Chiharu Shiota’s sprawling, immersive artworks channel Japanese zanshi weaving methods into contemporary, cutting-edge handwoven textile installations. Spinning webs both literal and metaphorical, the Berlin-based artist at once captivates her audience and challenges them to question how we live—and live together—in the world.
For Shiota, there are no absolutes in life aside from the human instinct to connect. In her intricate web installations, she strives with every turn of yarn to evoke the intertwining threads of community, offering herself and her art as the ultimate extension of kinship. “Everything begins with a connection to the self and those around us,” Shiota states. “But in a society packed with mobile communication and relentless distractions, it’s hard, very hard.” What to do, then? Make art, would be Shiota’s reply. “I do believe art is one of the only things with the power to reconnect us to ourselves.”
Over the last ten years, Shiota has scattered her ethereal webs across the world. In 2021 she wove bloodred rope amongst the tropical greenhouse palms and cacti of the botanical gardens in Kew, London, and transformed a minimalist room in Finland’s Espoo Museum of Modern Art into a bright red web with thousands of feet of fine yarn wool. “It’s like drawing,” Shiota says of spinning her webs. “Weaving my yarn is like drawing in the air.” Womb-like colorways are no accident—Shiota uses the palette of human experience to tighten her message, offsetting the red of blood and rage with endless inky blacks and optimistic bright whites.
Located in a subterranean Victorian cistern in Copenhagen, Denmark, Shiota’s immersive weave Multiple Realities (2022) is the realization of a lifetime ambition for the artist. In this dripstone cave underneath Copenhagen’s verdant Søndermarken park, managed by the Frederiksberg Museums, Shiota has woven one hundred miles of ivory yarn around the former reservoir’s brick-and-mortar arches to form a bright white cobweb, creating a simultaneous paradise and nightmare. The artwork feels innocent enough upon first sight, until the dripping water and dark corners of the cave start to encroach, hinting at the parts of life we cannot control. “There is darkness everywhere,” Shiota notes.
Of course, there is no connection to the self without a nod to the past, and Shiota is meticulous in ensuring her locations have a link to history. “There is no future without the past,” she says. In Copenhagen, Shiota wanted to charge new meaning into the former water cisterns of Multiple Realities, and in Taipei her work Uncertain Journey (2021) offered an overdue confrontation with Taiwan’s complex history of migration by positioning empty metal boats ominously around a fluffy yarn web.
The artist’s epic 2019 installation spanning the atrium of Berlin’s Gropius Bau is perhaps the ultimate example of Shiota’s skill in weaving a line of communication between the past and our contemporary state. The Gropius Bau is a historic institution, originally established as a museum of the applied arts in 1881 and located right next to the former wall that divided Berlin during the Cold War. By incorporating papers that documented the early history of the building into the wool weave, Beyond Memory (2019) drew on Berlin’s history of creativity—and separation. “Berlin will always shed light on the artist’s practice,” Shiota says of the work.
Shiota cites the American artist Sheila Hicks as a key inspiration. Hicks was initially marginalized for her commitment to the traditionally female practice of weaving. In her ambitious site-specific works Shiota has, in many ways, picked up where Hicks left off, adding a dark and surreal edge to the archetypal softness of yarns and the universal language of textiles.
Grace Banks is a London-based journalist, editor, and author of Art Escapes: Hidden Art Experiences Outside the Museum.