PITTSBURGH — Inside 516 Sampsonia Way, a 19th-century row house in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood, there no longer appear to be any 90-degree angles. Any corners have become cavernous and rounded from the innumerable lines of yarn of Chiharu Shiota’s Trace of Memory, creating acute and obtuse angles. And while some people try to cleanse spaces or their superstitious gateways by sageing doorways, this installation does the opposite, appealing to some kind of liminal god to crack open time, resurface the past, and let it linger in the present.
A former student of Marina Abramović, the Japanese-born Shiota is known for combining performance with installation in her practice. Trace of Memory reenacts this amalgamation in an epic environment made for Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory museum. It opened in September 2013 as the inaugural project in the museum’s fifth property acquisition, and now is about to end its two-and-a-half-year run.
Shiota came up with stories by drawing from the building’s many layers of wallpaper, while imagining the lives of the house’s former occupants. Following the deindustrialization of the US and the resulting economic collapse around 1980, 516 Sampsonia Way sat empty for years. Few objects were left behind, so Shiota incorporated old or tattered objects from mostly outside sources to recreate more of the house’s narratives. She then trapped the memories of the home by stringing thousands of yards of black yarn around those objects, entrapping the house’s three floors.
Each floor has about three rooms, and each room focuses on a singular object or assembly-like repetition of the same object within the yarn: many old chairs stacked into a corner; a large pile of hardtop suitcases; a rod iron bed with pristine white sheets, eerily unwrinkled; stacks of old books on the floor, some opened and hanging in midair, held up by the string. There’s also the subtle patterning of the staples in the floor and on the wall. The staples are there to help create the angles of the yarn, but they don’t cheapen the experience since they get lost in the momentum of the web.
In the past, Shiota has also used thread to careen around a narrative, an act of manipulating time in a specific site. In her installation “During Sleep” (2002), performers slept under white sheets in hospital-style beds with black string interlaced floor-to-ceiling all around them. Trace of Memory highlights the performativity that’s inherent in any installation. The string confines or enhances a bygone moment so that when Shiota’s suspending time, she’s also enacting ghosts.
In another room, a white wedding dress is hanging in the strings. It isn’t as colossal as Beverly Semmes’s “Blue Gowns” (1993), but the three-dimensional puff of the wedding dress makes it less of a mythic symbol and more of a harsh reality from that same world Semmes was pulling from. Descending from the ceiling, the full skirt pulled me back to the white bell flowers from Silly Symphonies, forgetting that they play the wedding march at the end of “Flowers and Trees.” I kept unrealistically hoping for a draft to blow through so that I might see the dress swing in that same cartoonish way — or maybe for proof of an actual ghost. As with the bed sheets, the white of the dress is vibrant among all the black, and I kept catching myself squinting. This contrast is hypnotizing and hard to look at, but not overtly threatening because the fabric looks light to the touch. It has the same symbolic weight as Christo’s “Wedding Dress” (1967), a performance piece of a woman in satin shorts and tank top covered in silk ropes that are attached to an enormous bundle of satin, a tiresome and restraining weight that she’s dragging behind her. “Wedding Dress” lends itself to a much more literal interpretation, but the dress within Trace of Memory has a similar affect.
Just as mesmerizing as the vibrant whites suspended in the yarn is the light coming through the row house windows, reflecting off the all the black yarn, which makes everything in between seem grayish or hazy. The experience is like a dreamy flashback scene, adding to the vitality of the work as a whole. The only parts of the interior unaffected by the webby haze are the entrance and the stairway leading to each floor. These breaks don’t pull from the experience, but give much-needed breathers. By the time I reached the top floor, the space became very warm and it felt like the heat was being transubstantiated as the echoing blackness started to close in on me. My instinct was to crouch down toward the floor. I didn’t want to leave, so I just succumbed to the impulse.
In Shiota’s artist statement, she mentions that when she weaves these patterns they reflect how she’s feeling. If the yarn tangles easily, it means she’s feeling troubled. As specific as the installation may seem to the space, or to each viewer, Shiota is undoubtedly part of it all, too. She seems to watch over the experience, like an angel or some kind of guide. It’s a shame Trace of Memory has to be taken down, but it’s also hard to imagine that whatever it’s invoked will ever totally vanish from 516 Sampsonia Way.
Chiharu Shiota’s Trace of Memory continues at the Mattress Factory (505 Jacksonia Way, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) through May 22.