‘The Soul Trembles’ by Chiharu Shiota Navigates Through the Fragility of Life

by Hilda Nathalia Raina
25th November 2022
Showing for the first time in Southeast Asia, ‘The Soul Trembles’ at Museum MACAN brilliantly depicts Chiharu Shiota’s artistic versatility. Drawing from personal and collective experiences, the artist leads visitors through her navigation of mortality and existence, which is often as complex as her signature web-like installations.

“When we die, where does our soul depart?” This was a question that Chiharu Shiota asked herself over and over as she prepared to bring this exhibition to life. Shown for the first time in Southeast Asia, the Japanese contemporary artist’s solo exhibition, ‘The Soul Trembles’, probes into themes of mortality and existence and showcases the breadth of the artist’s multi-dimensional artistic practice that spans over 25 years. 

Curated by Mami Kataoka, director of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo where the show was first exhibited in 2019, ‘The Soul Trembles’ offers an opportunity for viewers to witness Shiota’s creative transformation, from her initial painting education in Japan and training under performance art maven Marina Abromovic in Germany, to solidifying her visual vocabulary of experiential installations that merges these disciplines.

Just a day after Shiota was offered to do the show, she received news that her cancer had returned. Up until then, much of the Osaka-born, Berlin-based artist’s work has sought to create pieces that express the intangible as she carefully treads themes of displacement, memories and uncertainty experienced both within and outside the body. Though already catalysts to her work, her confrontation with death led to more pronounced reflections on life throughout the exhibition. 

For Shiota, she sees how fear is necessary for her to create. “I need it. It’s different from happiness, fear continues to challenge me to understand it further.” 

There is a heightened sense of awareness in Shiota’s work, a presence that demands to be felt as much as seen. For instance, in ‘Uncertain Journey’ (2016/2022), black metal frames of boats appear to carry a labyrinth of veinlike deep red webs which represents “blood and connection” to the artist, provoking a meditation of life and its direction that may seem as entangled and layered as the webs. The same symbolism can be seen in ‘Where are We Going’ (2017/2022), where boats of white yarn suspend off the roof as if sailing in an unknown direction, echoing the same question. 

The exhibition follows Shiota’s transformative years and displays her earlier works, which include a watercolour painting of a yellow flower with a butterfly she made when she was five. The video piece, ‘Bathroom’ (1999), shows Shiota sitting in a bathtub pouring water and mud over her body; the concept was brought to life through a fourteen-metre-high installation of five mud-covered dresses drenched with a continuous stream of water but never clean, titled ‘Memory of Skin’, which was presented in photographic and video form. 

A section of the exhibition also spotlights her work as a stage designer, working on productions like Matsukaze and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale—once more displaying her versatility and a side of her that many have yet to meet. “It was very important for me to present Shiota’s work in a holistic manner. Chiharu’s work is known for the way it’s deeply personal yet resonates with collective experiences. We wanted this exhibition to push her boundaries even further,” Kataoka revealed. 

The exhibition ends with ‘Accumulation—Searching for the Destination’ (2014/2022), where a hanging staircase of old suitcases hovers mid-air. Elevated at different heights, their shadows rock gently as if silently waving to viewers walking underneath. “There is no right answer in contemporary art. We can try to find them, but the beauty is that there is no definite one, it’s a never-ending journey of creating and searching,” shared Shiota.

Beyond scale, Shiota’s pieces command the whole room with the unique ability to capture such abstract yet universal experiences so eloquently in search of truth. Fully embracing the fragility of what it means to be human, The Soul Trembles is an exhibition where one can feel deeply connected and lose themselves all at once. 


‘Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles’ will run from November 26, 2022 to April 30, 2023 at Museum MACAN. For more details and booking information, click here.