First come the shoes. Packed in boxes, smelling up a museum storage room at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian Art on the Mall.
The request was for used shoes, “something you don’t wear, but you can’t throw out.” Shoes that had some meaning, but had no further use to donors. And some had been used a lot.
Sneakers, sandals, boots with shafts so long they tumble over. Spiked heels, orthopedic work shoes, Trainers. Only the occasional wooden zori indicates their Japanese origin.
Also, the notes affixed to dozens of them, all in Japanese characters, indicate their national origin.
But the stories are varied as the shoe styles. Some are chummy (“Together this shoe and I went to Australia”). Others are more emotional (“For over 15 years I used to walk my Labrador retriever. You soothed my mind. I still cry every day. I miss those days”).
Some are attached to old boyfriends long gone, others to boyfriends who became husbands.
And a lot are about loss, accompanying shoes left behind by a loved one. “When I took my father to the hospital he was wearing these shoes,” says one. “At 81, his life came to a close. It’s too bad that my father, who liked to go out for walks, did not energetically walk back home in these shoes.”
Chiharu Shiota has made a career working with items that have been used by people but have been put aside, from window frames to hospital beds. Believing they are still imbued with the spirit of their former inhabitants, she has collected and arranged the items into striking pieces of memory, the latest of which just opened at the Sackler Gallery pavilion on the Mall.
As part of the modern art “Perspectives” series that has seen work by Ai Weiwei, Hai Bo and Anish Kapoor, Shihota, who will represent Japan at the 56th Venice Biennale next year, was invited to stage a variation of her installation “Over the Continents.”
The shoes-and-string piece has been assembled before, in a huge display in her home city of Osaka, and — perhaps most dramatically — spilling down the wall of a five story building in Berlin, the city where she has been living and working for 17 years.
While some artists have just paint in their toolboxes, Shiota’s medium involves warehouses in Berlin and Japan with items such as used shoes and suitcases. But they are more than that, she says.
“When I see the shoes, it’s only shoes,” Shiota says. “But when I read the message, I see the people more. The aura is there.”
She finds there is always something left of the person in their personal items. “The person is not here, but the existence is here,” she says. “That is the main thing of my work.”
Carol Huh, the assistant curator of contemporary Asian art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, says “I’ve been encountering her work for four years,” and thought “Over the Continents” would work well in the pavilion space — and not just because its red yarn stands out so vividly.
“I like to think that this is the first experience Sackler visitors have before going down to the historical galleries,” Huh says of the pavilion that has been used for contemporary art since 2007. “So is it possible to pose a question or evoke a certain thought before encountering the other exhibitions. For this, it could be thinking about how an object, even the most familiar object, can take on a different kind of meaning.”
For the Sackler piece, Shiota visited the space last year and estimated the number of shoes and amount of yarn she’d need. That meant about 400 shoes from her collection of 10 times that, and about four miles’ worth of red yarn, since each shoe is affixed to two strings leading to a central loop in the back corner of the room, creating a radiant, centralized burst of color and connection.
Trained in painting and drawing, Shiota likens yarn to lines in 3-D. “I just wanted to draw in the air,” she said, using black yarn especially to create dense webs in works such as “Stairway” and “Trace of Memory.”
For “Over the Continents,” which had its first iteration as a piece called “Dialogue from DNA” a decade ago, she used the more emotional red yarn in the burst of straight lines from a central point. “Red,” she says, “is more blood.”
And with every shoe pointed outward, as if restrained by the lengths of taut yarn, it shares an emotion about her own ties to Japan after moving to Germany.
She found that returning to Japan after three years, something was off. It was like putting on a favorite old pair of shoes and although the size hadn’t changed, something was different.
“Something changes,” Shiota says. “Everything changes. I started to think, ‘What is this gap? What am I missing?’ Then I start collecting shoes.”
The shoes are pointed outward as if to seem like they’ll “go over the continent,” but are held back by the red yarn, representing emotional ties. “I wanted to connect all the memory of shoes with red line,” she says.
Shiota says she uses yarn because it’s “a very light material, different from wire or string. It’s a kind of soft material, easy to tangle or make tension, or I can cut. It’s like a human relationship, when a relationship is cut, or tangled, or loosening.”
The public was invited to witness the three-day installation, as volunteers joined the diminutive, soft-spoken artist as she arranged the roughly 370 shoes on the stone floor in a fanned semi-circle, the longer boots seemingly in the back, the smaller ahead.
But, she notes, heavy shoes have to be in front, for practical reasons. “Heavy shoes can pull more string.”
About 120 of the shoes come with attached notes, placed in the forefront for those who can glimpse their words — and read Japanese.
“There are a lot of sad stories,” she says. “But others are nice stories.”
For those not fluent in that language, 37 notes are translated on an adjoining searchable kiosk, giving an insight on the thoughtful, deliberate process that began with the donors.
The actual arrangement of the shoes that began with volunteers Aug. 18 moved so quickly that Shiota told them to stay home the second day, so she could slow the process down and be more deliberate in her moves.
Then, in a groove with a small team of three — one staffing a ladder threading the individual shoes through the central loop — Shiota and her assistant tied and strung each shoe back to him, unraveling each crimson skein with a wag as they walked it back to the corner.
Instead of a maze, though, five different aisles allowed them paths to walk front to back.
“I have a system,” she says. Or, as she said elsewhere, “Me, myself, my emotions and the material are ritual, which becomes art.”
Having created three incarnations of the piece worldwide seems to have made the process look easier than it may be, with scarcely any tangles along the way.
On the third and final day of installation, the shoes are spread to erase the aisles and provide a wide fan of symmetry.
As work progressed, passersby stopped to watch or capture with their camera phones the rare sight of an artist making her flourishes in public.
Others wondered what the big vestibule of used shoes descended from string might be all about.
Children, however, didn’t hesitate, scrambling up to the strung-up shoes, delighted to see something familiar amid a museum of austerely lit, ancient foreign objects.
“Children are very curious to what I’m doing,” Shiota says. “A few years ago when I was making [it], I was exhausted working with string and shoes, and children asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ I say, ‘I’m making art. If you become an artist, you can also play with shoes.’ And then the children say, ‘I want to be artist!’ ’’
Shoes, of course, are one of the most striking exhibits a block away from the Sackler at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where 10 times as many of them, representing “a tiny fraction” of those found at a single Nazi concentration camp in occupied Poland, are piled up, fraught with awful meaning.
Shiota, whose piece has been staged in Germany and Poland, got a question at the press opening about the possible use of shoes from Hiroshima. But she answers, “I have no connection to political. It’s just a shoes. Not from history. “
During the Shiota exhibit at the Sackler, the artist will be soliciting other unused items fraught with meaning: old keys. So far she has collected 10,000 for her planned piece in the 2015 Venice Biennale. She’s seeking 40,000 more.She hasn’t asked for notes in this case, but has received some anyway.
Either way,The items are similarly infused with their former owners’ spirits and, by definition, reflect a hopeful nature. “You have a key in hand, you can open the door,” she says.
Following a tough year that included a miscarriage and the death of her father, she says, “I wanted to connect to something important — that was the key.”
Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota continues through June 7, 2015, at the pavilion of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave, SW. Call 202-633-1000 or visit asia.si.edu.
Catlin is a freelance writer.