Something is afoot. In recent weeks, 1800 balls of red wool have been delivered to the Art Gallery of South Australia. Visitors to the gallery’s 19th Melrose Wing might have seen Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota there, rolling out some 180 kilometres of blood-red thread and weaving it across the room in a vast cat’s cradle of wool.

Shiota is preparing Absence Embodied (身体化したかたちの不在), the latest of her string installations and part of a two-month focus on her work. Other works include Internal (体内), which sees three six-metre-tall red dresses hanging from the neoclassical columns at the gallery’s façade, and Embodied (身体化したかたち), a retrospective of Shiota’s thirty-year practice, including drawings, photographs and video of early performance pieces.

Leigh Robb, the gallery’s curator of contemporary art, knows it’s a coup to host the internationally lauded Shiota. “Her work is incredibly beguiling,” says Robb. “It’s a phenomenological encounter. Something you experience with all your senses. She visited in 2012 and really responded to the gallery, our collection and the city. She’s had a meteoric rise in the last few years, and it’s a privilege to be able to host such a major international artist. It’s going to be a real circuit breaker to walk through the Melrose Wing and see this charge of red.”

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Chiharu Shiota, Japan, born 1972, Untitled, lithograph, Berlin, 2016, 100.0 x 67.5 cm; Courtesy of the Artist

Shiota’s signature wool installations have appeared in Melbourne, Tokyo, Venice and Madrid in recent years. Often embedded in the thread are objects: in Melbourne in 2016, two chairs sat out of reach at one end of the room. In Venice, 2015, keys hung suspended over boats from the red web. While each artwork is linked by form, every installation is unique and ephemeral by nature – following the installation it again becomes a pile of wool.

Shiota has long had a connection to Australia. It was during a study program in Canberra that she had a transformational moment, deciding to abandon traditional painting and find her own visual language.

“She said the weight of painting was such that every time she painted, she felt like it had already been done,” says Robb. “Then she found string, and started drawing in space.”

“Drawing in space” is an apt description. Shiota’s installations present as scribbles of wool across the air, ornate three-dimensional tangles of lines that remain mysterious as clearly as they are technical marvels.

Chiharu Shiota, Japan, born 1972, State of Being (white dress), 2015, Berlin, metal frame, drees, thread, 270.0 x 160.0 x 100.0 cm; Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

One piece to be displayed in the exhibition, State of Being (2015), sees a white dress entombed in a web of black thread. It suggests a moment frozen in a delicate, tangled frame. Robb relates it back to a Japanese legend, “the red thread of fate”, which has it that two soulmates are bound together by a red string tied around their ankles or sometimes little fingers. Shiota’s work prompts speculation of a vast tangle of fates.

Chiharu Shiota’s Absence Embodied installation is opening at the Art Galley of South Australia on August 24. Internal will be on the building’s facade until October 21, and the retrospective exhibition Embodied will run until October 28. See more info and details.

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