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Meekyoung Shin

Meekyoung Shin, Coreana Museum of Art, Space*C


1967, Chungbuk





(Installation View_The National Centre of Craft & Design, Sleaford), 2014

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Translating Culture – the Sculpture of Meekyoung Shin

"The origin of philosophy is translation or the thesis of translatability" 
(Jacques Derrida from ‘The Ear of the Other’, 1982, p.120)

Meekyoung Shin’s ongoing project Translation is about the process of transference and re-coding of shapes and iconography across cultures through time and space. Her work addresses the ways in which forms, decorative motifs and religious iconography are transformed by exchanges between cultures. Shin’s soap versions of ancient classical sculptures and oriental vases relate to their ‘translation’ between East and West – how this inter-cultural transport affects the way they are understood and aesthetically appreciated. Translation is not only a linguistic activity but refers to processes by which cultural expression moving across national and cultural boundaries raises questions related to translatability, comprehension and loss of meanings. As in linguistic translation, some cultural knowledge is necessary to fully understand objects transported from one continent to another. Shin’s Translation project proposes the idea that a vase or a statue can actually become a ‘different’ object when removed from its original setting and transported to a new surrounding. Through an act of displacement Museums re-contextualize artifacts that may have previously had a utilitarian or religious function to become ‘non-useful’ cultural objects of historical or aesthetic significance for posterity. 

Shin’s process of translation involves making a soap version of an object from a museum or private collection and relocating it to a new context to be viewed and reinterpreted by another public from a different cultural or religious background.

 Their expectations and appraisal of that object will vary according to their individual historical knowledge, circumstances and locale. Translation therefore denotes not only the art and craft of the translator, but also a larger cultural formation that emerges through the interaction between national traditions in the increasing globalization of art. With the present-day phenomenon of multiculturalism, boundaries are blurring and distinctions changing or disappearing. Artists themselves are becoming more nomadic so that their national and cultural identities are increasingly heterogeneous.

 Studying, living and working between London and Seoul for over fifteen years, Shin is both a participant and practitioner in the larger processes of cross-cultural hybridization that results in new indeterminate types of national and cultural identity. 
When Shin visited European museums and saw classical Greek and Roman sculpture for the first time, she experienced a personal sense of cultural and aesthetic alienation or displacement that she went on to express in her work.

 In an earlier incarnation of Translation (2002) Shin made a series of sculptures in soap after Greek and Roman marble statues in museum collections. Shin portrayed her own body and facial features in the pose of the ancient originals and also added some polychromatic colouring like the sculptures would have appeared during the Hellenistic era. In 2004 these were displayed in the British Museum’s Great Court and included Shin’s ‘performance’ where visitors could watch her sculpting the work in progress. 

In recent years Shin has moved on from depicting Greek and Roman sculpture, to recreating Asian ceramics from blocks of soap and exhibiting them in public and commercial contemporary art galleries as if they were in a historical museum. 

The antique Chinese porcelain that Shin has chosen to create in soap is the type that was decorated exclusively for export to Europe and America. 

The origin of ‘china’ as the generic name for ceramic products derives from the first introduction of Chinese porcelain to Europe when it was regarded as very rare and luxurious. The remoteness of China in previous times led Europeans to form an idealistic and exotic vision of its culture that became ‘translated’ in terms of decorative designs and motifs. In the 18th  & 19th centuries this export porcelain was believed by the West to be a quintessential expression of Chinese culture and yet it was never used or even seen by the most ordinary Chinese people.

 Meanwhile their artisans and traders were happy to participate in this fantasy or misconception by providing porcelain decorated specially to appeal to Western taste. 

Export ware is significant to Shin’s project since it represents an expression of cultural mistranslation through displacement.

 Similarly many non-Western forms and ornamental motifs found their way into European decorative arts in the 19th century such as chinoiserie, a pseudo-Chinese style. Shin’s reference to her vases’ ‘translation’ is also alluded to in the way they are installed or presented; utilizing their custom made packing crates instead of conventional display plinths,
and sometimes standing the vessels on a sheet of reflective polished steel. 

Their ongoing shipping labels are all part of their provenance as they become re-contextualized and ‘translated’ from their travel from one place to another. She is able to fabricate her soap vessels following the wide variety of traditional ancient Korean and Chinese porcelain shapes some of which she makes in undecorated pastel colours and installs in different combinations and arrangements. With her keen attention to detail and highly skilled finishing technique her soap sculptures resemble painted white and plain green celadon porcelain and even translucent glass. By training her hands to respond deftly to her mind, she has reached a point of impressive virtuosity, and an instinct for achieving a sublime sense of balanced rhythm and proportion in her work. 
A stunning example of this is the her soap version of an ancient plain white porcelain Korean ‘Moon Jar’ that she displayed at the British Museum in 2007. 

