Jean Shin the Alchemist: Turning Waste into Art

Hot Air
Jean Shin, Home Base, 2022. Installation at Laumeier Sculpture Park, St. Louis, MO. Photo Credit ProPhotoSTL. Courtesy of the artist and Laumeier Sculpture Park.

With her public sculptures, Jean Shin makes powerful statements about the climate crisis out of discarded and obsolete materials. She often engages communities in her materials sourcing, mixing social practice into her public sculpture practice to create platforms for discussion. Ingenious and esthetically considered, her works show novel ways to engage with the climate crisis.

Please tell us a little about yourself, how you grew up, and how you ultimately arrived at your current sculpture practice. Does your autobiography factor into that practice?

I’ve been living and teaching in Brooklyn for over three decades. Working in urban and cultural spaces with vibrant and diverse communities has certainly shaped my practice. This dense environment provides access to so much material waste and excess. Early on, I found my path by making installations with everyday objects and clothing that had an intimate relationship to the body.  

My family history as an immigrant also informs my perspective and how my projects speak to making visible the invisible, transforming values and societal priorities. My Korean roots have enriched my life with traditions and rituals that also guide my search for ways art can honor history while connecting with community and nature.

More recently, I relocated my studio near Kingston, NY, and living in the Hudson Valley has brought ecological concerns to be a focus of my evolving work. My projects at Storm King Art Center, Olana State Historic Site, and most recently at Thomas Cole National Historic Site have all responded to the Hudson Valley’s ecology, past and present. 

Could you say more about the climate-related dimensions of your practice?

I feel the urgency of the challenges we face in the climate crisis. While doing site-specific works, I observe deep wounds of broken ecosystems, immense biodiversity loss, dying trees, and polluted waters. Much of my work addresses our global over-reliance on single-use plastics and our dependence on petroleum overall as a culture. History has shown the devastating 

consequences of our extractive practices and industrialization, yet we’ve forgotten this and continue living in a throw-away culture of over-consumption. 

My projects point toward regenerative and restorative processes and reimagine different sustainable possibilities in the future.

I’ve also collaborated with scientists and ecologists to amplify and help visualize the data-driven work they do behind the scenes to contribute to combating specific species affected by climate change. For 2022 work Freshwater I collaborated with the Philadelphia Water Department to uplift 

their work to grow freshwater mussels in their labs and to support the existing mussel beds in the Delaware River. In St. Louis, at the Laumeier sculpture park, my work Home Base reflected on the decline of ash trees, which are threatened by the population growth of the Emerald Ash Borer due to climate change. In both projects, I used intimate objects as a touchpoint for those conversations–pearl buttons in Philadelphia and baseball bats in St. Louis. 

Jean Shin, Fallen, 2021. Installation at Olana State Historic Site, Husdon, NY. Photo Credit Peter Aaron. Courtesy of the artist and Olana State Historic Site.

Tell us about your project, Fallen on View at Olana, in 2021. What kind of research did you have to do for it, and what did you learn about the tanning industry in the Catskills? Just how bad was the environmental devastation?

Fallen was an opportunity to mourn the passing of a 140-year-old hemlock tree on Olana’s grounds. The vast hemlock forests on the property today, including this fallen tree, were originally planted at the behest of artist Frederic Church to replace the thousands of hemlocks that had died as a result of the leather tanning industry in the 19th century. Tanneries would strip the bark from hemlocks, leaving the bare trees to decline in health and ultimately die. It was a boom and bust economy–in five years, dozens of villages were established in the Catskills to strip the forests, only to be abandoned once the forests were cleared.

The project began with research in Olana’s archives and conversing with the many knowledgeable scholars Olana has access to. I was horrified by the archival photographs and prints of leather tanners peeling the trees and the entire forests of trees that were stripped bare. I also worked closely with a professor at Columbia Greene Community College in Hudson to understand the contemporary threats to the health of hemlocks. Working with the professor, her students, and public volunteers, we surveyed the hemlock trees currently on the Olana property to identify which are infested by wooly adelgids, an invasive species. That data set will help inform scientists how much the threat from these insects is increasing in years to come.

