Installation view of Chiharu Shiota’s “Over the Continents” for the Sackler Gallery’s Perspectives series (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

WASHINGTON, DC — Working frequently with everyday objects to construct her installations, Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota has hung vintage suitcases from the ceiling and filled rooms with hospital beds and chairs, in each instance weaving miles of yarn throughout her immersive works.

For Perspectives, Shiota’s exhibition that opened last weekend at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the artist filled a corner of the lobby with nearly 400 individual worn shoes and four miles of yarn. “Over the Continents” recalls a freshly erupted volcano: lines of radiant red yarn radiate from a single, high point of the room’s corner to reach for the ground, where each is knotted around a shoe that points away from the walls. Notes — many handwritten — accompany each shoe, placed beneath the soles, tied to laces, slipped between straps, or tucked neatly into footbeds.


“Over the Continents” is a sampling of shoes from a larger work Shiota installed in Japan for which she invited the public to donate shoes along with notes recording personal memories associated with the footwear. While the mass of half-pairs appear as though a crowd of people suddenly decided to follow in the footsteps of Cinderella, the shoes become more than discarded materials we leave behind, with each carrying a story from the past.

Penned in Japanese, a number of notes are translated in an exhibition guide (also found online). They are brief, but the sentences carry weight so that history as much as shoe seems to anchor each red strand. The outward appearance of the Converse sneakers, high leather boots, velcro sandals, colorful heels, hiking boots, and even Japanese zori from the 1950s hint at their owners (like their ages and genders); with the notes, however, the stories from their lives unravel like the miles of yarn, such as the memory of the shoe a daughter wore for her piano recital that no longer fits or of the one that cradled a child’s foot during his very first steps. Some notes address the shoes directly, thanking or bidding them farewell; some are straightforward, reflecting upon certain careers — from a bus driver to a contented farmer to a nurse who becomes nervous at the sight of a patient.

Literally pulling these varied lives together is the red yarn, which also suggests bloodlines that connect humanity as it progresses as one — but these webs are unfortunately easily tangled or severed. Each shoe is also part of an incomplete pair, contributing to the installations’ subtle melancholy. Brightly lit so its strings seem to cheerfully shimmer, “Over the Continents” still evokes feelings of loneliness and nostalgia, as each unaccompanied shoe stands as only half a trace of a memory.


Perspectives continues at the Smithsonian Institute’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC) through June 7, 2015.

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...