Chiharu Shiota, at work on “Over the Continents.” (Teddy Wolff/For Express)

While installing her latest work in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s pavilion last week, Chiharu Shiota noticed something seldom seen in art museums.

“Children were sitting and watching me,” the artist says. “It was very cute!”

The children even asked Shiota questions about her piece.

What was she working with that so held their attention? Dinosaurs? Puppies? Something related to Disney’s “Frozen?”

Nope.

It was old shoes.

Shiota’s “Over the Continents,” the latest exhibit in Freer and Sackler’s “Perspectives” series, contains about 370 different shoes, red yarn gingerly wrapped around each one and stretching back to join at a single point on the back wall.

A handwritten note attached to each shoe describes its origin or a memory ascribed to it by its former owner. Shiota collected the shoes and notes (all of which are from Japan) through callouts on the Internet, in the newspaper and on the radio, imploring people to donate shoes they “don’t wear anymore but don’t want to throw out.”

Why shoes? Shiota got the idea while visiting family and friends back in Japan after moving to Berlin in the 1990s. She likened her increasing estrangement from her homeland to trying on old shoes that no longer suited her. “They fit, but they don’t fit me anymore,” she says.

The majority of the shoes were donated directly to the National Museum of Art in Osaka, Japan, where “Over the Continents” premiered in 2008.

“I never met these people, but when I read their stories, I can see the person behind the memories,” Shiota says. “The people are present through their absence.”

Many of Shiota’s works address the relationship between the past and the present, life and death, and the memories people adhere to objects. In the past, she has used old clothes, window frames, suitcases and a burnt-out piano.

The installations are woven together with her characteristic webs of yarn — she calls it “drawing in air” — symbolizing the interconnectedness of humanity.

For her next big project — to be displayed at the Japanese Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale — Shiota is collecting keys, “ideally with notes,” she says.

The keys may not turn out to be a huge hit with kids, but the shoes certainly are.

“Children often connect to something as their favorite object, be it a shirt, a hat or a blanket,” says Carol Huh, Freer and Sackler’s assistant curator of contemporary Asian art.

“They grasp the emotional attachment to an object more quickly than adults.”

Perhaps this is why the kids found Shiota’s installation so enthralling, sitting patiently and watching as strangers’ favorite old shoes became a work of art.


Shoes with stories

The notes on the shoes in “Over the Continents,” on display Saturday through June 7, 2015, have been translated from Japanese into English. Thirty of them can be seen at asia.si.edu. Here are four of our favorites, from left to right.

Piano-playing shoes
“I remember my daughter wearing these shoes at her piano recital. When she became a middle school student she could not wear them. I have memories with these shoes. So long to you.”

Thought-that-counts shoes
“These belonged to my mother. When she was going out with my father, he bought these for her (30 years ago). Because she didn’t like the color and design, she wore them no more than once. Because she received them as a present, she did not want to throw them away.”

Jump-for-joy shoes
“The shoes [were] worn by my dad, who died three years ago. When he was alive, he could not do exercises because of the back pain. I am sure that he is now jumping around in shoes like this in Heaven.”

Monkey-chasing shoes
“This is the shoe I was wearing when a macaque at a mountain in Minoh Park in Osaka stole my purse — I chased it and got back my purse.”

A key project

Still have those illegally duplicated house keys your old landlord never knew about? The Sackler is accepting contributions of old keys and descriptive notes for Chiharu Shiota’s 2015 Venice Biennale project, so bring them along when you check out “Over the Continents.” (Just don’t accidentally donate your current house keys.)

 

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