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Culture

With soap, a look at how time ages artifacts : Artist Meekyoung Shin’s works capture how sculptures evolve

July 24,2018
London-based Korean artist Meekyoung Shin’s latest installation work “Ruinscape,” above and right above, and her “Translation” series, right, are part of her solo show at Arko Art Center in central Seoul. They look like temple ruins made of marble and alabaster and old Chinese ceramics but they are actually soap sculptures made by the artist. [MOON SO-YOUNG]
Some pieces from “Toilet Project,” left and above left, and her “Weathering Projects” are also part of the solo exhibition of artist Meekyoung Shin, below. They condense and visualize the flow of time that artifacts of the humankind go through, the artist says.
The solo exhibition of London-based Korean artist Meekyoung Shin, 51, now running at Arko Art Center in central Seoul, might remind viewers of a small museum full of ancient artifacts or an archaeologist’s workshop.

On the first floor is Shin’s new large-scale installation work “Ruinscape” which appears to be an excavation site of ancient temple ruins made of marble and alabaster, along with relics including broken sculptures and mummified bodies. On the second floor are a group of vessels that look like rusty metal antiques pulled from a sunken ship and a group of sculptures that seem to be ancient Greco-Roman marbles and old East Asian ivories, weathered by time for hundreds or even thousands of years.

But actually, all of these relics are soap sculptures created by Shin, as given away by the delicate soap fragrance floating in the air of the gallery.

Shin created these works not to surprise viewers or to have them marvel at her elaborate skills - although many viewers certainly will. She said she started re-creating Western classic sculptures with soap as some kind of “translation” in the early 2000s, because she was very confused when she went to study in London after majoring in sculpture in Seoul.

“When I came to London, I recognized I had learned a lot about Western classic sculptures but, at the same time, the meaning and context of the sculptures were different from what I’d learned,” she said during a press review earlier this month. “And I also saw East Asian arts and crafts such as Chinese ceramics displayed in different meanings and contexts in European museums. It was a matter of translation.”

So she began to “translate” old masters’ arts and crafts from the East and the West into her soap works. It was also a resistance against the trend in the art world at that time, which favored “non-retinal” concept-heavy works and looked down on artworks that required too much handiwork. A part of the “Translation” series are on view at this semi-retrospective.

Today, Shin, with her soap sculptures, focuses on condensing and visualizing the flow of time that artifacts go through. “I’m interested in the two phases of time that the artifacts in museums have gone through - the time when they were used as daily objects and the time since they were put in museums as relics,” she said. Accordingly, the title of the exhibition is “The Abyss of Time.”

The “two phases of time” are condensed most clearly in Shin’s “Toilet Project” series, a part of which are also on view in the exhibition. They look like sculptures weathered by time for at least hundreds of years. But actually they were “weathered” over just a few months.

The sculptures were sent by the artist to the restrooms of various museums to be used as soap - as “a daily object.” Then, being transformed by the museum visitors, they returned to the artist and were put on pedestals or shelves as “artifacts.” (New soap sculptures are also installed in Arko Art Center’s restrooms.)

“I was able to begin ‘Toilet Project’ after I learned how to cast works into many editions using liquefied and boiled soap,” Shin said. “Before, I made soap sculptures with powdered soap one by one. I went through technology innovations, just like our ancestors did when they went from the Bronze Age to Iron Age.”

The exhibits also includes her works such as the “Ruinscape” installation and “A Petrified Time” series, which are a group of deformed soap sculptures covered in silver or bronze leaf.

Shin works as a kind of visual archaeologist, re-creating the time accumulated in the artifacts with her sculptures.

The exhibition runs through Sept. 9. Admission is free. The museum is closed on Mondays. Get off at Hyehwa Station, line No. 4, exit 2. For details, visit art.arko.or.kr or call (02) 760-4850.


BY MOON SO-YOUNG [symoon@joongang.co.kr]






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