiota has created from above. “It's like a red ocean you can see from the top. When people look in the space, they immediately can see the universe, it's huge.”
In a separate room on the first floor are a series of paintings, recalling Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets series, and sculptures, that work with her trademark black and red string, as well as the symbol of the key that played such a strong role in the artist’s Biennale installation. “Keys have so much meaning. If I give you my key, it means I trust you. If I lose my key, it means I've lost hope. If you have a key in your hands, you have a chance.” These triggers of identity, of entry, are suspended within playful cubes, strung with nets that hold them tantalisingly beyond our reach. Even here, where Shiota is at her most prosaic, the subject matter is universal, taking us beyond the everyday, into the infinite connections of human experience.
Chiharu Shiota, Uncertain Journey is on show at BlainSouthern Berlin until November 12, 2016.