PARIS — With titanic vision and ludicrous amounts of string, Chiharu Shiota, the Berlin-based Japanese installation artist, appears to connect drowning and drawing in her magisterial installation at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche.
Ten lushly netted windows on Rue de Sèvres first caught my eye, suggesting that something might be worth untangling inside. A spiderweb-like, all-over treatment of the windows ensnarls torn pages from a world atlas, in one display, and the black contour lines of a long boat, in others. The title of the exhibition — Where are we going? — drew me further in, evoking the sentiment that many grappled with following the Women’s March on Washington, namely that collective question: “Where Do We Go From Here?”
Having recently been terribly disappointed by the Ai Weiwei show in this space, I had struck it from my art radar, so I was unprepared to encounter Shiota’s mesmerizing work. She is known for her vast, room-spanning webs of threads, with which she links everyday objects (such as keys, windows, dresses, shoes, boats, and suitcases) within an abstract, linear network. The optical effect resembles the way the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles expresses webbed resistance to political oppression, as with his black massive web “La Bruja 1” (“The Witch 1,” 1979–81), which I saw in curator Victoria Noorthoorn’s 2011 Lyon Biennale. Like Meireles, Shiota mobilizes large ecologies of meaning through her ephemeral webs that cannot easily be captured by flat photography. These are three-dimensional drawings that must be moved around and seen from many angles, as with the thread sculptures of Fred Sandback and the distributed paintings of Felice Varini. Here, it is essential to ride the escalator up and down to see the work from various perspectives.
Surprisingly, the most immersive piece in Where are we going? is the least effective. Inside the department store, on the ground floor, Shiota has created “Memory of the Ocean” (2016), a large, cotton candy-looking white wave visitors can walk through. In spite of its maritime title, it evokes nothing of the kind. It teeters on the uneasy threshold between prettiness and banality and has little of the poetic invention of the two major sculptures hanging in the store’s atrium, both lyrical and epic, of grouped boat shapes that lavishly float overhead. These works leaven precise craft with speculative excursion.
Looking at the boat form from below — from the drowned person’s position — I could make out the rudimentary forms of a cluster of metal hulls, seemingly drawn with a black pencil (just one smaller one is red), floating above in suspension under the store’s central glass ceilings, like some windswept Aeolian harp. But these strung boat-harps offer no dream of utopian emancipation for migrants because they hold no water, even as they themselves are constructed as open boundaries and so might suggest the possible transmigration of bodies across border. Where are we going? To the frontier between life and death, between the vulnerable individual and the world of risk. In this respect, these de-skinned boats bring to the fore a concern with the fine grain of migration and bodily experience, where hybridity and the crossing of permeable boundaries loom large.
Shiota’s floating ethical catastrophe invites a two-sided reflection: one dark and pathological that involves the escalation of violence, as in a catastrophic sea storm; the other a luminous promotion of communal survival through postcolonial reconciliation and intelligent adaptation to environmental crises. Joined, these two sides reveal Shiota as the creator of a Janus-faced demiurgic construction that is powerfully relevant to our contemporary world of global violence and mass displacement. Her lofty visual narrative is articulated through the interweaving of mythological motifs and traces of manual labor.
In an interview accompanying the show, Shiota states that her use of boat imagery stems from childhood ferry rides she took to go from Osaka to Kochi, where she felt as “in a new world (…) the world of vacation and sea.” She says that her sculptures here represent “hope in the future.” For me this work is a bit more socially vivid, nuanced, and indispensable. It suggests what art after Trump might be, and what it must be: a reflection on the mutually enriching relationship between contemplation and action; the political and the secular spiritual.
Of course the boat is a concise symbolic element in many important myths. In Japanese myth, there is the Ama no Iwafune (“heavenly rock boat”) from the Iwafune Shrine in Osaka, where Shiota was born in 1972. In ancient Egypt, the boat was the vessel that enabled the sun to journey across the sky, as well as to take dead souls to the netherworld. Indeed, in many esoteric traditions, the floating boat is a symbol of knowledge beyond death. Perched above me, this boat image-complex (where the supporting black strings suggest black rain) offered no hopes of migrants crossing to a better existence. There is no means of remaking the world anew for them, but only a shedding of home and belongings — of form itself. Hanging in limbo, this cluster of bottomless boats left me suspended, wondering about the depths of the new dangers presented by Trump and how many people’s lives will be ensnared in their net.
Where are we going? says to me: Hang in there, being is a matter of fortune or misfortune that goes in and out like the ocean’s tide. Shiota’s exhibition is both precise and elusive, specific and elliptical, and as such is uncannily well suited to remind us of the in-between state of migration and its reliance on hope. It reflects the vulnerabilities and uncertainties shared by millions of migrants risking everything to make their world anew. In Where are we going? we can glimpse, from within the belly of a luxury marketplace, the migrant’s leap into the watery void — either into something better, or into the abyss of limbo or death. Either way, wherever we are going, we will be haunted by these dangerous feelings.
Chiharu Shiota: Where are we going? continues at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche (24 Rue de Sèvres, 7th arrondissement, Paris, France) through February 18.