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4 miles of red yarn, 400 shoes in new exhibit at Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery

Artist Chiharu Shiota and assistant install her 'Over the Continents' (2008–2013) at Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. 'Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota' is on view Aug. 30-June 7.
Artist Chiharu Shiota and assistant install her 'Over the Continents' (2008–2013) at Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. 'Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota' is on view Aug. 30-June 7.
Installation of 'Over the Continents' by Chiharu Shiota at Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.; Photo by Cory Grace

'Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota'

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Almost 400 shoes, connected by four miles of scarlet yarn, form an intriguing installation that opened Aug. 30 at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Installation view of 'Over the Continents' (2008–2013), by Chiharu Shiota, at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C., 2014, photo by John Tsantes
Installation view of 'Over the Continents' (2008–2013), by Chiharu Shiota, at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C., 2014, photo by John Tsantes

In a surprise move, the garden between the Sackler and Smithsonian Castle got "yarnbombed" with more than six miles of red yarn (see photos here) to promote the new exhibition, "Over the Continents". Some 120 volunteers and knitting enthusiasts assembled the "yarnbomb" web that decorated the area Aug. 28-Sept. 2.

The shoes range from dilapidated hiking boots, a ballet slipper, and a sneaker worn on a pilgrimage of 33 temples, to a never-used shoe from a man who could not walk; from a grandmother's kimono shoe to a mother's black patent leather rhinestone-bedecked high heel; and from a baby's first shoes to an elderly father's last shoes.

The very personal objects are like "a second skin", Japanese performance and installation artist Chiharu Shiota said about her monumental yet intimate "Over the Continents".

"I can feel the person through their used objects," Shiota told reporters at a recent preview. "I feel I know this person," especially through handwritten notes they donated along with their footwear. About 2,000 pairs of shoes were given to Shiota for her project.

Notes, translated from Japanese, can be read on an interactive kiosk beside the artwork, and on http://asia.si.edu/shiota/:

  • "My daughter had a problem with her leg...Because of her illness, her short life ended. These shoes...had many happy memories," said one note written on four-leaf-clover stationery.
  • A "treasured" white shoe worn only once by a bride at her 1972 wedding is now yellowed. " I hope the reminiscence of my starting point...will be of help to some others."
  • A man wrote of his black dress shoe, "You supported me in good and bad times and on ceremonial occasions."
  • A black, rhinestone-trimmed shoe "reminds me of my mother at her most shining moments. She loved this dazzling world."
  • "It's too bad that my father, who liked to go out for walks, did not energetically walk back home from the hospital in these shoes."

Shiota says, "When someone disappears, we come to recognize their existence for the first time. Presence dwells within absence."

"What I find so beautiful is there's always death lurking in life and life lurking in death, and this captures that feeling so well," Carol Huh, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery told me at the preview.

Shiota, interviewed by Huh at the event, noted that she does not start out "to make art. I start with a very personal feeling, and make it tangible. It's then called 'art'."

In other words, "I'm not making things to show people; I'm making them because it's necessary for me to make them. If I didn't do that, there wouldn't be any sense in living," she explains in her gorgeous, illuminating book "Chiharu Shiota The Hand Lines" (Casa Asia).

This acclaimed artist -- Japan's representative at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 2015 -- is somehow plagued with self-doubt.

"Sometimes I am so moved by my own work that I shake, and other times I feel like a worthless person who can never be part of society. I repeat the same things over and over again in my life."

For her current project, Shiota is asking people to donate old keys. She is focusing on thresholds, openness, going outside... It was inspired by Shiota's spending much time indoors, and inside herself, during a recent six-month time frame when she had a miscarriage, and also lost her father.

Shiota lives with her daughter and husband in Berlin, where the artist has resided since 1996. She moved there because she was finding few opportunities in Japan, so she entered a German art university.

"I struggled through a period of abysmal poverty. But Berlin was an extremely attractive place where young artists from all over the world had gathered after the collapse of the Wall."

Shiota explained to reporters, "In Japan, I couldn't see myself so clearly. But when I started to live in Germany, my identity and what I wanted to do became clearer."

A crystal clear representation of that is "Over the Continents", on view through June 7, 2015.

She made clear that her work was not a reference to the Holocaust, or to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, or to Marcel Duchamp.

  • Shoes of Holocaust victims are an especially haunting visual reminder (notably the searing exhibit of 4,000 shoes displayed at the nearby U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.) She said she is not familiar with such displays, and her work is not political in any way. "They are just shoes used by people," she stressed.
  • Photos of Duchamp's "sixteen miles of string" installation at a major all-surrealism exhibit in 1942 in New York are well-known. Shiota noted that critics often try to compare that to her work, although the French surrealist had originally strung the yarn to prevent people from entering his installation. "So in terms of meaning, his work is completely different from mine."

Shiota's installation seems completely different from others' work, period.

Part of the museum's free "Perspectives" contemporary art series, "Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota" will be at the Sackler from Aug. 30 through June 7, 2015.

"I want to make works that affect people on an emotional level," says Shiota. She certainly has in "Over the Continents" -- it also affects our perspectives.

For more info: "Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota", "Over the Continents", Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. Free. Aug. 30-June 7, 2015. The Smithsonian's Sackler and the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, at Independence Avenue, S.W. and 12th Street, are on the National Mall. Both museums are at www.asia.si.edu, 202-633-1000. Chiharu Shiota's website, http://www.chiharu-shiota.com/en/.