Shin uses soap as her principal sculptural medium and believes its intrinsic properties have an affinity with her artistic notion of translation. In contrast to the solidity and permanence of sculptural mediums like bronze and stone, she regards soap’s flexibility as an apt metaphor for multiple interpretations. For her its malleability suggests loosening the rigidity of cultural categories once believed unchangeable, while its softness and fragility expresses her feminist stance against the hardness and inflexibility symbolized by traditional ‘masculine’ materials.

 As part of a daily morning and bedtime washing ritual, soap symbolizes the measurement of our lives. Coming into direct contact with our skin it has a quality of intimacy absent from other sculptural materials.

 After continued use a bar of soap will erode and finally disintegrate as if to suggest the passage of time. Shin also equates her own migratory lifestyle and a lack of a permanent base with soap’s characteristic sense of transience and impermanence. 

Soap also has a fragrance that offers an experiential quality, which  can evoke memories of a different time and place. Her choice of this medium with it’s connotations of the mundane and everyday, shares the sensibilities of the Italian Arte Povera movement whose works were often made from cheap and commonplace materials as a reaction against traditional art world values. 

In the same spirit as the alchemist who can turn base metal into gold, Shin transforms or rather ‘translates’ this worthless material into something precious. 

Soap is also a metaphor for society’s obsession with hygiene and her Translation – Toilet Project comprises of soap Buddha statuettes placed in the toilets of art institutions and museums. These become worn down through public usage and afterwards exhibited in galleries like historical artifacts. 

Since visitors play an essential role in their creation and subsequent provenance, they form a stark contrast to real museum artifacts that were often once functional everyday objects rendered untouchable by their need for preservation. 

Shin feels that she is constantly translating through the very nature of her work and by the need to discuss the reasoning behind it in different languages. 

Her practice is concerned with the relationship between the appearance of the original and its interpretation while addressing issues of authenticity, originality, copy and replication in the critical interface between concept and viewer. 

Nowadays it’s possible to exactly replicate most three-dimensional objects mechanically by using feature recognition scan technology. 

Shin’s meticulous handcrafted versions are surrogates rather than replicas that she refers to as  ‘ghosts’ of the originals. The Romans copied Greek statues because they believed they could produce the same powerful aesthetic effect by following the ‘perfect’ sculptural forms of the originals. Some Roman versions of Greek sculptures are even regarded as being aesthetically superior in some respects than their older prototypes. 

But works of art are not merely objects to appeal to our aesthetic sense without regard to any notion of their origins and human contexts. They express and embody both cultural beliefs general to a people and personal character and feeling specific to an individual. 

When the work of art is expressive of the sensibility of a culture, it is also understood at the same time to embody the sensibility and authentic values of its maker, especially when different viewers in different contexts share those values. 

Shin’s Translation project involves a rigorous creative process where her decisions as translator represent a sculptural negotiation between cultures to create new pathways for meaning. Sculpture is itself a ‘translation’, a means of conveying an observed reality by concentrating its essence both visibly and invisibly into what constitutes form.

James Putnam


How do you say it in your language?

Its time to wash my hands, behind the wash basin is a sculpture in the form of a Buddha, its made of soap and I'm invited to use it by rubbing my hands over its head to build up a lather then rinsing them under the tap. I do this with some trepidation because I know that  part of it will adhere to my skin and wash away, my skin will be cleaner, but the sculpture will be just that little bit less than it was before. By washing my hands on the sculpture I've just contributed in some small way to a work which is part of the long term Translation - Toilet Project by the Korean born artist Meekyoung Shin. These works will eventually leave their places besides the wash basins and be shown in partially eroded form in galleries and museums.

Soap is a very strange substance, a mixture of two substances you would not usually want on your skin, or associate with being clean: fats and ashes, animal or vegetable oils mixed with potash. Processed in the right way a chemical reaction called saponification occurs creating a new substance, which we know as soap which acts as a " handle" dissolving the dirt and also rendering it soluble in water. The process is ancient, a soap formula exists, a mixture of water, alkali, and cassia oil written on a Babylonian clay tablet from around 2200 BCE. (1) In the West we mainly owe our knowledge of soap to the Muslim world, most modern soaps are little changed from the Arabian soaps of the Middle Ages. In the classical world it was known but not used for cleaning. Soap although seemingly unusual as a sculptural material has, in fact, a history of being used for sculptural ends. It can be cast, carved, modeled, engraved, even painted (2) . Meekyoung Shin has mastered all these techniques with dazzling skill, and more importantly has chosen to do so with a great sense of purpose.

