By recreating traditional sculptures with soap, Meekyoung Shin removes the cultural background of traditional sculptures and recontextualizes them into contemporary art.
Artist Meekyoung Shin translates traditional sculptures, such as ancient Greek and Roman statues, ceramics, and Buddhist sculptures from Asia, into contemporary artworks using soap as a material. The artist shows the incompleteness of representation and translation by removing the cultural background of traditional sculptures with soap and recontextualizing them into contemporary artworks.
Meekyoung Shin’s solo exhibition TIME/MATERIAL: Performing Museology is currently on display at the Coreana Museum of Art and Coreana Cosmetics Museum until June 10, 2023. The exhibition is held in celebration of the museum’s 20th anniversary.
Based on its founding motto of “reviewing the old and learning the new,” the Coreana Cosmetics Museum has been offering a wide range of exhibitions that explore the history and legacy of traditional Korean cosmetic culture, and the Coreana Museum of Art has hosted various special exhibitions on topics such as the body, women, and beauty in the contemporary art scene.
TIME/MATERIAL: Performing Museology encompasses the collections of two museums spanning four floors. With 120 artworks, including 70 new pieces, the exhibition traverses between the East and the West, traditional and contemporary.
After moving to England to study sculpture, Shin began using soap as her primary material, as the resin was prohibited due to its toxicity. While searching for an alternative, the artist found a pink bar of soap in the bathroom that looked similar to marble and has since become an important component of her artistic practices.
Marble was frequently employed in traditional Western sculptures. However, during Shin’s time studying abroad, conceptual art dominated the art world, and traditional art was largely disregarded as obsolete. Shin questioned this situation and began recreating traditional artworks, speculating that such traditional sculptures may have once been the most contemporary pieces at the time.
The artist’s works prompt the observer to reconsider the relationship between the original and the replica. Shin’s soap work began when she decided to copy Rodin’s sculpture The Kiss (1882), which was displayed in Lewes Town Hall but had to be hidden from public view, as some residents objected to the erotic nature of the sculpture. The sculpture was soon after sold to Tate and briefly lent to Lewes as part of an exhibition in 1999. When the artist learned that Rodin’s sculpture traveled back and forth to Lewes, she began wondering if the original sculpture could be replaced with a soap replica of the same size and shape.
Various traditional arts and relics, such as Buddhist statues, Roman sculptures, and ceramics, once held religious and cultural significance. Today, many of these objects are now housed in museums due to their historical and artistic value. By translating these pieces into artworks made of soap that can easily melt away and deform over time, the artist attempts to provide a different perspective on the unchanging value of these museum objects.
Time and material, the two keywords used in the title of Shin’s solo exhibition, reveal not only the essential nature of Shin’s artistic practices but also the concept of the museum. Through her work, the artist intends to create a multi-layered structure within the exhibition in which time and space coexist instead of viewing the museum space as a mere background for the relics and artworks.
The first exhibition space is where you first encounter a soap fragrance, which accompanies the Large Painting Series (2023). The series is an expanded form of the Painting Series (2023) that reminds of Modernist paintings. The Large Painting Series is a collection of works created by melting large amounts of colored and scented soap in a huge iron frame. Contrary to the title, the works resemble sculptures that weigh over 200 kg, in which the viewers can perceive the color, texture, and scent of the artwork.
In the second space, located a floor below, Shin’s works are displayed alongside the Coreana Museum of Art’s collection of traditional Western paintings and sculptures. Romantic Sculpture Series (2023), inspired by the museum’s collection Painting Series (2014–2023), which the artist has been working on since 2014, and Translation – Greek Sculpture (1998) all look like antiquities and masterpieces but subvert the concept of representation.
The Coreana Cosmetics Museum, located on the 5th and 6th floors, features a group of transparent glass ceramic-like works, the Ghost Series (2007–2013), which is presented in a very museum-like setting. The Petrified Time Series (2018), consisting of silver- and bronze-plated soap works, is displayed in a glass showcase with bronze mirrors used in the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties.
On the 6th floor, the Buddhist soap statues in a deformed shape are plated with bronze to indicate the passage of time. Several works on this floor also show the Toilet Project (2004~), which used to be soap sculptures that were actually used in the bathrooms of a department store for five months. These works are now behind a glass showcase, transforming from practical objects to museum objects.
The exhibition also introduces the new versions of the Toilet Project, in which the artist traces the impacts of time through rain, wind, and human touch.
Meekyoung Shin (b. 1967) received her BFA and MFA in sculpture from the Seoul National University and pursued further studies in the field at the Slade School of Fine Art at University College London. Shin had numerous solo exhibitions both nationally and internationally, including exhibitions at the Arko Museum (Seoul), Space K (Gwacheon), National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (Gwacheon), Seoul National University Museum of Art (Seoul), Sungkok Art Museum (Seoul), Hakgojae Gallery (Shanghai), British Museum (London) and Bristol Museum (Bristol). In addition, she participated in special exhibitions of leading art institutions, such as the Helsinki Athenaeum Art Museum, Stockholm National Art Museum, Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art will present one of Meekyoung Shin’s large-scale soap projects later this year.