Chiharu Shiota

Chiharu Shiota, Portrait, Ph: Sunhi Mang

Cicero wrote in his notes talking about the most famous of memory techniques, the Method of Loci: “The memory of things is the proper business of the orator; this we may be enabled to impress on ourselves by the creation of imaginary figures, aptly arranged, to represent particular heads, so that we may recollect thoughts by images, and their order by place”. Chiharu Shiota, with great eloquence, tells through her “images” a process of creation of pure memory punctuated through repeated movements that see her committed to knotting and weaving the discontinuous thread of consciousness. And we are not dealing here only with a figurative thread, since – by now the artist’s stylistic code – it is precisely this thin, “conductive” thread that binds and connects the dots to try to clarify the memory of the absent “things”, of the spaces and places.

Precisely, Shiota’s work is based on the vibrant perception of memory and the more concrete essence of its lack. Suspended, like the threads that populate them, inhabited spaces seem to echo the presence of the lives from which they have recently been animated. As if the walls had their own memory, so do the objects of common use, beds, books, clothes, symbols that follow one another and also repeat themselves in everyday life.

And if it is also true that a repetitive cycle generates memory, so do the shapes of Chiharu Shiota, these geometric constellations of thread that multiply and overlap in different directions, aimed at composing a larger “design” in their repetition, to form her well known gigantic installations. Nervous systems, synapses, veins, the human body, a large brain. After all, the very system of transferring information from short-term memory to long-term memory exploits the simple mechanism of repetition. Repeated information, again and again, is perceived by our brain as important: then with each repetition the neuronal activation is increased, as well as the scattering of information details over multiple cells and multiple circuits. In this way, with each repetition the brain will have more and more points from which to start to reconstruct that specific memory, which therefore becomes more and more stable.


Repetita iuvant, the Latins said, “Repeated things help”, and Chiharu perhaps with her generating act also wants to underline that more probably it is precisely our subconscious cognitive processing that leads us to transcend the present to perceive a “past” in which to root the future. Unlike us, even the most advanced artificial intelligence is unable to create memories. It is this sublime inconsistency that distinguishes the human being from the machine, from “things”, from places. “It is humanity that makes memory,” says Shiota. Yet ours is the time of technological media, which focuses on the concept of archiving rather than creating. The technological medium has in fact become the means to document a world in rapid transformation, and Chiharu’s work is in this sense an excellent starting point for reflection on the relationship between human beings and the artificial world that invades everyone’s life with increasing force and the speed with which this relationship and the storage systems change, indissolubly merging with our people. But in a time like this, in which reality is a continuously moving dimension, the technology that accompanies us also changes quickly and so, especially with the amount of information now entrusted to the World Wide Web, many media, once innovative, become obsolete.

The astonishing speed with which information technology is evolving produces the result of making available storage media and systems for encoding and translating content more and more efficient and at ever lower costs. But the side effect deriving from this unstoppable and very fast process of continuous improvement is the ineluctably early obsolescence of machines, digital memories and content encoding and decoding software. Dozens and dozens of different and incompatible standards that follow one another, overlap, and then are abandoned even they… are forgotten.

Where is then the key to access the inner world of our memory? At this point we can say that it is in our hands. And Chiharu’s installation “Key in the hand” set up at the Venice Biennale in 2015 seems to suggest this. Over time, Shiota has collected thousands and thousands of unused keys from all over the world and used part of them for her installation. The keys themselves represent the access, doors that open, aimed here to indicate the only way of access to the human soul, the red woolen thread is the connection, the mnemonic path that leads to the identities of those who once owned them. The memory linked to a thin common thread, binds the “keys” to a thin “thread” of hope, a fundamental bond to be maintained but that at the same time is precarious and there’s a very high risk that the contact will break and that everything will fall into oblivion.

Chiharu’s sensational installations, new archives of thoughts and memories, invite us to understand how it is only our mind, creative, emotional, and in itself that spontaneously generates these pure and suggestive interweaving of individual and universal memories, inscribing past, present and future in an ephemeral and impalpable existence in the hope that it will last over time.

