A Conversation with Jean Shin

Jean Shin is nationally recognized for her monumental installations that transform castoff materials into elegant expressions of identity and community.  Working in a variety of mediums, she collects vast accumulations of singular objects—prescription pill bottles, sports trophies, sweaters—which she alters into conceptually rich sculptures, videos and site-specific installations.  Distinguished by her meticulous, process of amassing her materials from various communities, her arresting installations reflect the individuals’ personal lives as well as collective issues that we face as a society. Bio courtesy the artist. 

This is a conversation we had in our Brooklyn neighborhood, edited for clarity. 

Jean Shin in front of her work at Storm King. Photo by Angela Pham/BFA.com / Courtesy of Storm King Art Center

Jean Shin in front of her work at Storm King. Photo by Angela Pham/BFA.com / Courtesy of Storm King Art Center

Brett: How would describe the boundaries of your work? 

Jean: It’s kind of sprawling. I’m not sure that there are boundaries that I set. My practice is very much an exploratory process. Often driven by an invitation with a venue, with a curator who wants to be in dialogue with me. We start with a conversation just like the one you and I or anyone else might strike up. An important part of the process is the curator hosting my site visit, visiting the place in person, meeting locals who share with me their histories and stories. Then I try to understand the interactions, connections, and relationships between this place and me, with the individuals in the community. Who is considered part of that community and who is not represented in this group? I also do a lot of research and think more broadly. I don’t set a particular boundary but aim to locate a sense of belonging to that particular place. That could mean a connection to a set of ideas, history, objects, architecture, the city, landscape or the environment. The work is layered, allowing myself to eventually land someplace that picks up and threads all those conversations. Then production and labor are added into the process. I explore what is seen and what is invisible here, and who is identified, acknowledged,  and participating in the work. Often times I am also interested in what exists but people don’t talk about. That too is part of the unspoken identity of the place but one that doesn’t get much opportunity to be cultivated. 

In that way, I try to find that moment for me to introduce a project where it matters to the people I’m engaging with and in the larger community. I’m also trying to acknowledge the wisdom of people whose ideas I build on,  want to preserve and amplify their stories.

In some way, I hold a little healthy tension in my work. Not necessarily a conflict. I try to move away from real conflict zones because there are already two known sides to these issues that remain unmovable. They’re known entities. Each side already knows what the other is going to say. Instead, I try to bring in a conversational voice where we’re open to ideas and questions, not answers. That’s a really hard place to navigate. I feel like I have strategies in my work but I don’t really know what the boundaries really are. 

I remain open to seeing if my projects might align with some of the ideas that I’m invested in or otherwise asking why that is. Until then, I’m treading water until we figure out paths forward but determined to do so. 

Installation view of the exhibition, Jean Shin: Collections. Image courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2018. Photo by Joseph Hu.

Installation view of the exhibition, Jean Shin: Collections. Image courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2018. Photo by Joseph Hu.

Brett: I’d love for you to share how you use materials and processes you use because both appear to be informed by the sources, communities and the people engaged in the work. One of the things that seems almost ubiquitous about the materials is their practicality, mundane or every day nature. Is the concept of the every day, is that conceptually important to break away from this fetish sized art object or does it have other kind of embedded meanings for you?

Jean: As a category, the everyday object, is so mundane or ordinary that people don’t think about it, right. We’re often thinking about other things everything except the very thing we’re engaged with every day. Like these pencils or this placemat. Even though they were extremely useful, functional, and in all our lives so much to the point where we don’t consciously pay any attention to them. We take them for granted that they are accessible everywhere and available for everyone’s use; whereas art has become so rarified, often inaccessible, and for the super-wealthy upper-class. 

Art with a capital A has become elitist.  I’m trying to make art that engages an audience, the everyday person, the public. Not the collectors only. Not the artists only. Not the historians only. Not the curators only. Just the human need for art in our lives. 

 When I select a familiar object to work with it allows an entry point for anyone. They may not know the artist’s thoughts on it but if they have a sweater, they have their own opinions on a sweater. If they ever played a lotto ticket, they have an opinion on this. These objects come with so many rich associations and stories. Viewer comes with a million stories which are often contradictory but they know these subjects, personally and collectively. Someone who is a total addict to playing the scratch and win tickets knows gambling is a rigged economy; but regardless, they still believe they can be lucky and beat the odds.  I love engaging an audience like this.

