Meekyoung Shin

Mongin Art Center

An artwork carries so many layers of meaning that sometimes you have to sniff them out; a painting is no longer simply a decoration for the wall, nor a vase merely an ornament on a mantelpiece. In her recent works titled Translation—Vase, 2007, Meekyoung Shin replicates different classical vases from Qing-period China and Joseon-dynasty Korea, using an unexpected material. Showcased on two floors of Mongin Art Center, a newcomer to the popular Samchung gallery district, Shin’s eighteen vases, eleven glass vessels, and nineteen Buddha statuettes stood looking deceptively authentic and solemn. Slight departures from symmetry or uneven surfaces may give away the material, or perhaps the fresh yet artificial scent emanating from the objects does.

Since 1997, Shin has been refabricating antique statues and vases in household soap. This is a time-consuming and intricate task, just as executing them in ceramic was for the original masters. Shin starts by making a silicone mold of the outer shape of the original vase and filling it with melted soap. When this has solidified, she chisels out the inner volume of the soap cast, creating a hollow structure. She paints on the surface using natural pigments and paint, reproducing the flower patterns or landscapes found on the original porcelain. For the outlines, she uses an inlay method with colored liquid soap, delivering a sharp edge and leveled surface. As a finish, she glazes the outer surface with thinned, sometimes colored liquid soap, giving it a shiny coat. The result is an attractive object full of innate contradictions, classic yet kitsch, faithful yet false, solid yet transient.

To make the works called Translation—Glass Bottle, 2007, she carves out the inner mass until the outer wall is so thin it approaches semitransparency, giving the material the look of frosted glass rather than porcelain. Assembled here on a low podium, the bottles looked like ancient relics; their luminosity and the delicacy of their wavering lines bestowed on them an icy tension and a subdued somberness.

Shin’s consistent use of the title Translation reflects her interest in a work’s transitive state as it moves through different contexts: material, culture, time, and place. One of the first sculptures she made using soap, in 1998, was a replica of a classical statue on the staircase of Slade School of Fine Art in London, where she majored in sculpture. As a Korean student studying in London, Shin identified with the ancient Greek statues similarly dislocated in British museums. One of her early works had already underlined this point: Translation—Crouching Aphrodite, 2002, a soap cast of the artist herself in the pose of the Greek masterpiece. Shin was trained to copy Greco-Roman sculptures during her art education in Korea. It was then that she noticed the similarity in texture of polished marble and soap and thought about the poignant contrast in the connotations the two materials carry—marble suggesting durability, soap betokening erosion and, eventually, extinction.

In her interactive piece Translation—Toilet Project, 2006–2007, Shin distributed small soap Buddha casts in public toilets in Seoul and London, where people could use them to wash their hands before the remains were collected to be exhibited. At the Mongin Art Center, some vases were displayed alongside their wooden packing crates; shipped from studio to venue to collector, the objects are placed in new contexts—a change that is yet another form of translation.

Shinyoung Chung