THREAD OF FATE, 2021, mixed media, Diskurs 2021 - Ring 20.21 Festspielpark, Bayreuth, Germany, Photo Sunhi Mang
The Key in the Hand, 2015 Installation: old keys, old wooden boats, red wool Japan Pavilion, 56th International Art Exhibition— La Biennale di Venezia, Venice, Italy Photo by Sunhi Mang © SIAE, Rome, 2020 and the artist

Alice Zucca:

I would like to start from the concept of “memory”. The memory of things that are absent in a space, the presence of someone who’s absent, who has been here recently and whose presence can still be felt. Of the concept of spaces with hold a memory within, which we grafted into them with the act of thinking. “Me somewhere else” gives a very good idea of what I want to express to you, an absent presence which expands in an intertwining of threads – your stylistic code – which here outline a human geography in its dissolving, an intertwining of thoughts, synapses, of veins even, that once were pulsating in a given place and now become the thought of a presence that has moved in another place.  Thinking, and therefore the act of being here and now, has strictly to do with remembering, when we stop thinking we also stop remembering, we stop knowing, this explains why contemporary culture is a great accumulation of apparatuses developed in order to remember, technologies that we have around us, huge archives, connected to other archives, to help us remember and discover new things that we will be able to remember, because this is what we need to do to feel that we are, in that “here and now” that define us and relate us to what is other than us, through that universe of “information” that we have inside us and that connects us to that outside. Sometimes, moved by this urgency, we find ourselves therefore having to substitute our internal mind with the “external” one and this can become paradoxical and hyperbolic if we related it to the matter of the present time, of experience. Can we develop a memory of the present? In “Me somewhere else”, it may happen that the thought of the memory could encounter the image, which proclaiming its disappearance, also exists in the act of disappearing. Regarding the image Blanchot says that “When there is nothing, the image finds in this nothing its necessary condition, but there it disappears. [..] It wants everything to return to the indifferent deep where nothing is affirmed, to tend toward the intimacy of what still subsists in the void”.  In light of this I would like to analyze with you this difference between a “human archive” and the surrogate archive, from the written word to technology, your personal point of view regarding the concept of presence/absence. Present perceived and present remembered through the experience of a felt absence present in the memory of a place and of a space.

Chiharu Shiota, THE DISTANCE, 2018, Göteborgs konstmuseum, Gothenburg , Sweden. Photo Hossein Sehatlou
Dialogue From DNA, 2004 Installation: old shoes, red wool Manggha, Centre of Japanese Art and Technology, Krakow, Poland Photo by Sunhi Mang © SIAE, Rome, 2020 and the artist
LAST HOPE, 2021 metal, paper, wool installation: Last Hope Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Spain. Photo by David Ruano

Chiharu Shiota:

Thank you for your thoughts. I can sympathize with you very much. The work “Me Somewhere Else” is based on an experiment by a chemist named Benjamin Libet. It is an experiment in which he examines when a human makes an intention to do something, that part of the brain is already reacting in a place that the person himself does not know before making that intention. He says that the nerve cells in the brain, which are responsible for moving the finger, are already reacting before the will to move the finger itself.
The consciousness “I” is by no means the subject, but a mirror that reflects the activity of the brain. With that in mind, when I read this, I was already confused. We consider ourselves as a subject. Everyone is alive with that in mind. But when it is proved by the signals of the brain that it seems to be, what should we rely on and how should we live? Descartes’s theory “Discourse on Method” of “because I think I am” is that it does not work at all in modern science.
If this me, consciousness, is really insubstantial. If it is the scientific substance of the brain that is moving, and there is no such thing as me, the start of action is not me, but the chemical substance I recognize, that is, the brain, and I am tracing it. The work that I made with that in mind is “Me Somewhere Else”. In the work, I put my two feet on the ground. The feet are connected to countless red threads and appear to be connected to the great universe. It represents my body connected to the universe. The one who exists is actually the one who is absent.

Chiharu Shiota, In the beginning was…, 2021 Permanent installation: PLANTA, Balaguer (Lleida), Spain. Photo Fundació Sorigué
Chiharu Shiota, Me Somewhere Else, 2018. Courtesy the artist and Blain|Southern. Photo Peter Mallet


