“Over the Continents” by Chiharu Shiota (2014)
“Over the Continents” by Chiharu Shiota (2014)

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Fewer and fewer men merit monuments these days. No one builds memorials to Simón Bolívar any more, much less Lenin or Washington or Napoleon. There are a couple of exceptions, the memorials to MLK and Eisenhower being recent and in-progress examples here in D.C. More broadly, the shift from statues lionizing men to installations celebrating peoples is one of the advances that distinguishes the present from the past.

“Over the Continents,” an installation by Chiharu Shiota at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, could be one of these new memorials. The installation begins with a collection of shoes, which are a common vernacular for modern monuments, whether they’re dangling from telephone wires or part of the wall in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Yet with her work, Shiota discovers the threshold between the singular and plural—and the living and the dead.

The shoes are lined up in no particular way, though they all face out into the room, away from the wall. Shiota has assembled single shoes, not pairs; every shoe is tied up in red thread. The other end of each of all these threads converges at a single point along the wall, several feet above the floor. It’s as if these shoes all emanate from some central origin—a wave burst of sneakers, flats, pumps, and kicks.

That might be enough to convey a noble message. Even if our feet are tired, we are not trudging through life but soaring into the beyond, emphasis on the “we”—something along those lines. But the artist, who was born in 1972 in Osaka and lives and works in Berlin, doesn’t stand for a simple or somber message. Tied to every shoe is a message from its owner, declarations of thanks for loyal service.

“This is the shoe I was wearing when a macaque at a mountain in Minoh Park in Osaka stole my purse,” reads the tag on one black leather sneaker. (Good news: the bearer got it back.) Reading these testimonials, the individual lives of the shoes’ former owners snap into focus. The notes speak of weddings, hospital stays, new jobs, vacations, commuting, everyday things that make life feel monotonous, and at the same time, exceptional. One woman notes over and over how cute she finds a black pump that a former boyfriend bought her. (“My boyfriend and I separated, and I no longer remember him. But I remember those shoes.”) Other letters strive for zen. (“These feet have grown large. The shoes have become small.”)

A note about the notes: They all appear to be written in Japanese. Viewers can’t access them directly—it would be impossible to navigate through the thread without disturbing the installation. So the Sackler has installed a handy computer kiosk that lets viewers navigate the piece and read select notes. It runs on Google Maps, of all programs: Users can zoom in on the installation and click on the pins dropped throughout to read the texts in translation.

Shiota’s installation is part of “Perspectives,” the temporary project series that has brought Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama, Do-Ho Suh, and other Asian artists to the lobby of the Sackler for more than 10 years. It’s one of the finest spaces in which to see contemporary art in Washington, if an unexpected one. An otherwise awkward museum space in one of Washington’s more modest museums affords an intimate scale to some of the world’s leading artists.

Shiota will represent Japan next year in the 56th Venice Biennale, and she’s preparing for that milestone opportunity with this show. A vitrine set up by the artist inside the Sackler asks viewers to donate unwanted keys, which she plans to use for the Venice piece. Keys are another personal yet anonymizing facet of life: symbols that we all carry and therefore define us, or at least contribute to our material definition.

I prefer the shoes. Scattered throughout “Over the Continents” are a few zōri shoes, traditional Japanese wooden thongs. But there are many more Chuck Taylors—a detail that offers up another lens for understanding “Over the Continents” and the singular and plural impulses that drive the work. Every shoe is deeply connected to its owner; none of the goodbye tags registers an impersonal impression. Yet many of these shoes were manufactured in a handful of places in similar parts of the world, as if they were all started from a single origin point.

The artist’s work isn’t explicitly critical of globalization. It isn’t immune from that criticism, either. Visually, the work speaks in the same language as much post-minimalist sculpture. Shiota could use any material for her vectors, but the bright thread she chose indicates threat or alarm. In much of her work, Shiota uses thread to spiderweb chairs or pianos and suspend briefcases. Her art usually has a crystal coolness, like the sculptures of Anish Kapoor, and a fugitive value like the installations of Tara Donovan. The shoes resist this effect, however. Beat-up Adidas are just too goofy for post-minimal chill.

In “Over the Continents,” the sameness of the shoes only highlights their secret histories; somehow, the sameness of life does the same. The unexceptional is worth celebrating, and doing so sometimes results in the paradox of an exceptional artwork. Shiota navigates the mundane and the ecstatic, as well as the one and the many, finding a balance between them that is as taut as the string in her show.

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