Washing is a symbolic, as well as practical act, in the Western Christian world the most significant act of washing is, perhaps, that of Pontius Pilate the Prefect of the Roman Province of Judea ( CE 26 - CE 36) Pilate is mentioned in all the canonical gospels; Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. It is in Matthew that Pilate famously washes his hands of the fate of Jesus. The phrase: "to wash your hands of it"  is still in common usage in the West meaning to wash away responsibility. It is also an activity, as Shin has emphasized, usually seen as women's work. Women are traditionally expected to clean and were, and in many cases still are, judged by their ability to clean and to be clean.

My hands are clean, yet some other transference has taken place. I have touched the sculpture, a copy or rather a "translation" of an actual religious idol. I have worn some small part of it away. I have in turn been made clean, but to touch an idol is also to be some how blessed in return. We are all familiar with idols in Churches or Temples where the Madonna's have feet polished by the supplicant kisses of believers, or the heads of Buddha's are worn away by the single touches of those who reach to gain access to the Western Paradise, or some small gift to ease daily life. Through out the world ikons to every known belief have some aspect of touching or being made ceremoniously clean. To wash, to touch, it seems such a simple act, normal, every day, but in fact it is a very complex transaction: Practical, chemical, historical,  cultural, and gendered. Meekyoung Shin encapsulates this artistic project under the term: translation, but what does Meekyoung Shin mean by translation?

In his book" Mouse or Rat, translation as negotiation" (3) Umberto Eco outlines some of the criteria of translation, the first he refers to as "...translation proper ( that is, from one natural language to another)". (4) Let us take one of Meekyoung Shins best known works ' Crouching Aphrodite 2002. This is a sculpture in soap coloured to resemble marble, cast and modeled over an armature of wood and steel. 90 x90 x 70 cm. The sculpture is based on a Roman copy, of which the cast in the Louvre is 115 cm x 74 cm x 58 cm, of a work also known as The Venus of Vienne, the original being attributed to Diodalas of Byhinia who was active between 240 and 200 BCE. In fact there are many versions of this particular classical pose, most of them Roman copies. Crouching Aphrodite 2002 is a cast taken from the artists body in the pose of these well known statues. Significantly it is widely accepted that the the goddess of beauty is being interrupted whilst bathing, or at her toilet. There are many issues here but let us return to the first. Is this "translation proper" as in from one natural language to another? At first it would seem not as they are both sculptures, however I would say this assumption is incorrect. Sculpture as a distinct  aesthetic ( as in separate from religious and ritual life) is a completely Western concept (5). Western style sculpture, a tradition in which Meekyoung Shin was trained at, and became expert at, while studying at Seoul National University, was introduced to Korea when Kim Pok-chin was sent to study at the Tokyo School of Fine Art in 1919 during the Japanese occupation of Korea(6) The Japanese had imported these techniques, mainly from Italy at the begining of the Meiji Restoration. So yes I would say this is " translation proper". The artist translates the notion of a sculpture of a woman, from a Western tradition, and in the West the human figure remains the basic paradigm of beauty, by using her own body to translate a Western image into an Eastern form through her own experience as an artist who has trained and works in both Korea and England.

Eco goes on to discuss aspects of translation, one he describes simply as length, saying it would be unreasonable if a manuscript of two hundred A4 pages using the same size and type of font was returned translated with four hundred pages. Shin's translation's as we have seen above remain close to scale. Eco then contrasts Disney's "translation" of Pinocchio in contrast to Collodi's original text. Meekyoung's Shins "translation" does not resemble Disney's. Her work is not a major reconfiguration of the story, it is not a substitute for the original.  Then Eco talks about idioms: how a phrase in one language if translated literally would not make sense, but would if exchanged for a matching idiom in another language with the same meaning.  Eco uses the English phrase " to pull someone's leg" which means to tease someone and suggests to translate this literally into Italian would be meaningless , but to translate this as "to pull someone's nose" would give exactly the right impression to the reader. Shin's work doesn't seem to be about idioms, but there is a clear exchange of style and terms in keeping with this notion of Umberto Eco's. In this body of work Shin transposes an Eastern body type, usually her own, over the idealized Western body type in the classical works she is referring to. Eco states that the translation must be "literally unfaithful" (7). He also mentions adequacy, equivalence and faithfulness. I think it is clear Meekyoung's Shins work does meet  these criteria, but meets them in terms appropriate to her media. Most importantly Eco describes translation as a form of negotiation. This is where the work of Meekyoung Shin operates, we stand in front of one of her works and we have to begin to negotiate, to interchange existing paradigms of thought, familiar images with slight shifts in meaning, changes of materials, the shift from one language to another. In this work she translates Western notions of the idealized female body, into real Eastern female form.