Fallen is very dear to my heart conceptually because I currently live in the Catskills and see the remnants of the tanning industry all around me. What other projects have you done that engage with Hudson Valley history?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the effects of Hudson River School, first with the legacy of Frederic Church and his mentor Thomas Cole ushering in these ideals of the American landscape and romanticism of nature. After creating Fallen at Church’s Olana, I recently opened a project called Displaced at Thomas Cole Historic Site. It looks at the paradox of artists and museums doing work on environmentalism while failing to fully take into account their own carbon footprints. Art world practices like fabricating elaborate temporary crates for traveling exhibitions need to be interrogated.

Your work involves activating communities to realize your projects. What role do you think your art can play in getting communities to adapt to the growing problems of the climate crisis on a practical and social level?

I believe in the power of art to bring awareness to critical social and ecological issues and ask complicated questions of the viewers. When I work collaboratively and ask participating communities to be involved, these ideas are not abstract but tangible and real. Through these intentional engagement practices within my projects, the public becomes invested through the time, care, and labor they put into the project. They become invested in these challenges and the solutions we are all working toward. When individuals witness the transformation of discarded materials into fully realized and meaningful artworks, individuals often feel empowered and have a deep sense of belonging to a community that wants change. This lived experience with art, and the creative process makes participants hopeful that they can also mobilize about other collective actions. On the practical level, however, responsibility can’t only rest with individuals—the biggest changes need to come by exacting pressure on policymakers and the corporations that cause the greatest planetary harm.

Can you tell us about an upcoming project you are especially excited about?

I’m currently working with The Trustees of Reservations to realize an ambitious public project for Appleton Farms in Ipswich, MA, to bring awareness to Bobolinks, a migratory songbird whose populations are threatened. By reclaiming old fence rails made from local American Chestnut trees, I’m creating sculptures that form tree-like structures for the birds to perch on while they build their nests in the farm’s pastures and grasslands. I’m collaborating very closely with ecologists, the agricultural team, and many others who support the work on the farm, and trying to make the project a means to amplify the bird monitoring and research they’re already doing while bringing more visibility to this vulnerable species that depend upon cultivated farmland to survive. In centering the bird’s needs, we experience the time and space of this farmland from a very different perspective. The project will open on Earth Day of 2024.

Installation view, Jean Shin: Second Skin at Praise Shadows Art Gallery, Brookline, MA. Photo credit Dan Watkins Photography. Courtesy of the artist and Praise Shadows Art Gallery.

I’m also very excited about my recently opened solo exhibition, Second Skin, at Praise Shadows Callery in Brookline, MA. The show includes a variety of works that I created from remnants of previous public projects, including leather and hemlock branches from Olana’s Fallen and pearl buttons from Philadelphia Contemporary’s Freshwater. I feel a great sense of responsibility towards the materials I work with, even after a project’s first public life is over. Second Skin has been an opportunity to experiment with ways of continuing those narratives and giving the materials second or third lives in smaller indoor sculptures and wall pieces. For the titular works in the show, for instance, I used the leather that shrouded the hemlock tree in Fallen, which now has these dramatic patterns from months of sun exposure outdoors. In every manifestation, I discover something new when working with these materials.

Up next in September will be my presentation at the Armory that Praise Shadows will be showing, curated by Eva Respini. The installation is a series of sculptural forms reminiscent of scholar’s rocks made of discarded mobile phones in a sea of cables. This e-waste landscape represents our obsession with mobile technology and the planetary consequences of these extractive materials and obsolesces.

About the artist: Born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in the U.S., Jean Shin works in Brooklyn and in the Hudson Valley. Her work has been widely exhibited and collected in over 150 major museums and cultural institutions, including solo exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC, and Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, where in 2020 she was the first Korean-American woman artist featured in a solo exhibition. Shin has received numerous awards, including the Frederic Church Award for her contributions to American art and culture. Her works have been highlighted in The New York Times and Sculpture Magazine, among others. 

About the writer: Hovey Brock is a painter, climate artist, and writer who has shown his works in the US and internationally. He is a frequent contributor to the Brooklyn Rail’s Art Seen column. He is currently one of the editors of Hot Air, the climate column for Art Spiel. His current project, Crazy River, which includes painting and writing, looks at the climate crisis as it is unfolding on a river he has known all his life, the West Branch of the Neversink, using the filters of personal memory, historical incident, and geologic time