Chie Matsui

The Container of Allegory

… over the last few years, I have created structures poised between “landscapes” and “scenes” in my “installations”, which I see as containers of allegorical meaning, to intervene between the artistic expression and the theme.
(Chie Matsui, We Never Went Out on a Date, Roba-Film Editions, 2005, p.11)

Since the 80s, Matsui’s artistic career has been shaped by several art forms, including installations, video and painting. She describes her pieces as “devices with which to produce narratives, as well as methods of creating space that generates an overall physical experience for the viewers”.

Since studying dyeing in the Department of Crafts, Faculty of Fine Arts, at the Kyoto City University of Arts, Matsui has been using materials such as wood, plaster and fabric. These materials each possess their own distinctive texture and feel. By taking advantage of the quality of these materials, she has displayed works where elements such as sculpture, objects, drawings and photos have been unrestrainedly composed. Matsui has been recognized as an artist specializing in installation art. Barbara London, former curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, invited Matsui to the museum’s exhibition entitled Project 57. In her statement below, London referred to the fact that installation art has been developed as a means of expression in avant-garde art in Japan and South Korea:

Woman artists find installation especially attractive. It’s contemporary; no fossilized tradition sets its boundaries. No hierarchy, male or otherwise, dictates the rules of installation. Artists are free to use whatever materials they wish, including domestic items typically associated with a woman’s place in society. […] Here (at university) she focused on textile design. The training, which emphasized structure over content, set the style of her early work.
(Barbara London, “chie matsui”, Project 57, MoMA, 1997)

In the early stages of her artistic career, various elements were used for Matsui’s installation pieces, evoking a narrative style. However, in the late 80s, the world view of her installation works started morphing into spatial structures that held an abstract quality, employing specific parts, such as glass, lead, plaster and blue-dyed string. At that time, when Matsui was invited to the Aperto Section of the 44th Venice Biennale, held in 1990, she showcased an installation piece, The water goes back over its way. The piece was a version of another one with the same title that had been exhibited at the Shinanobashi Gallery in Osaka in 1988. The walls and floor of the display space were covered with lead tiles. In the middle of the space was a large white cube bearing a small hexagonal window resembling a kaleidoscope. Running along the perimeter of the walls were plaster gutters that were thin and long, and contained glass pieces in their hollows. A hexagonal column, consisting of a pile of hexagon-shaped glass which was glued together, sat in front of the white cube. The side view of the hexagonal column exposed the cut surfaces of the glass pieces. On the floor were blue strings which had fallen off the steel equipment on the ceiling.

Minimalization continued to develop in her installation art. In 1993, a piece by Matsui was presented at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibition, Out of Place. This piece was an installation which consisted only of intersecting white-walled hallways. As one walked on the paths, their width got narrower; the perspective was intentionally manipulated. The hallways were paved with lime-coated bricks. There was also a flight of stairs further down the path. As one strolled down the hallway, the ceiling became lower. At one of the two dead ends, many small round mirrors were glued on the wall. Light gleamed from behind the wall. At the other dead end, the wall bore a hollow in which a small mirror was half buried. In front, there was a gutter that contained water.

Rather than merely looking at the piece, this exhibition offered to navigate viewers through an extremely simplified, largely white and lead display space. During the experience mentioned above, the viewer’s body became the part which completed the work. This is where viewers are made aware of the relationship between their own moving bodies and the spatial structures; walls, floors, and steps.

Exploring the simplicity as much as possible in the aforementioned work, Matsui then made a radical shift into a style of installation art that featured well-known allegories, as well as using strong color schemes and objects. After the 1993 exhibition Labour, held at Gallery KURANAKI, Matsui shifted her focus to a new direction. Using red or grey colored walls, she created narrative-rich installation art featuring objects, drawings and characters with motifs derived from children’s stories such as “The Three Little Pigs”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, and “The Snow Queen”. Referencing these stories, the materials Matsui used included bricks, a round saw, fake fur and a three-sided mirror. These items appeared to be related to the cruelty encompassed in the world of allegory, and ethics which appeal to the human subconscious. This Labour series was displayed at the exhibition, Art in Japan Today, held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, in 1995, as well as at SITE Santa Fe and in the exhibition, Project 57, hosted by The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her approach continued to metamorphose in sequence through these exhibitions.


Exploring Video Installation Art

Since she began creating video art pieces in 2000, Matsui’s creations, utilizing space, have opened up new realms. Matsui’s first video installation piece, She Lies, was showcased at her solo exhibition at the Kobe Art Village Center in 2000. The video was filmed within her installation work, She Dissolves, which was previously displayed at her solo exhibition, held at the Shinanobashi Gallery some time earlier in 2000. In this piece, Matsui, in a swimsuit, emerges from a square hole in the floor, and vanishes into another square hole set diagonally across from the first. Matsui utilized the underground space of the gallery basement, where water was stored. She went down through the basement, climbed out of the hole, walked across the room, and then went back into the other hole. She repeated this process again and again.

In 2003, her video art piece HIMALAYA was showcased at MEM. The 36-minute video showed Matsui repeatedly crawling up four floors of a spiral staircase to the very place where the viewers were watching the video, then crawling back down. The filming location was the former home of the gallery – the historic Arai Building, founded in the 1920s, in the Kitahama area of Osaka. The camera used for the piece was mounted at an angle in an open ceiling space at the top of the spiral staircase. The video was projected onto the old door that had been removed and kept in the building’s storage space.

