JOANNA MARSH: I'm Joanna Marsh, the James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. We're sitting in the newest exhibition, “Jean Shin: Common Threads.” I'm joined by the artist, Jean Shin, for a conversation today about the exhibition and Jean's work. Welcome, Jean.
JEAN SHIN: Thank you, Joanna.
JM: I want to talk about the new commission piece “Everyday Monuments,” which is debuting in this show and which you produced specifically for the exhibition with the support of the American Art Museum. I know you went through a lengthy process of thinking about what would be right, both for this institution but also this venue in Washington, D.C. How did you arrive upon “Everyday Monuments” as a concept?
JS: I imagined the monuments that we carry in our lives, trying to make it personal again, so I chose the trophy as this object that we have—some of us have, I guess—in our lives. It, too, memorializes a personal aspect of your own history, whether it was a childhood memory of playing a sport or something much later in your adult life that you gave up to pursue other things. My plan was to deconstruct each one of them. By removing the trophies of their sports aspects, which would be outrageous actions of gestures of sports, and the basketball, the rackets, the bats. Then they were now emptied again, like the National Mall, emptied of their props. Then we hand-sculpted new props and also used dollhouse things that were of the same scale and incorporated their arms back into gestures of work. So they were doing mundane things like typing, standing at a podium talking, striking a hammer, being a mechanic, delivering mail, all the things that we see around us of people at work or driving. These tasks represented many occupations, whether it was a taxi driver, or just someone driving to work, or a stay at home mom pushing a stroller.
I have a relationship from D.C. having grown up nearby in Bethesda, Maryland, so I've known the city from afar. It is a local community that I know and yet we all know the Capitol in Washington, D.C. at a symbolic level. Referencing these national monuments that we have—the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall, the Capitol. When I went to visit, I was also struck by the fact that when you look at the city, there is this vast space in the middle of the city that is empty. The National Mall, really, for me was the inspiration. It's something that you imagine from a distance, this critical mass, filling the space with people.
I was struck also by the amazing generosity of families who had gone through loss. The trophies were memorializing people in a way for these families, and so there were wonderful donations by people who said, "This is for my father who had passed away." That was amazing to see that people understood the gesture and that gestures could be translated and extended. These trophies, in essence, are that kind of bittersweet memory, you know? You love them and you also wish that things were different.
JM: Right. There's an incredible nostalgia attached to these objects.
JS: Yes, and I'm sure for people who were near going professional, also with having won some of these trophies, that there was a point in their life where they had to decide, “Am I going to make sacrifices and be a sports star? Can my family and my partner support this lifestyle? Or, do I have to deviate, or can I not support this and that dream isn't coming to?” So it's really full of bittersweet memories in some way. I think the project sort of acknowledges the breadth of that.
JM: This is “Chance City,” which you first created in 2001, correct? It has had a variety of different incarnations based on the various venues that it's been shown at. It's shown here in this extreme corner and I think is my favorite piece in the exhibition. You'll forgive me for saying that. It is so exquisitely beautiful and conceptually rich, and I'd love to talk about this idea of vulnerability as it relates to “Chance City” and the notion of the systems which we create, the infrastructures that we create all around us, being so vulnerable to collapse, to failure—
JS: To chance.
JM: To chance. This piece is comprised of all losing lottery tickets, so let's talk about it a little bit.
JS: Yeah, this project is literally a house of cards, so we're standing very close to something that I think is a living structure. It's responding, and it's held up purely by gravity and friction. There's no inner adhesive to them. My assistants began in the very, very hard corner there and then we built the structure up one tower at a time and moved away as we got to the edges of the city. I think of it in terms of a performance of the self and a dedication to this practice but also just getting into that mode of believing that you could make these structures. I think of that in terms of our economics, our family life and family planning for economics, too, our global infrastructure, that really, the exchange of goods, one at a time. You build something that is a thriving economy, or if it is full of too much optimism, can collapse overnight by something that was structurally unsound to begin with.
What's also interesting is the lottery aspect to it—that each card is an investment of someone's that I don't know. These strangers have invested a dollar, two dollars, five dollars, and together it's over twenty-five thousand dollars here represented of someone having spent this money. Then the type of labor that we've spent capitalizing on that potential once again. But it's also watching the optimism that we have. That, to me, is a city, like any other city. I also like the notion of thinking in terms of gains and chance in the lottery strategy because the more times you play and spend your dollar, if you spend one dollar a week, the chances of winning are very slim, where people who truly win and are addicted to this game play thousands of dollars in a given month, and their chances are much higher. So the notion of investment, you know? But many people fantasize like you're going to win instantly, right? This instant scratch-and-win—in one second you could be the millionaire, but in fact, the reality that I'm presenting is actually that's not true.
