Arts & Culture

Visiting artist discusses installation materials, process

Jean Shin gives insight into use of discarded items, delves into personal inspiration at List talk

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, October 29, 2018

For her piece “Chance City,” Shin gathered thousands of discarded, losing lottery tickets to create towers without any adhesive. The lottery tickets, totaling thousands of dollars in value, serve as the primary materials for her 2009 rendition of the project.

Jean Shin, a renowned installation artist and adjunct professor of fine art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, greeted her audience with soft wind chimes and a projection of a colorful, kinetic canopy — what would soon be revealed as the fabric of broken umbrellas, layered and stitched together — during her Visiting Artist lecture last Wednesday.

Speaking about some of the themes that have inspired her work — which include community, environment, waste and history — Shin detailed a number of the major installation projects she has completed throughout her career.

“Jean’s work truly transforms everyday objects,” said Heather Bhandari, an adjunct lecturer in the Visual Art Department and coordinator of the Visiting Artist program. Bhandari met Shin 15 years ago while she was working at Mixed Greens, a contemporary art gallery that represented Shin, Bhandari told The Herald. She further recalled a time when she would call Shin to notify her when she found broken or discarded umbrellas on various New York City street corners.

The umbrellas Shin collected were used in “Penumbra,” commissioned in 2003 by Socrates Sculpture Park in New York. Utilizing “the tragic umbrella,” Shin explained, she created canopies that freed the nylon umbrella-tops from their isolating, individualized skeletons and combined them into one collective awning. The canopy hung from tree branches, fluidly responding to wind and weather, something Shin had not fully considered in her creative process. This project exemplified the ways in which expectations had to become compromises, as her installations became one with the environment that surrounded them.

“There are a lot of artists who I think have these moments where they wonder, ‘What am I doing putting more stuff into the world and where is this stuff going?’” Bhandari said, and added that Shin avoids that issue by “using trash, in most cases, to create these really amazing pieces that have a lot of depth to them.”

Shin’s choice to reclaim discarded materials came from both an acknowledgement of consumer culture and her own position as “an emerging artist with a very low-paying full-time job — so it kind of made sense for me to think about the resourcefulness of my materials,” she told The Herald. “I was seeing so much excess just thrown out on the streets of New York City.”

Other materials Shin used include non-winning lottery tickets — discarded not for their inconvenience or fragility but simply because they were valueless. After noticing the tickets littering the streets, Shin considered taking risks that went against the odds, she said. “There was kind of a wonderful analogous comparison for me about how these losing tickets really were symbolic of all of our lives,” Shin said.

Collecting thousands of thrown-away tickets, Shin constructed towers and relied on gravity as she stacked the cards without any adhesive in three different museum spaces. “Chance City” was first created with $17,119 worth of discarded “Scratch and Win” lottery tickets at the Caren Golden Gallery in New York in 2002, according to the artist’s website. It was most recently constructed in 2009 with $32,404 worth of discarded tickets at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The towers — assembled by hand, without glue — were inherently fleeting, but were the result of a long, arduous and specific process. 

The idea of connecting her own story as an artist to those of the thousands of individuals represented by losing lottery tickets is reflected in many of her pieces.

“There were a lot of objects that really just connected a story to a story that I felt like I was living, and that maybe others could connect to” as well, she said. Other objects Shin has used in pieces include vinyl records, prescription pill bottles, discarded post-alteration pant cuffs, old trophies and green plastic soda bottles — all discarded symbols of lives lived, of individual stories coming together to create a collective message.

Shin also emphasized the influence of her Korean-American background on her work as an artist. After finishing her education, Shin “felt a disconnection to the history of art, even though it is one that I had been brought to learn,” she said. “People who were Asian-American, people who were women, people of color, were not represented” as painters. She then delved into the practice of installation.

“I just went where there was least resistance, I think, and I kind of reveled in feeling whole. There was a history that I was connected to,” she said. “In my practice I’m hoping that I can make a mark within that history as well.”

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