Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles

On Thursday I visited the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane to see Chiharu Shiota’s exhibition, The Soul Trembles. I am somewhat familiar with Shiota’s work having seen an installation in the Art Gallery of South Australia. Shiota is a Japanese-born, Berlin-based artist who experiments with performance art and large-scale installations. This is the most comprehensive exhibition of her work to date showcasing around 30 years of practice. It has been curated by the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. It is a truly spectacular and stunning exhibition that has been curated with such care. To give you an idea of the scale and diversity of Shiota’s works, I have selected eight of my favourites from the exhibition. There is, of course, so much more to explore and I strongly recommend you visit if you are in Brisbane. I’ll provide some visitor information at the end of the post.

Butterfly on the Sunflower, 1977

This is the first artwork you see when entering the exhibition. It is a painting Shiota made in 1977 when she was only five years of age. There is something about it that really resonated with me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a solo exhibition begin with a work created in childhood. It is really sweet and clearly shows how art has been central in her life since the beginning. So much so, that this artwork has been treasured and kept for many years. It also set the scene of the exhibition as something truly personal. As you will see, the artist’s voice continues to be central as you move throughout the space.

In Silence, 2002

The first large-scale installation in the exhibition is titled In Silence. It is a room filled with black thread covering the ceiling, a burnt piano, and burnt chairs. Inspiration for this work came from a fire Shiota witnessed when she was nine years old. The house next to hers burnt down and the only thing standing at the end of the fire was a burnt piano. The artist statement written in both English and Japanese explains how Shiota reacted to the fire and how it became such a memory. As she states ‘there are things that sink deep into the recesses of my mind.’ The longer you spend in this space the more you begin to appreciate all the elements. Especially the chairs. Some are almost unrecognisable, burnt down to their foundations. The others appear new, barely touched by a flame.

Reflection of Space and Time, 2018

This installation uses the same thread as the previous. However, in the middle are two white dresses. There was no further information on the label but I did manage to find a bit more on the GOMA blog. According to Shiota, we have our human skin then our clothing creates a second skin. In this instance, the dresses symbolise a second skin. They are suspended in the thread to convey a ‘presence in absence’. What stood out to me with this work was the beauty of the dresses, suspended and floating amongst the threads.

A Room of Memory, 2009

This was my favourite work in the exhibition. Not only because it had great impact, but because of the context. These were all collected from construction sites in Berlin – window frames that had been discarded. It reflects the separation of Berlin into east and west. What were the people who once stared out of these windows thinking? What was happening in their individual lives? It is taking something so traditionally viewed as structural and adding that social and cultural layer.

Connecting Small Memories, 2019

This is a lovely installation connecting dollhouse furniture and toys together with string. It’s adorable and we spent quite some time looking at all the pieces and how they were connected. I took an up-close photo of the piano and chair. As my friend pointed out, it looks inspired by the In Silence installation.

Uncertain Journey, 2016

This work is in the middle of the exhibition. The red thread looks as though it is pouring into or out of some boats made from metal. Rather than a literal journey, it represents a mental journey and how it can become tangled and intertwined.

A question of perspective, 2022

This work was commissioned by GOMA. It looks at the themes of absence and, more generally, existence. In the middle is a desk with a flurry of paper rising above it, suspended in black ropes. As you can see, it is very impressive. The aim of the installation is to reflect the same sense of mystery and wonder that the artist experienced while visiting Uluru back in the 1990s.

Accumulation: Searching for the Destination, 2014

Last, but certainly not least, is this installation of suitcases suspended from red ropes. It is quite a remarkable installation as some of the suitcases have motors inside causing them to move. According to Shiota, when she sees suitcases, she thinks of the human lives behind them. Why do people leave their country? The one quote I love on this label is, ‘I think back on the feelings of these people on the morning of their departure.’ That feeling of anticipation and joy or maybe nervousness and fear.

Final Quote

To finish, I want to share one of the final quotes from Shiota. It comments on death and our relationship to death. It is a beautiful and meaningful quote that I’ve found myself reflecting on a couple of times since seeing the exhibition.

Visitor Information

Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles is on display now until 3 October 2022. There is an entry fee and it is accessible. For more details follow this link:

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