Mar 31 2020

Life in Scraps: Studio Visit with Jean Shin

by Mimi Wong

JEAN SHIN sitting on a bundle of Ethernet cables, part of E-bundles (2017), in her studio in Hudson Valley, New York. All photos taken by Mimi Wong for ArtAsiaPacific.

Snowflakes glittered in the dim afternoon light, dusting the front windshield of the car Jean Shin had driven to pick me up in from the train station in New York’s Hudson River Valley region. In the passenger seat, Shin’s dog Trevor, a Chihuahua-Pomeranian from Puerto Rico, sat shivering on my lap, expressing his wariness with each turn on the winding country road. Upon reaching our destination, Shin pulled up to an imposing, mid-century three-story barn atop a sloped hill. Having lived and worked in nearby Brooklyn for the past 30 years, the Korean-born artist initially purchased the building in 2010 as additional storage for her artwork, eventually turning it into a second studio away from her Brooklyn one. She has also since renovated the small 1890s farmhouse that came with the property, inside which she served us hot tea and sliced pears. After we had sufficiently warmed ourselves, she advised putting on our coats again, warning that the barn-turned-studio had no indoor heating.

The exterior of the mid-century barn JEAN SHIN converted into studio and storage space in Hudson Valley, New York.

Known for her large-scale sculptural installations, the collecting and repurposing of discarded objects have been steadfast elements of Shin’s practice. In the last two decades, she has scavenged an assortment of cast-offs from celadon fragments, to prescription pill bottles, to broken umbrellas, giving them a second life. As we trudged the short distance to the hulking wooden structure, we were met with bunches of green plastic soda bottles on the other side of the door, remnants from her immersive installation MAiZE (2017). Commissioned for the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, and exhibited that same year, the bottles had been stacked upright like cornstalks—symbolic of agricultural production in the American heartland, while also calling to attention the detrimental environmental effects of plastic waste, and the health impact of processed foods derived from corn, such as corn syrup typically used in soft drinks.

“Cornstalks” made of green plastic soda bottles from JEAN SHIN’s 2017 installation MAiZE, stored on the ground floor of her barn-studio.

Climbing up two flights of stairs, we reached a bright and airy room, boasting white walls, large windows, and a lofted ceiling. Three irregular-shaped sculptures in varying degrees of completion stood in the center; their black mirrored surfaces gleaming from glassy screens of mobile phones covering wire netted wooden bases. The tallest one easily loomed over Shin’s diminutive stature. She referred to the mid-size piece as an “adolescent,” and the smallest a “child.” The title Huddled Masses (2019–20) suggests that they are, if not quite alive, then at least something personified or organic. Inspired by the asymmetric scholar’s rocks, Shin is drawn to the stones’ duality—at once naturally occurring yet possessing a fantastical quality when placed in man-made studios or gardens.

View of JEAN SHIN’s partially completed sculptures Huddled Masses (2019–20), later exhibited at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, 2020.

Created for her solo exhibition “Pause,” which opened on February 6 at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, Shin wanted to design a space for contemplation and conversation—a dystopian Zen garden fitting of the museum’s close proximity to Silicon Valley, which, while being a bastion of technological innovation, is also largely responsible for the growing surplus of global electronic waste with its commercially driven appetite for novel models. The 3,000 devices incorporated into Huddled Masses, donated by Bay Area electronics recycler Green Citizen,  include all variations of smartphones, BlackBerry models, PalmPilots, flip phones, slider phones, and antiquated car phones. There were more piled on a nearby work table, where Shin removed the batteries, and drilled holes into the phones before attaching them to her wire frames. Off to the side, E-bundles (2017) of Ethernet cables wrapped around towers of old computer modems, hard drives, and laptops offered seating from which to gaze upon the wasteland of deserted technology.

Spread across a work table in JEAN SHIN’s studio, the recycled cell phones are waiting to be incorporated into her Huddled Masses (2019–20) sculptures.

Shin’s attraction to nontraditional materials stems from reasons of practicability: as a young artist, she lacked the funds to purchase expensive art materials. “Art stores are places of privilege, right?” she asked rhetorically. For her, the hierarchy of art materials is far from being neutral, and instead is imposed by a Western art canon and “all the biases that come with it.” For this reason, Shin embraces everyday items in her critical examination of our relationship with them, such as when she rearranged commercial leather cuttings into ghostly outlines of animal hides as a dark reminder of the sources of coveted luxury goods in her Spring Collection (2016) series. Stapled to foam boards, the hides leaned against the walls in one corner of her studio. Likewise, she helped preserve portions of the slides archive at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Comprising 35 mm slides used to record images of artworks and exhibitions pre-digitalization, these once important artifacts have now become obsolete. Shin converted some of them into a large hanging installation for MetaCloud (2017), exploring institutional memory, and at the same time pondering what has been lost in the transition from analogue to digital. In her Hudson Valley studio, three of these sculptures, like chandeliers, hung from the barn’s wooden beams.

Commercial leather remnants from JEAN SHIN’s Spring Collection (2016) series lean against the walls in one corner of her studio.

Even as a child, Shin was resourceful. She recalls having to start her life anew with very little when she moved to the United States at a young age. When her parents couldn’t afford to buy her dolls, she crafted her own. “I felt like my parents carved out a whole life in scraps, through intense labor and transformation,” she said.  This inherited story from her family’s lived experience as Asian American immigrants continues to inform her art, whether in the meticulous effort required of her projects or in the sense of collectivism in gathering other people’s ephemera and sharing their stories. In her modification of sports trophies donated by communities in Washington, DC, in Everyday Monuments (2009), she re-rendered the figures atop the mementos to perform various acts of manual labor, honoring overlooked and undervalued menial jobs performed by janitors, postal employees, and food service workers.

From JEAN SHIN’s installation MetaCloud (2017), the strung 35 mm slides from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, hang from the ceiling of her studio.

JEAN SHIN shows off electronic wires she wove together as possible components for a new work.

As our studio tour drew to a conclusion, we returned to Huddled Masses—the “rocks” that are not rocks. “I’m always trying to push for that coexistence of both things that don’t render themselves [as appearing] in opposition, but actually completely live in paradox,” she mused. Before I left, she showed me one last box full of wires. Thinking they might have resonance with her exhibition “Pause,” she had woven them together into colorful textile-like swatches, although ultimately, she decided not to use them. But still, I could see the possibilities turning in her mind, where she might go next with a related or altogether different concept. Already, I found myself looking forward to her next big idea.

Mimi Wong is a New York desk editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

Jean Shin’s “Pause” is on view at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, until May 24, 2020.

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