JM: Very few, in fact, win. So it is, as we've said before, this illusion, this illusory promise that may be a win. It's about hope, really. In spite of the fact that these are all losing lottery tickets, there is this pervasive optimism as part of the piece because, presumably, the people who have lost on these scratch-and-win tickets have gone out the next day and bought more because they continue to nurse the hope that they will, in fact, build something.
Well, thinking about this idea of things that go unnoticed, that's true of so many of the objects that you work with, the things that surround us every day but we don't really give full attention to. I guess I'm wondering whether it's true for all of your pieces, whether you come to the objects sort of after you've conceived a project. I'm thinking actually specifically of “Unraveling,” which is such an incredibly complex piece. Let's talk just briefly about the physical and practical complexities of this piece, which we've been installing for the last five to seven days and is incredibly labor-intensive, as are many of your works in this show. But that one in particular, if you want to just comment a little bit about the process?
JS: Just like those nomadic tribes of people who come to the city, it's like that. You arrive at the museum, and we have literally boxes of sweaters that are just deconstructed as spools of yarn with their names all attached with the donors. We're making a physical attachment to the walls and I call it, like, almost shingling the corner with these very, very soft, woolly existences of people. It gets very soft and colorful, you know? But with the architecture that is here, we also wanted people to engage being under the piece and seeing the networks above your head, so that meant lifting us up to these 14-foot ceilings. We were working all over scaffolds, not only literally pinning every sweater to it but every connection, and someone's connection may be as little as three but as big as 80, you know? So their yarn would have to hit 80 sweaters, and 80 sweaters would have to come to their one destination. Our assistants and the museum staff were completely entangled in literally the web that's going across you and also the wonderful idea of teamwork that happens because it's not just, “Let me hang the painting, and I'm done. Could you maybe tell me if it's straight?” This is people negotiating. “This yarn has to go to that, and you're in the perfect spot; can you reach? Can you reach that, extend that?”
JM: Again, it's about social exchange. It's about interacting and having a dialogue, right? The piece could not be installed without that level of communication on the part of your staff and the museum staff.
JS: In some way, also by building this again each time, people get to understand this network. Many people know now who Melissa Chiu is. That name has been connected, and I go, “Oh, here she is, so she has a long list of people we need to connect her to.” They kind of understand who the players of this network are, who are the significant persons, and I think that's so interesting that there's a learning curve to become familiar with this network, that it’s just not sweaters, but it's actually the person we're connecting. I sort of feel like the piece literally has a life of its own. The technical complexities of being intertwined in the network is very fascinating to me and also the requirement of teamwork and getting familiar with the names. In essence, the piece relives itself through the installation process.
JM: Right, right.
JS: You know, I was initially inspired by “Invisible Cities” that tells tales of different cities, and I knew this show was going to travel to different cities, so that took the initial inspiration. One city that was described was in a city that the participants, when they engaged in some sort of relationship, would tie a knot as a signifying moment that you and I had had this relationship. Once they establish this relationship, of course, you go on, and there's a million knots that you establish by your day-to-day living. They create this complete web of strings, and they can't exist anymore because the complexity of that negotiation is fully visualized. They're a nomadic tribe that then picks up and starts to plant themselves in a new city—
JM: –elsewhere, and starts the whole process again.
JS: The first relationship. Here we are; we’ll build a house. I loved that idea of a city full of people negotiating and meeting the same relationships one again in a new city. It was exactly the dilemma I was running into. How do I make a project about this? The notions of Asian-American identity, “Who are we?”, and it's something that's very complex and mixed with our personal identity but also the global identity in history that came before us. Part of that idea of questioning identity was that it was a show based on Asian-Americans and sort of celebrating the complexity of that, and so I asked the curators, who are sort of tapped into that network, to again start with them. They donated their own sweater, and it represents them completely. It's their intimate sweater that they purchased for all their aesthetic reasons about it being about them. It really capitalized the notion of identity very abstractly. But I also love that when one unravels a sweater, that this human scale of something so intimate and fitted for someone then gets obstructed, dismantled. I was imagining people like Melissa Chiu, who is so connected in the Asian-American art world, that at the end of her day, she must feel like so much has been taken away from her. The generosity of connecting with someone in some way means that a little part of yourself, your time, energy, is gone, you know? So the people who are connected, who are so important, also diminish in some ways.
JM: Their sweaters physically become smaller because they know so many people.
A conversation between Artist Jean Shin and Curator Joanna Marsh at the American Art Museum on the occasion of the exhibition Jean Shin: Common Threads.
Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)
Shin's most recent project, Everyday Monuments, debuts in the exhibition. The sprawling installation consists of nearly 2000 trophies donated by Washington, D.C.-area residents and projected images of the altered trophies.