We often ask inspectors to recognize defects in a home. They find signs of the broken or mistreated, identify probable causes of foundational catastrophes and focus a predicting gaze on zones of potential future turmoil. Without regard they peel back layers to reveal what may hide underneath. They poke, prod and strike to uncover evidence of what we cannot see. They deliver a calculated assessment of a place’s soundness and integrity. Then they leave you to balance any previous hazy projections with these newly foretold, dim shrouds of unpredictably timed misfortunes in order to decide whether or not you should choose this as the place of your keeping.
Chiharu Shiota’s installation at the Mattress Factory’s 516 Sampsonia Way is an inspection that on the surface might reveal a deeper history of a particular place and expound upon the process of remembering, yet ultimately the heavily imposed story of the inspector compounds the query. Responding to the site’s previous occupant-generated evidence of presence, Shiota enacts her narrative on the row house’s three narrow floors. What might otherwise be a non-sequential transformation from boarding house to tri-level apartment building to raw space of dismembering abandon becomes an experience dominated by the artist’s chronological respiration of warp and weft.
The artist imposes a familiar vocabulary of desks, gowns and suitcases into her webbed and entangled signature traps of dark woolen thread. Pulsating and stretching along the exposed and uninsulated walls, Shiota’s story clings to nearly every architectural opportunity. Her marks permeate the space like air-born spores new inhabitants might bring to an already vulnerable place. Condensing in areas rife with moisture and heat, they smother as they feed on the dead, organic matter that remains attached to intact surfaces.
The Berlin based artist, a regular visitor to the stage of symbolic performances, studied with Marina Abramovich and assisted Rebecca Horn. She honed a powerful sensitivity to how our bodies move through space and the potential of spatial ensnarement. Her installations make something feel untouchable and, simultaneously, all too close. Responding to space and surface, she poetically uses simple materials to create moody narratives about how we remember and hold our past present in sometimes very odd, very human ways. But, as captivating and harrowing as her relived memories are, the connections between her history and that of this 19th century row house in North Pittsburgh feel opportunistic.
The eight room structure was once attached to surrounding homes. While its foundation, inscribed with a line from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and outer shell of brick and stone has worn down due to the elements, its interior shows signs of swelling from wall paper, paint, and haphazard structural adjustments to adapt to the needs of its inhabitants. When the Mattress Factory acquired the property, it had been stripped bare. When Shiota conducted a site visit, only exposed walls – some with thick surfaces penetrated by vandalism’s day-glo green and others shedding their sheets of protective plaster – undressed floors and handle-less doors muted with layers of peeling paint, remained.
A closed armoire quietly inhabits the opening room. Weathered beyond use, the imposing piece, stretching nearly floor to ceiling, affronts the viewer like a stranger with crossed arms. A wooden step stool sits to the side. Across the room begin Shiota’s Traces of Memory. Threads of black woolen yarn, stapled to the walls and ceiling, cast a net, defining an edge of the universe that contracts and expands into the architectural spaces. Her non-structural marks inhabit the realm of wallpaper, fingerprints surrounding thermostats, and the discolored patterns of framed photographs once removed. From the ceiling they darkly and fully swallow the adjacent hallway and ultimately the rest of the house.
Heavy layering and crossing of string substantially darkens the remainder of the first floor. Shiota’s black vectors engulf a chair and desk removed from the wall. The inaccessible spaces she creates closely hug the walls in certain areas and project out in others. These thickets conform to the body. In one room the thread forms an hourglass passage where your feet and head would most likely to touch as your dropped arms, unaware of the tangles and with ample room, naturally rest aside your body. It is not uncomfortable. Although impenetrable, the layers of black do not restrict natural movement through the space. It juxtaposes exposure and inaccessibility both spatially and symbolically.
The faint smell of must permeates throughout and the second floor adds a vague limey smell of dust and exposed plaster. In the center room, behind heavy webbing, sit piles of suitcases (another common vocabulary for Shiota) whose colors, browns, blues, whites and greys, complement the space. Stacked and clumsily hugging the corner, a few are strewn about, open as if someone has rustled through them, searching. Two rooms flank this space. The first, lit by opaque exterior windows, engulfs a sewing machine and chair; a cocoon-like space where her threads, layered with less density, allow varying shapes of open spaces. In the opposing room, an entangled white wedding dress levitates high above ground, billowing out as if full of a weightless body. It starkly contrasts the dark restricting layers of yarn around it. The gauzy fabric, however, is a more tightly woven version of Shiota’s morass whose bright moldings are not of the home but of the body. Jarring due to its fantastical placement, its starchiness and overt symbolism deliver the work from any potential site specificity to a stage for the reinstallation of the artist’s previous work and arrangements.
Heat greets you on the third floor. Scattered within the confusion of yarn, lay piles of books. Some are suspended mid-flight – perhaps settling or possibly releasing the weight they were bound to carry. In another room, a white bed, hastily stripped, faces the window. Doors are tied ajar but not enough to allow any passage. Retreating into the final room of the house, intensely heated and flushed from the dry forced air, you face twelve empty chairs as if you were speaking to ghosts.
Shiota overpowers a very marked space with well used elements from her previous installations, making it difficult to understand how much she engaged with this space other than loudly trying to quiet too many of its voices from talking at once. Leaving the exhibit you again pass the imposing armoire and the short bare stool. Above the stool, tangled over exposed bricks high up on the wall, small shriveled roots of a vine have crept in from the outside. Dead, yet still clinging to the surface, these threads of white grew into the space where they could and stopped where they could not take hold – a subtle yet poignant reminder that Shiota’s work is strongest when her arrangements draw attention to the natural parallels between her memories and those held by the site itself.
Chiharu Shiota: Traces of Memory remains on extended view at the Mattress Factory, 516 Sampsonia Way.