Objects and their stories are collected from the communities I work with, if not sourced by the culture at large that throw these things away. Because the objects are often at the end of their life cycle, there is also an ecological conversation about our resources and what we value? When I think about an object that someone doesn’t want, its potential has been lost and I want to reclaim that. We need to re-evaluate how often we make that judgment call of throwing away things that are actually still useful especially when we don’t have enough precious resources and we can’t regenerate them. 

Brett: Is there a hidden, not even a hidden but just a subtle position of sustainability and a political angle into that?

Jean: Yes.

Brett: I was thinking back to Soviet Productivism. I was looking at Malevich’s Teapot this morning which is the teapot of aesthetic design but it was really made for the everyday person just to use and it looked beautiful and it worked. But it was a form at the same time. It was a piece of art. So it begs the question of how one would look at the squares and say maybe my ripped sweater, I could still use that. Or maybe I should trade it or do something else with it. Especially in times of collectivity.

Jean: Yeah, I would frame that conversation around valuing resources.  I would come to it with my own experience as a young artist who didn’t have a lot of money or resources to spend on purchasing art supplies. Trying to be resourceful, I simply repurposed things others were discarding all around me in the city. People and businesses alike were constantly throwing away their goods; we live in a very excessive consumer culture. There are incredible amounts of waste produced and they have to pay to get rid of their trash. When I  salvage these abundant materials, it generates free materials for me to make art out of and also a social exchange.

It changed the way I work because now I’m not purchasing paint and canvas to make art, I use these objects that have histories. These objects come from specific places, are part of lived experiences and exist in the economy. How we live, what we desire,  what we value, all the ideas come with the materials people throw out 

Brett: Materials embedded with meaning. 

Jean: Yes, meaning came from trying to be resourceful. Those large ideas and questions of sustainability are in the work. But in the beginning, it wasn’t that I was going out to intentionally do that or to talk about the environmental impact. That was not on the agenda. It was just what I was compelled to do.

Brett: Sounds like it was pure need.

Jean: Right, by necessity. I think we all need to do it. I think we all should sense the urgency. Why spend thousands and thousands of dollars on buying new things that will be rapidly wasted?  Besides, it’s going to harm all of us now and into the future. When in fact, we can resist the consumer culture of convenience and instead invest in behaviors that are sustainable. There’s an urgency for sure. 

Brett: Yes.

Jean: Most people ignore that urgency and are very counterproductive in spending too much on stuff that they don’t need (and can’t afford).

Brett: Yeah, just the carbon footprint of an art fair is a thing.

Jean: The art market pressures us to feel like we need to do that. I question if we actually need to. It doesn’t seem very sustainable, environmentally or financially?

Brett: Yeah, just that alone was a big thing.  I’m doing a lot of reading about the industrialization in the late 19th century /early 20th century and there is this idea of production versus consumption. Production has won out.  Everything is well planned and well -- our whole society is producing -- it’s just like a production society in terms of how we measure time and how we self-manage towards producing. 

I was wondering if any of those types of ideas come into your work because it’s the way you measure time or the way you manage things because it seems like it’s not an object of exact value. Meaning these are other people’s things and then stitched together in a non-seamless way. But it seems to me that there’s not an equation of like go to the studio, put together these types of materials and the market value is X or Y. To me, that seems like one of the forms of how artists evade capital structures. And I’m just wondering about your thoughts on production or consumption in your work.

Jean: Right. Let’s talk about production and production value. There's a sort of obsessiveness that comes from wanting to transform something that has no value. The materials give nothing. It does nothing. So I have to invest in my labor and commitment in order for it to become something extraordinary. 

I think transformation comes through labor of love. It’s about believing in that labor and its transformative powers. The magic you might call it. And knowing from first-hand experience that things can change states. Things can eventually become seen in a different light as well. Care comes from this type of labor. 

It’s also about attending to something with mindfulness. As opposed to just pure labor for its own sake, like the production value of factory workers based on how many hours were clocked into productive gain. It’s the care in labor. We do things all the time, like we were talking about doing laundry or cleaning up after our kids, that is a labor of love. I could hire someone to do that work but instead, I choose to because it’s part of who I am and part of how I choose to take care of myself and my family. 

