If utopia is something utterly unimaginable, the road to utopia is more conceivable. That conceivability lies in reimagining the enervated detritus of our present world as the latent possibility of a future one. For decades, Jean Shin (https://jeanshin.com/) has made imbuing cast-off objects with new value the center of her artistic practice. Her work does what artists and entrepreneurs do best: force the market to reappraise material inputs when they are transformed anew. But unlike entrepreneurs keen to encourage the creation of value through the ever-increasing exploitation of natural resources, Shin’s raw materials tend to have already gone through the wringer, at the end of a life-cycle cut too short.
Shin, whose work will be on view at Untitled Art with Praise Shadows Art Gallery, describes her work as constituted by collage and assemblage, which she says is all about “deconstructing, cutting, and pulling apart everyday materials, only to then reconstruct them into a larger, more complex narratives.” Her work makes use of so many different kinds of objects that viewers might get the sense that these projects are just inroads for her to learn new things about the various life-worlds of things in modern society. Just some of the many objects she has worked with include Nokia flip phones, plastic Mountain Dew bottles denuded of their labels, broken parts from ceramic vases from Korean kilns, old 78 rpm records, denim, keyboard keys, and used lottery tickets. If there has been an upsurge in the interest in curation—that fine skill of laying claim to the best objects and the best collection of objects—the objects Shin works with feel brazenly un-curated, like an avalanche of items randomly grab-bagged from a garbage dump. For Shin, that’s the point. She sees an internal logic to what is tossed aside, and it is the randomness inherent in how they meet when they lose all value that interests her.
“I’m attracted to objects that we disregard. What happens to them afterwards? By elevating and transforming them, I reimagine their potential for a second life.”
Currently, her installation Freshwater, 2022, at Cherry Street Pier in Philadelphia is a suspended, lantern-like fountain that encases freshwater mussels in spherical glass vessels. In their little aquariums, these creatures filter water from the Delaware River as it trickles down into a pool of pearl buttons made from their shells. That work, intricate in its architectural form, is satisfying in the way that it integrates two kinds of value the mussel represents: it cleanses the river and restores its ecosystem. Mussels were also transformed into a commodity in fashion prized for their aesthetic qualities in the 19th century.
Last spring, Shin went upstate and showcased Fallen, 2021, a stunningly good-looking hemlock trunk outfitted with a patchwork of yellow, navy, and brown leather hides that had been discarded by designer labels like Marc Jacobs and Chloé. Of course for Shin, the custom-fitted jacket served as much more than just a cool look for the trunk, which came from a 140-year-old tree that had died at Olana State Historic Site earlier in 2021. On one hand, it memorialized the dignified life of its wearer, which had come to pass. On the other hand, it was an opportunity to bring to light the often invisible relationship between hemlock trees and the production of leather, which in the 19th century relied heavily on hemlock bark to cure hides. As a result, whole forests of hemlocks were flattened.
For an abstract, sculptural artist, Shin’s work is unusually instructive. Her pieces are like amped-up school projects which take viewers with her on the journey she took to find out something unexpected about an object. And the object lesson that emerges seems to be that tracing the history of any object will be illuminating and surprising—a fact that perhaps simply points to how invisibilized the labor behind the products we consume is and how alienated we are from our own goods. During our conversation, Shin explores several related facts about Mountain Dew that are instrumental in placing the beverage’s importance in context. It’s “incredibly toxic both for our bodies and the planet. Soda bottles and other single-use plastics are major ocean pollutants,” she says. She traces how the drink depends upon a surplus of corn production that is “subsidized and undervalued.” “No one eats this much corn—we produce so much of it. It’s completely altered our landscape. Agriculture in the midwest has become industrialized monoculture,” she notes. This agricultural industrial change is what has led to the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup, so detrimental long-term to our health when made into the building block of our diets. “Then it’s bottled to us and advertised like it’s fresh, real ‘mountain dew’—with an extremely seductive color and name that seems natural,” she notes, returning back to where we started.
It’s teasing out these hidden, too-often-unconsidered connections that her work is so expert at doing. “We can never isolate one thing, and choose one object,” she says. “They’re so interconnected with our landscapes, waterways, and bodies.”
In creating artworks that foreground the oversaturation of consumerism and the fickleness of desire, Shin deals with topics that can be difficult to broach stylishly and un-didactically in the 2020s. In much the same way that the cloying earnestness of Earth Day and visual depictions of landfills and recycling campaigns have fallen out of style as a language and method for solving climate change, introspection about materialism and consumerism—at least in those terms—seems to be at an all-time low. On one hand, this may be a product of the success of prior activism that has rendered fast fashion and generalized aesthetic of material-consumption-as-a-way-of-life supremely unfashionable. On the other hand, the global fast fashion market continues to boom. Shin persists in her practice in spite of the very capriciousness of discourse surrounding our relationships with objects. Rather than cosplaying as a schoolmarm castigating the rest of us for our avarice, Shin produces her work in community. She often sources the objects that she repurposes from communities of people—including highly intimate belongings such as trophies and veterans’ military clothing—and works in collaboration with volunteers to produce her art.
“As an artist, I am a catalyst, inviting people who are part of this community to be recognized and centered in ways that often aren’t,” Shin says. “Artists are often treated as the stars.For me, I instead give this platform to individuals who have been here doing the work, and yet are unacknowledged. They become my ambassadors and the real stars.”
Shin sees herself as someone who is pulling the brakes on ever-accelerating consumption. “I’m slowing down that process to question: do we want to be just consumers? Or do we want to instead be producers of meaningful experiences, generative conversations, and critical exchanges?”
Jasmine Liu is an arts writer from the San Francisco Bay Area, currently based in New York City. Her reporting and criticism have appeared in Hyperallergic, The Nation, Asymptote, and Full Stop.