‘Because of Covid-19, numbers have become even more powerful’: An interview with Chiharu Shiota

Chiharu Shiota talks to Curator Contemporary Art Nina Tonga about the significance of numbers and colour, her beginnings in art, and what she hopes visitor take away from exploring The web of time.

Chiharu Shiota, 2021. Photo by Jack Fisher. Te Papa

You have described your installation as ‘drawing in the air’. How has your training as a painter and performance artist influenced your work?

When I studied painting, I felt limited to the two-dimensional canvas and I wanted to create a three-dimensional drawing, so I started working with yarn. With the thread I can draw in the air in an unlimited space.

I was not traditionally trained as a performance artist, but I have used my body in my art. When I was studying painting in Australia, I had a dream that I was stuck inside a painting. I could not breath, and had difficulty moving inside of the two-dimensional canvas. This inspired me to create Becoming painting (1994).

But my first performance was the installation Breathing from Earth (2000). Several beds were placed within a black web. At the opening, I was sleeping in the bed during the show. Because when I finished the installation, I felt like something was not finished, that is why I wanted to put my body there – this was my first performance. Now, my own body is not present anymore, but I believe that the objects that surround us, accumulate our presence. You feel an existence in a chair or in old shoes.

Red, black, and white are colours that feature prominently across your installation works. What is their significance?

Red is the colour of blood and blood has everything. In our blood is our nationality, family, religion, but also connection with other people. The red colour connects us all. Black is like a line in a drawing but is also abstract – an accumulation of black lines create a space like the night sky or the universe.

In Japan, white symbolises death and is used at funerals, but for me it is also like a new beginning.

What has influenced The web of time?

I was thinking about numbers and how we all collect numbers in our life and some numbers have a very important meaning to us. Also, in our society we use numbers to look at the past and the future. Numbers can comfort us, we share dates that are important to us, and they help us understand ourselves.

In the lead up to creating this work you made a series of drawings. Is this part of your process?

I created some sketches and also some drawings recreating the installation with people standing, numbers, and string. I usually make a sketch for the museum to explain better what I imagine. And sometimes I make drawings as well. I create drawings to understand myself and the installation better.

Why have you chosen to work with numbers in this installation?

For me, the scattered numbers throughout the black web are like stars in the universe. They represent individual and collective human existence and with the web I want to connect these people. For humans it is impossible not to be connected to others.

Chiharu Shiota, The Web of Time, Toi Art, 2020. Photo by Michael O’Neill. Te Papa

The web of time appears to fill the entire gallery. How much planning is involved in the installation of the work?

For the installation, the whole planning took one year and the set-up there was about three weeks. We were 13-14 people together. I have my small team who know what to do and how to create and web and then I have to show the other workers as well how to create it. I show them photos and sketches and how it should look like and then we work.

Your work offers visitors the experience of being immersed in the work. What do you want visitors to feel or think about as they walk through?

I hope that when people enter the space, they forget the time and enjoy my work. It is good when a museum is this place where people can connect to something different. It is different for them than their ordinary life, a different space. But I want the visitor to feel free to feel whatever they want to.

How much wool was used to create the work?

In the end, we used 355km of wool. I think this is the distance from Wellington to New Plymouth. It is a lot of material.

To install the work, you travelled to New Zealand and underwent two weeks in managed isolation. How was your experience and were you able to continue working?

It was a very nice experience. I had to stay in my room mostly, but I could walk outside. The hotel prepared an area outside where you could also go late at night. I felt quite free and could create lots of drawings during this time. My drawings are like my diary. It was strange that the hotel gave everyone a number and also called me with this number and not with my name.

After the quarantine, we went to the Museum [Te Papa] in Wellington and were welcomed by a traditional Māori song. This was a very emotional welcome. It was very nice.

Have the experiences of Covid-19 brought new meanings to this work for you?

Because of Covid-19, numbers have become even more powerful. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we are counting the number of deaths and people infected every day. We receive this number every day. It is like the number of people born every day. I never thought of these numbers before. Now we count death every day. I thought about this a lot during the set-up.