May 11, 2009

API* Heritage Post #11 & 12: Jean Shin and Hope for Asian American Art

This year, in an actual attempt to really observe API* Heritage Month, I'm trying to put up a post a day about what that means to me. Click the tag for API* Heritage to get the whole series.

Saturday's post gave a tiny piece of context for a little review I wanted to share about artist Jean Shin's show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which I got to check out while in DC yesterday. First, Jean Shin came to the U.S. with her folks from Korea when she was 5. They settled in the suburban Washington area, and she eventually moved to NYC to pursue her career as an installation artist.

She has been featured in a number of different places in New York and around the nation, but this is (to my knowledge) her first significant show at a Smithsonian space. Smithsonian = free, so I made an effort to get to the city and check this one out.

Basically, this show is remarkable. I strongly recommend it to anyone who is in DC or planning on visiting there at some point before the show closes in late July. I'm hoping to go down to the show again before it closes, and definitely want to check out more of her work in the future - there are some permanent installations in NYC, actually.

Jean Shin takes ordinary items, amasses huge quantities of them, and does something quite interesting with them as part of an installation piece. Her thoughtfulness, her connection between the work, place, relationships is really fascinating, and while the work may seem initially abstract / "modern" (in the pejorative sense that people often use for art created principally for the sake of the artist), there's a lot more going on there.

Everyday Monuments is the piece that's new for the Washington show. She collected more than 2,000 athletic trophies from residents of Washington DC, which she and her staff painstakingly modified one at a time, removing signs and indications of the sport, and replacing the props held by the figure or the implied motion with something that represents an unheralded job or occupation. Where once there was a hockey stick, there is now a broom or a shovel. A football player's pigskin is replaced with a book. Trays of food and drinks, garbage cans, plungers, tires, paint brushes replace balls and other implements of sport, and fill empty hands that were supposed to represent the second after a free throw was made.

Taken one at a time, the pieces are interesting, funny, and innovative. Taken all at once in the context of Washington, a city filled with stoic monuments to people and times that sometimes mask the full scope of loss, complexity, and the many people who make any movement/moment in history, the work is revelatory. The title, "Everyday Monuments," and the deliberate placement of the work within a scale representation of the National Mall make the artist's intentions clear: she is highlighting the unsung heroes of our society, their labor building the foundation for all other great acts to follow. The fact that she and her staff had to physically alter the figures, sometimes removing limbs or torsos, is also quite symbolic of the transformation and losses that laborers often endure, which are often not fully evident when you just look at them (i.e. the very specific condition of immigrant laborers, who often perform their demanding jobs with torn and still raw familial and other connections that they have left behind to work, usually without much choice).

Why is the work so compelling? Because Jean Shin is a very thoughtful artist, and the scale and ambition of her work is extraordinary, even though multiple pieces fit into a relatively small gallery space. Another piece explores the interconnectedness of the Asian American arts community in 5 or 6 cities through a physical "mapping" of relationships by threads linking sweaters arranged on walls that have been donated by more than 200 other API* artists in the cities where the piece has been exhibited. The use of physical space and the direct engagement with the API* community immediately frames her sensibilities as directly linked to
the "community" even if all of her work does not derive solely or directly from those links.

It's probably this fact that leads me to believe that in many ways, this imagined, fractured community we still talk about is most evident, seems most real to me, in creative and arts spaces, where the communal is personal, and where both inform the political, but the discourse between the three and the outside worlds are seldom simple or just reduced to the uncritical space of "solidarity" amongst people. Even work that is not politically radical often explores boundaries, borders, definitions, and complex questions of belonging, heritage, and even worldview in ways that our political discourse and movement building have not been able to do since these conversations began more than 40 years ago.

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