These pieces were filmed and exhibited in the same place. As a result, viewers saw the video in the place it was filmed. Simultaneously, viewers envisioned the memory of Matsui’s existence, and perceived traces of her presence. She Dissolves and HIMALAYA were both presented in specific spaces, featuring simple actions. At first glance, this style of video installation could almost be seen as documenting art performances. While the video appeared only to capture the artist’s actions over an extended period of time, it was edited with sound. Also, the venue where the film was projected was carefully crafted, allowing each component – performance, video and installation – to harmonize with each other.



Matsui’s previous video installations transformed into a series of pieces entitled HEIDI.

I read Johanna Spyri’s “Heidi”, and I envisioned a 44-year old Heidi and the landscape in the story. Then I put them into the container of allegories, and attempted to get ingredients which coalesced in the form of a video.
(Chie Matsui, We Never Went Out on a Date, Roba-Film Editions, 2005, p.15)

In Heidi, the main character, Heidi, is orphaned, and is brought by her aunt to the Alps, where her stubborn grandfather lives. Translated into Japanese in the 1920s, the story became widely known and was made into an animated movie.

In 2004, the first piece HEIDI 44 from her HEIDI series was publicly announced. The piece was filmed at Osaka Port’s Chikko Red Brick Warehouse which was constructed in 1923. In the opening scene of the piece, viewers hear a conversation between an elderly woman and a girl. The two people speak a fictitious language, and subtitles convey what they are talking about. The girl goes up a mountain, carrying things “that she couldn’t throw away and that she wanted to give to someone.” She is going to find a place to die while also looking for a place to live, thinking these are the same things. In the video, Matsui, who is dressed too warmly for the season, comes out of the ticket gate of a station. On her way to the brick warehouse, she takes off her clothes layer by layer, ending up wearing nothing but a white slip. She then nonchalantly climbs over a wall, and enters the warehouse. Afterwards, the camera fixes on a high steel beam running along the ceiling and then focuses on a long take of Matsui wandering around on the steel beams.

According to Matsui, the beams, running across the space at a height of around 6 meters, were symbolic of the Alps. In the original story, the reason Heidi became orphaned was tragic. Her father, a carpenter, fell from a beam while working, and the incident took his life. Heidi’s mother lamented so much that she became debilitated and eventually passed away. Matsui walking on the beam refers to this episode from the story. In Matsui’s HEIDI 44, viewers occasionally overhear an off-screen conversation between a girl and an elderly woman. Another scene is of an overdressed Matsui abandoning her clothes and belongings one after another into the street, quickly becoming lightly dressed. The undertones of an abstracted version of the story of Heidi seem to waft into the installation piece.

From HEIDI 44 (2004) to HEIDI 54 (2014), pieces for the HEIDI series were created annually. (NB: The two digits following the HEIDI moniker, refer to the artist’s age at the time of the work’s creation.) Each video features Matsui and, in most cases, took the display space into consideration during filming. Sound was also composed and inserted. These parts were amalgamated to create the video installations. Often, Matsui’s video components are filmed at the display space, or nearby. She considers the acoustic design aspect of each individual display space and pays meticulous attention to acoustic effects as well as projected video.


Picture, and Its Friends

Matsui has worked on drawings at the same time as her installations since she started her career in art. Painting is one of the most important tools she uses to express herself. In 2007, Matsui held an exhibition entitled Allegorical Vessel – HEIDI 47 / Pictures at MEM. It was the first ever exhibition to feature her oil and watercolor paintings, along with sketches. In the 2014 Yokohama Triennale, Matsui showcased oil paintings, drawings and a series called Ms. Piece (Ichimai-san). The Ms. Piece series is a collection of drawings she had posted daily on Facebook since around 2012. It was not her intention to create these drawings as proper works of art. She explained: “Without using pencil sketches or artistic rendering, I just draw as if I am chatting with my painting tools and papers.” It has been years since she started drawing in sketchbooks using ordinary painting materials. These drawings give us the impression that, every day, Matsui leaves proof of her life. This work has grown to be an important part of her career.

Matsui’s focus has shifted to pieces that center around painting. An exhibition, entitled Picture (and its friends), was held in 2017. Matsui has worked continuously on drawings since she started creating installation art. As with her approach to installation works, she finds it important to utilize diverse materials and tools in her other art. In the case of drawing, these range from oils and watercolors, makeup and manicure tools and carbon paper. They are essential to her painting. According to Matsui, this type of drawing is “friends of painting”. She sees painting as a device into which allegories and stories are woven. She looks to the sensibility of the moment that stories are about to be generated.

Regardless of the type of art form, whether it be installations, video works or paintings, Matsui chooses a variety of materials, then fuses these components to create a piece of art. The display space that encompasses physicality is interconnected with the outside spaces to become one space. Matsui transfers back and forth between these two areas, as if the fragments of the stories are stored in the container of allegory, breathing in obscurity.

“If viewers listen, then they will hear their stories being told,” says Matsui.




Oct. 10 – 30, 2003


Nov. 4 – 22, 2003


May 12 – 27, 2006


An Allegorical Vessels – HEIDI 47
May 14 – 17, 2007

HEIDI 49, vision-mist, An Allegorical Vessel

HEIDI 49, vision-mist, An Allegorical Vessel
Oct. 17 – Nov. 14, 2009


HEIDI 50 – on the day
Feb. 5 – Mar. 6, 2011


Ms. Piece
Sep. 12 – Oct. 13, 2014


Picture, and Its Friends
May. 13 – Jun. 11, 2017

Shōrenmaru, Nishie
Apr. 13 – 28, 2019

This Year’s “Pictures” and Their Friends
Oct. 9 – 31, 2021

Pictures and Their Friends – Between Curtains
Jan. 7 – 29, 2023


Further readings