Memory is an odd function within the human psyche. It’s part of what sets us away from the rest of the animal kingdom, as we intrinsically link memory with emotion. We can recall periods of time which make us happy, sad, elated, deflated… we can recount the memories to others and we can also place a meaningful thought in to inanimate objects. That ring someone you love brought you, the necklace your great aunt left you in her will, each time you look at the object or touch it you can recount a moment in time that touched you in relation to that object.
Chiharu Shiota uses this theory to bring to life her epic installation of The key in the hand. This was displayed in the Japan Pavilion of La Biennale di Venice. The installation itself took up a floor and outdoor areas. Red yarn woven across the ceiling with keys which were collected from people all over the world are hung like talisman. Two boats have been placed in the room, the keys cascading in to them.
Along with the stringed keys and boats, photographs of children holding a key in the palm of their hands were placed in the outdoor area. A video of children talking about memories also placed as audiences viewed the installation.
It’s quite easy for someone to look at this and feel confused. Especially if you are the literal type. What have the boats got to do with the price of cheese I hear you ask. Well the boats symbolise a few things for Shiota. Firstly they symbolise hands, catching the keys which dangle above them. They are also a vessel in which a person can travel through the sea of memories. Boats have a dream like quality and have very strong links to moving between the other worlds, if we think of the river Styx or the river of dead (Sal-no-kawara).
The keys are Shiota’s representation of memories, as she has taken an everyday object that every single person has in some form. Keys protect our valuables such as houses, items we keep in safes, locked diaries (If you’re the type to keep a secret diary). They are cared with you every day and through the touch and travel with its owner a key gathers all the memories that the person obtains. Keys also open doors, doors to opportunities and new experiences.
When you combine all the elements which Shiota brings together and walking under the sea of red yarn, with children talking of their own memories it is difficult to not recount some of your own. The majestic dream like representation giving the audience a unique and very personal experience.
We should not forget the roots of this artist in this, the boats typical of the Japanese culture, reminding the viewer of the history of a country which has gone through hard and devastating times.
Shiota is an expert in large scale installations and more of her work can be viewed here
But for now, enjoy some more shots of the key in the hand, and maybe let me know how this makes you feel in the comments.