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Q&A with Artist Jean Shin

Brooklyn-based artist Jean Shin talks about her latest exhibition, why she collects and transforms materials that others have thrown away, and how her family’s immigrant experience has shaped her work.

“I hope someone seeing the exhibition contemplates their relationships and their place in their community,” says artist Jean Shin.

Why do you create monumental art installations from discarded items like shoes, clothes, and umbrellas?

Because we live in a convenience culture, there is so much waste produced. Understanding this limited shared resource, I reuse what others have discarded and give these leftovers a second life, a value beyond its original function. My work questions trends to throw away objects made for disposability and quick obsolescence.

Why is it a cultural norm to continually upgrade to the next version of technology or fashion even if the current ones still work fine? Things get tossed out instead of getting repaired. The objects that remain in our lives have history and tell stories of our lived experience. This too gets discarded in our drive toward consumption. Instead, I want to reimagine a culture of care. How we treat objects is a reflection of our relationships with people and the environment.

In my large installations, I invite people to pause and reconsider their relationships to these familiar objects. I want viewers to question where these objects come from and how they have the potential to map our lives, our identities and communities.

A detail of Jean Shin’s Armed (2005–9), a large-scale installation of military uniforms that she collected from US soldiers (Artist’s collection)

For Armed, you collected uniforms and personal histories from US soldiers. What sorts of stories did you hear?

The veterans who I met told me personal stories of trauma, loss, and survival. I was so moved that they would give me their uniforms, the one keepsake of this experience that many of them preserved over decades of their lives.

What I understood in our exchange is the need to hold onto memory through this object even after they’re gone and a way to remember the people who never came back from war. By passing the uniforms onto me, I get to memorialize this living history before that too disappears.

Standing in front of this massive wall of uniforms, I want to humanize the effects of war and the people behind these uniforms, honoring their sacrifice and service.

Have any of the soldiers who donated their uniforms seen the final work?

When the installation was first shown in 2005, I invited them to see it. Now, over decades I lost touch with them individually. While I was unpacking and ironing each fabric for this installation, I felt they were here with me.

Although uniforms were designed to camouflage soldiers in the landscape, here in my installation, I want to make the veterans’ presence very visible in the world.

I’m curious to see how the veteran community who visits and works at the Museum will respond and connect to the work.

A visitor explores Jean Shin’s work Unraveling, a canopy made from sweaters donated by Asian American art communities.
A visitor explores Jean Shin’s work Unraveling, a canopy made from sweaters donated by Asian American art communities. “You look up and understand, ‘Oh, these are sweaters, and they’ve been unraveled. Why are they are unraveled?’ People bring their own associations, their own histories that are really personal,” says the artist.
For this exhibition, you created a canopy from sweaters that you collected from Asian American art communities. How did you conceive this work?

I was inspired by the description of the city Ersilia in Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, where the nomadic inhabitants marked their relationships by stretching string between their houses. I was commissioned by the Asia Society and Museum in New York City to create a new project for the exhibition One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now in 2006. In the process of curating the exhibition, three Asian American curators were doing lots of studio visits and connecting with many artists and colleagues within the Asian American arts community. I thought, “Would it be possible to map that network?” This was a chance for me to understand who the key players are and what degrees of separation we are from each other.

I asked them to circulate an email, inviting individuals in the Asian American arts communities to donate a sweater that I would unravel. People who got this email could invite others, spreading like a chain letter. The project raised questions of how identity define and connect us to others.

In the installation, viewers could literally see the unraveled lines of yarn connecting participants’ personal contacts. As the yarn travels in space, it makes visible our social relationships and captures this dense network at work. It’s through this work that I eventually met curator Hyunsoo Woo [now a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art].

From New York City, the installation traveled to other cities, each venue activating their local community and connecting to the growing network. We have now 182 sweaters, including the most recent Philly participants.

See a time-lapse video of Unraveling >>

Will the work continue to grow after this exhibition closes?