It’s that kind of care and maintenance that is really of value. Often times we don’t consider whose labor and what kind of work is paid and unpaid. Thinking about feminism and to value women’s work, we need to reconsider domestic labor and childcare that goes into a woman’s life which is unpaid.  However, she’s not asking for a paycheck for her housework at home? I’m certainly not demanding money from my family. No, I choose to do this work and understand the responsibilities I take on are acknowledged in my household. And if my husband or children paid me for it, it would feel weird! I’m doing it because I love my family. Not all labor is meant to be an exchange for a profit. It is an exchange for other things that we need. 

Brett: This reminds me of Mierle Laderman Ukeles work on Maintenance Work. 

She describes the origin of this work when she was pushing her baby down the street in a stroller and people would say what do you do? It was like this jarring moment trying to explain that actually what she was doing was actually work.  So she went home in a fury one way and wrote the manifesto for maintenance art. 

It seems to me that one of the things you’re trying to do is map. The sweaters or whatever products there are, you’re trying to create a different mapping of those things. Is that right?

Jean: Yes, mapping for sure and Mierle Laderman Ukeles is such a hero. Yeah,  she positions a lot of my thinking on labor.

Brett: Yeah, for sure.

Jean: Making invisible labor visible is inherent in a lot of my projects. Mapping and visibility are central to my work. It’s based on a kind of a network of relationships that expand,  are contingent and interdependent. They become more like maps of activities than something that can be quantified as typical labor or production. My projects activate relationships that become a call for materials, an invitation to participate or an engagement to reach within communities. It redefines the network of people doing things and connecting with others in the name of the project.

Most of the time, the projects build on our existing relationships, not out of difference but through mutual connections.  It’s like you and I both probably have a sweater and that is as basic as it gets. But then the unraveling of the sweater is a metaphor, the material and process that reconnects us and everyone else in our network. So it becomes the social map showing how many degrees of separation we are professionally and/or personally to the larger community that we share.

Brett: So one of the things that I want to ask you about was this idea of immaterial labor, now that we’re talking about the material itself. Mauricio Lazzaratto described it as the informational content around the object, which when art moves past the actual object to this broader sense of the relations, the social relations or other relations around it. I am wondering how you think about immaterial labor in the work. There was one piece, I think, where you interviewed navy personnel. 

Jean: Right. In order to literally procure the material, in this case, military uniforms, and identifying willing partners involved trust. The question is how do I build trust with a person who is in the military? I had no background. No way to bridge a commonality, really. Similarly, many veterans knew little about art, nor ever met with an artist. They questioned their participation and giving away their precious uniform for an art project. How would we continue this engagement knowing each uniform that was full of sacrifice? What was so amazing about the experience was when they agreed to it,  their willingness to part with their uniforms was because I earned their trust by listening. What I realized is that each object had a life of stories. Their stories. Their stories of loss. The exchange gave us the opportunity to share those stories and to be moved by the experience. 

When that object was transferred literally into my hands, it was no longer just another uniform. It was precisely this uniform worn by this veteran who lived through this traumatic experience, shared with me their story and at the end trusted me with their uniform. I want the work to have that sense of sacrifice and a sense of honor. I never would’ve conceived of doing a military piece with the specific intention to honor our servicemen. In fact, I had been very critical of military service when I began the project. I was questioning why are we in war. Why do people enlist and who is sacrificing whom? What happens to places where civilians get injured or die? What happens to the local communities? But when I heard the behind the scene stories of soldiers who then decide to give their life for that uniform, it is all of that and more. They feel just as conflicted but their lives are on the line. Right.

Brett: Yeah. Wow. That sentence.

Jean: There was so much loss in their experience. They were the living survivors and they’re holding themselves to that. For these reasons, I feel very accountable and responsible for those uniforms. I talk about the aura of the found object. In some ways, it’s true that there’s a story in them, we just have to observe and respect it.  Give ourselves time to just be a listener to them.

Brett: Could you talk about your new project Allée Gathering, 2019. 