In some works in the continuing series of figurative "translations" of classical sculpture Shin has added tints, added colour. It is known that classical statues were coloured, but this 19th century discovery posed problems for the Victorians who felt at ease with nude statuettes and sculpture as long as it was in the classical manner and monochrome. The most famous example was Canova's British pupil John Gibson (1790 - 1866) whose Tinted Venus (1851-6), now in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, caused an outrage at the time been seen as vulgarizing the art of sculpture and being far too life like and hence erotic. Meekyoung Shin's use of colour in the soap allows her to both to remind us of this debate and to give her "translations" an uncanny presence. It emphasizes the material: soap, and the associations of that material with the body. There is something else we must not forget, these sculptures now in our museums were once in private hands, they were trophies, they were symbols of knowledge and power. Symbols of the supposed superiority of Western values, they were also a mechanism of exchange and trade, either in themselves or through their replications. and as Margaret Visser has said when discussing food: " Women have always been another symbol, used for the knitting together of families and tribes; they too are 'given away' in marriage, shared, stolen, used to enhance status, or abstained from." (8) All translations have to closely question the original, unpick the underlying issues and then re present them in a new language. For those that are bi lingual these differentiation's are clearly apparent, and Shins work allows us this pleasure, reveals her interrogation of the original.

Recently she has built a new body of work where the translation is seemingly less complex: the Translation - Vase series, and the Translation- Glass Bottle series. These technically extraordinary works are replicas in soap of Chinese ceramic vases made for consumption by Western markets. again a system of exchange. Meekyoung Shin sometimes shows these works on open crates standing on mirrors, sometimes on plinths. by doing this Shin also opens out notions of transportation, protection and storage. Most sculpture, most art if not actually on display is stored in crates, and when it is on display it has to have some mechanism to protect, to distance it from the actual world; a plinth, a podium or a vitrine.

There is direct translation from one language to another, from ceramic or glass( both are made from silicates heated to very high temperatures) to soap, that curious mixture of organic and inorganic materials. The realism of this translation is breathtaking, we can fully believe that there is access to these works in a different medium, from one language to another. But again, as is often the case, with Shin's work there is a difficult contrast to over come. Ceramic and glass is fragile, but as a material virtually indestructible, most of our knowledge of prehistoric cultures comes to us through the remains of their ceramics. Soap is in fact a very durable material if like paper it is kept in the right conditions, but if not it is very transient, it can literally be washed away.

Korea has been and still is one of the most significant producers of ceramics. A heritage which is universally admired. In 2007 I visited the British Museum with the artist on the occasion of the display of her work: Translation: Moon Jar 2007 in the Korean galleries of the museum. First of all we went to see a special display of a Moon Jar in the collection. A truly beautiful pot, and interestingly donated to the British Museum by Bernard Leach, perhaps the most influential Western potter of the modern era. Leach, an ex Slade student like Meekyoung Shin was a close associate of the Japanese aesthetic theorist and founder of Mingei Yanagi Soetsu.Yanagi was a great supporter of Korean art and of its ceramics in particular. It was their work which made available so many of the wonders of Korean ceramics to the West. Later we went up to see the Translation: Moon Jar 2007, displayed in a vitrine just like the original. It was only by reading the label that it was possible to believe it was soap and not ceramic. The Moon Jar in the lower gallery had been handled, touched by many hands, Leach must have held it, yet there is no trace of him other than the label.  The trace of everybody who had touched had been cleaned from its surface. Meekyoung Shin's Moon Jar, could be just washed away, both were fragile but in very different ways.

All of Meekyoung Shin's work, has this quality, it needs to be cared for, protected, maintained, its fragility reminds us of our own. How we need to care for ourselves, our families, our friends, our environment, our cultural heritage and our cultural exchanges. Just how hard it is to make these things and how hard it is to look after them. Meekyoung Shin has made works you can wash your hands on but one thing is for certain this is not work you can wash your hands of.

(1) Wilcox, Michael, "soap" in Hilda Butler. Poucher's Perfumes, Cosmetics and Soaps ( 10th edition.) . Dortrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. pp. 453

(2) Jack C. Rich, The Materials and Methods of Sculpture, Oxford University Press, 1947, pp 357 - 358

(3) Umberto Eco, Mouse or Rat, translation as negotiation, A Phoenix paperback, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, GB 2003.

(4) ibid, p2

(5) See: Paul Oskar Kristellar, The modern System of the Arts, in Renaissance Thought and the Arts, collected essays, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1980, pp 163-227

(6) Kim Pok-yong, Modern Sculpture Responds to International Trends, Korean Arts Guide, Yekyong Publications Co., Ltd, pp 90-91

(7) Umberto Eco, Mouse or Rat, translation as negotiation, A Phoenix paperback, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, GB 2003.p5.

 (8) Margaret Visser, The Rituals of Dinner, the origins of, evolution, eccentricities, and meaning of table manners, Penguin Books, London, 1991.p3

Edward Allington 2009 (c)

Edward Allington