Experience Meekyoung Shin’s perfectly rendered copies of ancient porcelain and busts in person and you'll detect a waft of fragrance emanating from them. Inspect more closely (not too closely, of course), and your inklings will be confirmed. These sculptures smell.
The scent can be sourced to Shin’s sculpting material. Despite appearances—the craftsmanship is immaculate, enduring—the Korean artist works not with stone, but with soap. “It has a similar density or texture to stone,” Shin tells Co.Design, describing why the medium isn’t an altogether crazy substitute for, say, marble or granite (materials found elsewhere in bathrooms?).
Her latest exhibition, “Archetype,” at the Sumarria Lunn Gallery in London, offers a smattering of objects that back up her claim. The forms—based on Chinese vases, Hellenic peoploids, and most recently Renaissance canvases—are sensitively sculpted, with a precision associated with age-old, rock-solid materials.
“Archetype” sees Shin strip the polychromy of her previous works for a more minimalist approach. For the most part, the vases, effigies, and picture frames on display are elegantly monochromatic, made from polished black soap. They appear to be cast from a solid block of marble or wrought from some ancient volcanic stone.
But soap is not stone, a reality that Shin's work celebrates. The nature of soap, she says, "is opposite, ephemeral not permanent.” Shin says. She often plays up this aspect of the disappearing act, the slow erasure of seemingly solid cultural fixtures. Her ongoing “Toilet Project,” for example, places sudsy Buddhas and classical busts in museum bathrooms for visitors to wash their hands with. She retrieves and varnishes them after an interval of use, rendering them finished pieces, all the more interesting for their degradations.
Here and elsewhere, meaning is created through soap’s fundamental instability and how Shin projects that fragility onto the sculptures she replicates. In a global market, where objects are freely and indiscriminately translated from one culture to another, these classical artworks are subjected to certain alterations. As a result, they come to foster “multiple and conflicting identities” that are as flimsy as they are numerous.
“Soap has a strong metaphorical connection to this process of exchange in my work,” explains Shin. “When you use a bar of soap you subtly change its state. In the process you leave a little of yourself on the soap and you take a little of the soap away with you on your skin.” This transaction, Shin continues, “forms a kind of microcosm for the weathering, violence, and even iconoclasm that many of my subjects have endured throughout history.”