Jean: Okay. I created a sculpture that’s also a communal table for Storm King. It’s made out of the historic maple trees that line the main allée which is really the heartline of the park. They were planted at the Museum’s envisioning. These cultivated trees were dying and its failure really questions are relationship to nature. In the context of Storm King, a place of art, nature, and people, I was asking what we have learned about these relationships since its founding days in the 60s? Storm King decided to remove and replace these trees with another species that would be more sustainable for their next generations to enjoy this landscape, restoring the vista that was such an important part of their historic vision of the park. 

Although the idea to sustain the original vision is beautiful, in reality however, it was painful to imagine these trees quick disappearance. The landscapers were coming to put all these trees into a chipper and remove them out of the park at that moment. I wanted to do a project that would try and preserve the memory of these trees.

Jean Shin, Process documentation for  Allée Gathering , 2019. Recycled maple wood and steel. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist

Jean Shin, Process documentation for Allée Gathering, 2019. Recycled maple wood and steel. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist

It allowed me to intervene in the landscaping process, slow it down but knowing that they still needed to get the new trees in the ground before spring. It still happened so quickly. So in the dead of winter, we talked about what could be possible with the failing trees in the months to come before the opening of the exhibition.

Brett: Yeah. A concise window.

Jean: A short window. After much discussion, we decided that it may be possible to vertically cut the trees and mill it on site although not advisable and very challenging. We couldn’t use the traditional methods of cutting a tree down, nor send them to be milled, properly dried and then repurposed into furniture. These were literally dying trees still standing that were transformed on-site. 

When the first cut happened, I was just so moved. I was so completely taken by what the inside of the tree looked like. The presence of the tree was so real.

Brett: These were the vertical cuts going straight up and down, right?

Jean: Yeah. To me, it was like a dissection. Before one deem it dead and removed instantly, let’s examine the inside, perform a dissection. Let’s see what the problems were and also see the life of this tree before it’s gone. We can’t save the tree. But by opening that tree up, it revealed so much beauty otherwise unseen.   These beloved trees were being mourned, and that we needed to talk about loss in its presence. How do we deal with the sadness we feel, when we don’t know where to place this loss. In the project, I wanted to create a new place for the mourning experience on the allee. Instead of a processional of movement across the landscape, my work would be a memorial to these trees prompting visitors to gather and stay still. An inviting table, a really really long table, 50 feet in length, allowing us, staff, and those in the community to sit together to talk and look closely at these trees. Hopefully seeing it really intimately and paying attention to all the little woodgrains, the annual rings evidence of its grown and the rough outer bark. The observations of decay as well. Looking at reality in the face, right? 

Brett: The bark is still preserved on the underbelly and it has the whole thing with the syrup as well, right?

Jean: Yes, I got permission to tap the sugar maple trees at Storm King to produce syrup, another idea I had for the project. I was thinking about the other ways that we might be able to take in this beautiful landscape. Nature is not only picturesque as a visual phenomenon, but how we experience landscape and these particular species of trees and elements of weather and climate, the season’s passing. I imagined maple syrup production would be the perfect way to show the amazing gift that nature gives, the natural sweetness it produces.  There’s a surplus of sap water that one can tap, it’s this reciprocal gift to share with others. What then do we do for nature now that we’ve tasted her sweetness? So once you taste this sweetness and experience its beauty within, you want to plant more maple trees and care for them. Once you’ve tasted the tree’s gift, you want to make sure that they live on for the next generation. Nature has been so generous but we haven’t always been so generous back. The project engages in these large ecological conversations, questioning our decisions on how we move forward. While we affirm our enjoyment of looking at the landscape’s beauty, how to also preserve and honor the life cycle that moves on so quickly before we have time to notice what has happened?. 

Brett: I like what you said about the realism because I was thinking about that. Maybe it’s because of what I was also reading a bit of last night about Gericault and Courbet and how realism came out of romanticism and, in realism, the thought was beauty is actually truth. Beauty is not romanticized. It’s actually the truth. And that degree of truth-telling, especially in the negation or the decay of a true, I thought really came through in the video, in the documentation.

Jean: Thank you for saying that. The romantic language around how the landscape was treated in the French tradition created the allée. It controlled and tamed nature for aesthetic purposes. It denies that realism comes with it--death. Life and death do not separate for our visual pleasure. It’s the truth.

Photo by Jean Shin at Storm King Art Center, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

Photo by Jean Shin at Storm King Art Center, 2019. Courtesy the artist.