When Chiharu Shiota was nine years old, she was awoken by the sound of her neighbour’s house on fire. In the wreckage the following day, she saw their burnt out piano, a sight which both frightened and fascinated her. The silence it instilled remains with her to this day.
“The piano had lost its function but it was even more beautiful than before”, she told Helen Pheby, curator of Shiota’s magical new installation at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP). “A piano that cannot make a sound still carries the memory of the sound. I believe silence is often stronger and more beautiful than any sound can be. The absence of something makes it stronger. Things are most beautiful when they are gone.”
It was with this sensibility that Chiharu Shiota accepted Helen Pheby’s invitation to create an installation in the YSP’s 18th century chapel, a quiet and meditative place suitable for works of this kind. Shiota has become an internationally acclaimed artist whose work has been shown in many of the world’s leading galleries and has garnered many international awards. Pheby had been impressed by her elaborate entanglement of red thread and keys for The Key in the Hand, (2015) that had garnered plaudits for the Japanese stand at that year’s Venice Biennale.
The chapel was deconsecrated in the early 1980s, a few years after the YSP acquired the 500-acre Bretton Hall estate. It was light enough to be used as a studio for the local art college before the YSP refurbished it and began using it as one of its exhibition sites. It was relaunched with a show by Ai Wei Wei in 2014 and one of his sculptures, Iron Tree, remains in the courtyard just outside the chapel door.
On visiting the chapel, Shiota immediately felt the spirituality of the place and in her mind she could sense the experiences of the people of the village of West Bretton who had worshipped there for centuries and sung hymns joyfully at weddings and christenings, or sadly at funerals.
The organ that would play at the services has long gone and it is the memory of its sound, of a close community at prayer and the feeling of loss that informs her installation, Beyond Time.
The steel replica of a ghost-like piano, versions of which have become a signature of many of her recent works, represents the music that is no longer heard. It anchors a vast entanglement of white wool that engulfs you as you enter the chapel. It rises up from the chancery like an ethereal spider’s web rising to the heavens and referencing memory and loss. Even the piano seems to be floating in the air.
She used 2,000 balls of wool to make it and it took a team of a dozen people, six of whom she brought over from Berlin where she lives, 12 days to complete the work under her direction. Unlike the white space of a typical gallery, the chapel is loaded with echoes of the past and this adds poignancy to the piece.
The team installed a net just below the ceiling and the threading worked downwards from there. She had no specific worked-out strategy, rather she left it to intuition. In amongst the wool she placed some 1500 sheets of paper, a device she has used before in Letters of Thanks (2013) and Lost Words (2017).
The sheets comprise records of past services, musical scores and bell-ringing schedules, another lost sound. “I wanted to use the sheets of notes for a deeper connection with the chapel’s history and the movement of time”, she adds. She also used lead weights from the original organ to help keep the installation stable so that the idea of anchoring the idea of a collective memory is achieved both physically and conceptually.
This is only the second time Shiota has chosen to work with white wool rather than her usual red or black. She says it’s the purity of white that appealed in this setting and it complements the whiteness of the chapel’s space. “Some people connect the colour white with mourning as white is the colour of death in Japan. However, the colour is also pure as it can be a new beginning and an end. It is a blank space, another aspect of human life. It is timeless.”
Chiharu Shiota’s Beyond Time will remain at the chapel until 2 September 2018.