Artist recreates ancient statues with soap and water

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Artist recreates ancient statues with soap and water

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Aphrodite (originally created in 1998 and restored in 2009). Soap, 82x62x226 cm. Provided by Kukje Gallery


People admire Ancient Greek statues for their unparalleled beauty and perfect proportions and the sculptures have been reproduced many times. Like those before her, Korean artist Shin Mee-kyoung has tried to replicate the pieces and even the aging process that statues go through. The difference is that it took Shin only a few months to distress her statues, instead of thousands of years because her creations are made of soap.

Those who see Shin’s works may be surprised at how closely they resemble Greek statues. From their shape and color to their pattern and texture, only a handful of experts may be able to tell that they are not made of marble but of something else.

Forty of Shin’s works are now on display in an exhibition titled “Translation” at Kukje Gallery in central Seoul. They include soap-made replicas of Greek statues and large vases.

The exhibition may show how Greek sculptures can be translated into modern pieces but Shin said in a press conference last week that her original intention was to demonstrate what is lost in the translation between East and West, past and present, and old and new.

But why did Shin choose to use soap? For Shin, soap is not only similar to marble but erodes and finally disintegrates, which makes it possible to replicate weathering. She started using soap when she was studying at Slade School of Fine Arts in London where she obtained her master’s degree in fine arts.

“When I saw the original Greek statues in a museum in London, they looked as if they were made of soap in terms of their texture and density,” Shin said. “To me, the fact that I could see the similarity between marble and soap revealed something about my identity as an outsider.”

Shin studied at Seoul National University before moving to London. Since then she has exhibited her work in Korea and abroad. In a solo exhibition at the British Museum she made a statue of herself out of soap in a performance installation. In another exhibition at the same museum in 2007 she created a soap replica of a vase that had been on display at the museum.

Shin’s work seems to be full of paradoxes. The works are replicas of ancient statues, but are also her own creations, she said. The fact that she is an Asian copying classical Western sculpture is also ironic, she said.

The first floor of the Kukje Gallery displays eight of Shin’s soap statues, all standing in a row. Half of these are painted and half are not. According to Shin, original Greek statues were painted but the paint was washed away through exposure to rain and wind for thousands of years.

The four unpainted statues went through a unique aging process outside the Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art. To distress the statues, Shin uses water or rain. But because there was not enough rain at the time, Shin called the fire department and asked them to spray the statues with water to age them.

The exhibition also features two busts of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Both busts were actually displayed before the exhibition opened, in the museum bathrooms. Shin placed the busts in the bathrooms for people to use as soap, and they were later transferred to the exhibition hall. The Venuses have since been replaced by statues of Buddha that can also be used as soap.

The exhibition continues through Dec. 19. Go to Gyeongbokgung Station, line No. 3, exit 5. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday and holidays. For more information, call (02) 735-8449 or visit www.kukje.org.


By Limb Jae-un [jbiz91@joongang.co.kr]
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