Speaking of your installation at the  KÖNIG  galerie in London “NAVIGATING THE UNKNOWN”, you pointed out how your first experience of the day is checking your email, post, social media and so on, “The volume of information is like a wave, swallowing my body” you said. We don’t have the time to process information in our “memory of the present” that, by the time we do, it is already obsolete. It is interesting food for thought seeing the gap between the information received and our memory, constantly subjected to the very fast pressure of adapting to change, in contrast with the human body, which experiences the realm of life at a slower pace, there is no physiological formula that enables us to adapt, to change at that same speed.  Memory and information regulate us as human beings and determine our perception of the surrounding environment, regardless of our actual physical presence in it. The difficulty produces an impossibility of understanding relative to our placing ourselves within the space, derivative of a world that therefore appears as always new because the interpretative schemes that we have laboriously worked out in the old world are hardly suitable – in time – to interpret the changed reality. If we manage to understand that reality that happens only posthumously to the processing of the creation of the “memory”, which here however belongs to an experience that is now past and already internalized. And if it is true that, with a world outside us changing at a fast speed, we can rarely count on our reassuring routines stabilized over a lifetime, it is even more real than without implementing a change that tends more to us “internally”, there will always be the impossibility of functionally interfacing with a new world as one will not have the solid foundations on which to base it. You have made a beautiful parallelism with the shape of the boat: “The architectural shape of the boat lets the passengers only move forward. We struggle to define our path, our human condition forces us to look forward searching for a destiny although we have no safe points of orientation, we travel on the open ocean without a sense of direction.” It is true, it has never been easier to receive a this much information on a daily basis, from all over the world, from all our circles as in the era of the access. But since the information has an ephemeral duration, it constantly changes at the unstoppable pace of modern life. I would like to discuss with you this obsolescence of information, of our memories, according to your point of view.


I read about memory in a book before, but it seems that the human brain is designed to feel the flow of time from the past to the future. So without the brain, we are actually living in a world without the past and the future. It seems that other animals have only the present, not the past or future. We don’t understand why the brain created consciousness. I am very interested in human memory.
I read the results of an experiment where they questioned what would happen if the human brain was not informed. The subject enters a soundproof capsule, blocking their vision, putting thick gloves on their hands and a tube on their feet to block all sensations. Only half of the subjects were able to tolerate this for 24 hours. And even those who could tolerate it seemed to have symptoms after the experiment: disorientation, confusion of distance, impaired concentration, hallucinations, and paranoia.
What I want to say is that the brain needs the right amount of information. Excessive information can confuse the brain, but if there is little information, the brain will not be able to perform normal activities and will greedily want information.
For example, if you convey the wrong information, name, place of birth, parent’s name, occupation, etc. to the person in the capsule because of this ultimate situation, after a week, the brain will believe that information and you will be able to become that person. But at one point, when one small piece of information from the past is remembered, the synapses are connected, and it seems that I, until now, was actually someone else who was just input to the brain.
Some people can’t stand the fear and commit suicide when they find out that they are living in the past of others. As I mentioned, the reality of me and the existence of myself with a past are really very unknown. That is why I am interested in memory and human beings. I don’t know anything about me. That’s why I’m making an artwork and looking for myself who is neither this nor that.



Inwardness is the basis of your artistic research but the same can be said for the physical body. You are such a polymath ranging from painting to sculpture to performance. Does your creative approach change depending on the medium you use or do you keep the same underlying intuitive rigour in everything you do? Can you tell me more about how you conceived “Becoming Painting”?

Becoming Painting, 1994 Performance/Installation: red enamel paint School of Art, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia Photo by Ben Stone © SIAE, Rome, 2020 and the artist


They are different mediums but similar concepts. I am using the line or string because I want to extend the line in the drawing into space. I want to connect the item, the memory to the space. In my drawings, I also use lines to show emotion, I am more interested in the line.
When I was a student, during the second year of studying in the painting department, I couldn’t paint anymore because I felt that anything I created is like someone else’s painting. During an exchange program in Australia, I had a dream. I was inside a two-dimensional painting. Inside the painting, I had difficulty breathing because I stayed in the two-dimension. After this dream, I made ‘Becoming Painting’, but it was not paint, it was enamel which is poisonous for the skin and in was very hard to take off, so after three months, the colour was still on my skin and hair.

Counting Memories, 2019, Installation: wooden desks, chairs, paper, black wool Muzeum Śląskie w Katowicach, Katowice, Poland Photo by Sonia Szeląg © SIAE, Rome, 2020 and the artist
In Silence, 2019 Installation: burnt piano, burnt chair, Alcantara black thread Installation view: Shiota Chiharu: The Soul Trembles, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2019 Courtesy of Kenji Taki Gallery Photo by Sunhi Mang, Photo Courtesy: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo © SIAE, Rome, 2020 and the artist
Two Boats, One Direction, 2019 Installation: metal frame, felt, ropes Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, São Paulo, Brazil Photo by Ding Musa © SIAE, Rome, 2020 and the artist
Chiharu Shiota, Connecting Small Memories, 2019, Installation- mixed media Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan Photo by Sunhi Mang, photo courtesy- Mori Art Museum, Tokyo © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2020 and the artist
During Sleep, 2002 Performance / Installation: hospital beds, bedding, black wool Kunstmuseum Luzern, Lucerne, Switzerland Photo by Sunhi Mang © SIAE, Rome, 2020 and the artist