Chiharu Shiota
Letters of thanks

26 September 2014

11 January 2015

Letters of thanks
Menene Gras Balaguer. Culture and Exhibitions Director. Casa Asia.


Correspondence by post was a standard form of transmitting information prior to the advent of the Internet. And despite being overtaken by successive alternative and more efficient media, letters have continued to play a critical role in communication ever since the invention of paper. The epistolary genre is normally addressed to an imaginary other, the person who the subject addresses even while thinking of himself, and his discursivity is grounded in a narrative construction similar to that which undergirds the micro-story. In the history of universal literature, letters and diaries by writers and artists have been instrumental on account of their autobiographical content and because of the revelations the authors make about themselves when it comes to the personal and general circumstances surrounding the creation of a certain work and the underlying experience. With an intervention conceived specifically for the EACC, given the enigmatic title “Thank-you Letters”, as part of an exhibition programme very much bearing in mind the audience to which it is indebted, Chiharu Shiota pays tribute to this particular kind of writing, often mistakenly considered residual. Over the span of the last decade the artist has clocked up more than six individual and as many more group shows per year, in Japan or in other parts of the world. While it is barely two years since “Sincronizando Hilos y Rizomas”, her ambitious exhibition at the headquarters of Casa Asia, at the time in Palau Barò de Cuadras, one of the best examples of the orientalist tendency within Catalan modernisme, and less than one year since another project at Galería Nieves Fernández in Madrid, the EACC is now hosting the latest project by the artist, coinciding with the announcement that she has been chosen to represent Japan at the upcoming Venice Biennale in May 2015.

“Thank-you Letters” is a participative work, conceived as an installation which invites all those interested and willing to participate to write a letter expressing their gratitude. The motives of the person writing to some “other” subject could be for whatever reason and there was no requirement to identify oneself. The conditions stipulated in the open call even allowed for letters to an imaginary other, the only condition being that the content must bear some relation with the sense of gratitude. The final installation at the EACC surpassed in magnitude all expectations, not only for the total area it covers but also for the actual number of letters received. In the end, ten thousand letters written by people from the city and province of Castellón were compiled and used to build the fragments of a story made from brief narrations. The artist tied them to architectural structures she built from threads that seem to transform into ropes that tie us to the world. In one of her recent interviews, which she considers key to a proper understanding of her experience as an artist, she explained to Omori Toshikatsu that this installation meant a lot to her, because she associated it with her father, who regrettably died without being able to see her solo exhibition at the Kochi Museum of Art, between July and September 2013. Her father was from Kochi, where she too was born, although soon afterwards the family moved to Osaka, and he had always said that he wished to return and hoped to see his dream fulfilled. However, he died in the fall and this installation which contains 2,400 thank-you letters has become a posthumous homage, in which the artist shows her gratitude to the father who she sometimes hated, but who she also loved above everything else and who she only really began to understand when she moved to Berlin and after she had her own daughter.

This installation by Chiharu Shiota has a lot to do with many key elements from Japanese culture, which she views as the outer world, and also with her personal experience or inner world, which, for her, are not so different in dimension. Between one and the other—the first represented by her culture of origin and the second with the self separated from its roots—she tautens the threads that make up the dense networks that materially tie together all the parts of a specific whole to compose a new spatiality. The threads can at once be identified with the flow of time and with a happening that connects the life and death of the world. However, her use of threads brings to mind shimenawa, the braided rice straw rope used for ritual purification in Shinto shrines. These ropes are often festooned with zigzag shide, strips of paper with offerings or wishes, just like omikuji, the written oracles on folded strips of paper which are tied to the branches of sacred trees. They are written to the kami or other gods from Japanese mythology, who are attributed with the power to ward off misfortune or to fulfil the petitions contained in them. “Thank-you Letters” can be viewed as a ritual proposal whose antecedents may or may not be conscious. These have to do with the traditional rope, paper and ema (plaques) on sale in temples, on which wishes are written and hung from a sacred tree so that the gods can read them. “Thank-you Letters” is a work in which an anonymous collective shares its unconfessed secrets and, through these expressions of gratitude, tells us personal stories and reveals the affects that are part and parcel of each individual world.

Just as if she were drawing, the artist weaves the threads and connects different points on the central body of the EACC, as if they were rhizomes that extended along paths that lose themselves in a strange geography that the eye can barely make out without getting lost, fostering a kind of intertextuality. This form of taking over the space, similarly to other installations by the artist, traps all the objects to be found in it: wedding dresses, empty hospital beds, shoes worn by people who have disappeared, broken mirrors, silent pianos, read books, suitcases full of tears or, like the case in hand, anonymous thank-you letters. The threads are like ropes that stand in the way of the audience, cutting off their path, but they are also akin to the veins of the world that spread out and intermesh to create a circulation in manifold directions. The diaspora experienced by the artist herself seems to have paved the way for these creations with threads with which she invents calligraphies and acts of speech, and exploring them suggests the artist’s attempt to resemanticise our most domestic and everyday surroundings. Nonetheless, these threads are also the combined drops of rain of a very old and sombre melancholia, that is passed on from one generation to the next through the umbilical cord that ties us to the world. Our experience of the real and reality triggers a relational system between the self and the world that introduces the notion of time in a given space, activating a kind of network topology, through which sentient perception broadens its field of vision. Everything starts with drawing and line, which is transformed into a horizontal rain that is the living image of the suffering of loss and the melancholia of time that enacts the birth and death of the things of this world, their appearance and disappearance, just like the presence and absence of everything that exists. And so this text is also a thank-you letter, but in this case addressed to the artist to thank her for all that she says to us through her work.