Yes, I hope to have other opportunities in different cities to include more participants and the next generation. Over the decade, it’s been fascinating how social media has changed how we know someone. In many ways, we’re hyperconnected, sharing every detail of our lives, and yet there’s still a distinction in building relationships with each other in a physical space together, spending quality time unmediated over a meal or conversation.

Visitors take a closer look at Jean Shin’s Worn Soles. The artist notes, “When you see beautiful high heels and notice that they’ve barely been worn next to flats with a hole through it . . . they signify a certain life, a lived experience.”

For Hide and Worn Soles, you sourced materials from strangers. How did their anonymity affect your approach?

For earlier bodies of work, I was interested in worn materials because its wear and tear was indicative of a person’s life, even though I didn’t know who that person was.

You look at the back of a high heel and think, “Oh, this shoe must be so uncomfortable.” Or you see a loafer and there’s literally a hole in the bottom of their sole—you can imagine that person’s life even if you don’t know them.

Hide (detail), 2004, by Jean Shin (Artist’s collection)
Hide (detail), 2004, by Jean Shin (Artist’s collection)
For me, it’s really looking at kind of a collective, looking at our society, what the relationship of this object is to impact our meaning in our life. I think shoes are just the common base object. Everyone has them. It’s just how they use them.

Your family immigrated to the US from South Korea in the 1970s. Your parents’ work ethic left a deep impression on you. Are aspects of your immigrant experience reflected in your art?

My family like many immigrants had to be tremendously resourceful. Relying on their family and community support, they had to find value in work that others don’t want. Their success was built on working all the time, seven days a week with no vacations. They start with nothing and through decades of working toward their dreams, their labor has great impact and meaning. There’s huge transformation over time. It does not happen instantly.

I think those are principles that I hold true in my practice too. The level of labor-intensiveness is often extreme, true to my family’s experience. Conceiving, making, and installing the work is not easy. I accept these challenges and believe they reflect the human condition.

Like the journey of immigrants, this process requires a kind of care, purpose, and attention. It’s not possible to achieve it through one big, quick action, but instead through a lot of little decisions and constant dedication.

Despite their immediate hardship and personal sacrifice, my parents’ lives were devoted to building their children’s future. Similarly, beyond the overwhelming amount of materials and labor, my work underscores the relationships that objects have to the past and future generations, the possibility of creating a sense of belonging to a family, a society, a country.

View of the exhibition Jean Shin: Collections, 2018

This exhibition is your first solo show at the Museum. It’s also the first solo show by a Korean American female artist at the Museum. How do you feel about that?

Well, I am tremendously honored to be first. I’m proud, but it’s also quite a burden, right? These opportunities are long overdue for others before me. And I hope I’m not the exception.

Being able to work so closely with such a stellar curator, Hyunsoo Woo, was a great accomplishment for me.

When you think about the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the historic significance of it being one of the largest and oldest museums in the country, and that they would put together an exhibition of my work—I’m really humbled.

Jean Shin on her work Pattern Folds: “These pieces made from leftover bolts of runway fabric appear frozen in movement as we walk down the atrium.”
Jean Shin on her work Pattern Folds: “These pieces made from leftover bolts of runway fabric appear frozen in movement as we walk down the atrium.”
What new projects are you working on?

I’m so immersed in the moment. However, I do have upcoming exhibitions that I’m working on as well and we’ll see what happens. After this experience, which has been so transformative for me, it’ll be a game changer, hopefully. I never want to repeat things, so I will reflect on all of this to see how I move forward.

About the Artist

Born in South Korea and raised in the United States, Jean Shin currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her works have been shown at more than 150 museums and cultural institutions, including in solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. In 2016 she completed a landmark commission, Elevated, for New York City’s Second Avenue subway.

Shin attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and received a BFA and MS from Pratt Institute, where she is an adjunct professor of fine art. Learn more about the artist on her website.

This interview was conducted by Sid Rodríguez, Interactive Content Writer, Philadelphia Museum of Art. It has been condensed and edited for clarity. All the artworks featured in this interview are from the artist’s collection.