Critics’ Picks

Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin, Untitled (Lactic Acid Sauna) (detail), 2018, PVC, vinyl, steel, humidifier, container, cooling fan, 8 x 8 x 8'.

New York

Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin

Knockdown Center
52-19 Flushing Ave
November 10–December 16, 2018

Walking through Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin’s exhibition “Universal Skin Salvation” was like seeing the Korean beauty industry as a creepy eugenics lab. Known for helping our immune system, among other things, lactic acid is an organic chemical found in our gastrointestinal tract, yogurt, and many kinds of cheeses. In Korean cosmetics—or “K-beauty” products—lactic acid is used as a lightening agent that seeps into the skin to remove dead skin cells while brightening new ones. Shin’s presentation—so light, clean, milky, and glossy—reflects the formal qualities of makeup containing this chemical. It mirrors the K-beauty “look,” which strives for a particular texture of skin: fair, bright, soft, and utterly poreless.

This misty heaven masks a heavy history. The vapor from Lactic Acid Sauna (all works 2018), installed in the middle of the exhibition space, is almost suffocating—the thick, moist air makes it hard to stay for long and absorb the beauty treatment. Shin compares the “glassy skin” K-beauty fetishizes to the women who tried assimilating to Western culture after the Korean War, molding themselves to fit European and American standards of attractiveness.

In the haunting video 5 Step Skin Care and the print series “Self-Portraiture,” we can see how lactic acid “invades” the skin. One also thinks of how Korean women’s assimilation to Western culture might be a perverse form of postwar “rehabilitation.” In the video, Shin touches upon the yanggongju (“western princesses”), women who were forced into sex slavery by US soldiers during the Korean War. 5 Step Skin Care hones in on porcelain-colored hands gently holding K-beauty wares as an angelic piano score plays in the background. The hypnotic sounds and imagery work together like lactic acid, seeping into the mind to remove darkness and stress for a moment, only to create a fresh desire to reenter this artificial paradise. If only such a regimen were more permanent.