Korean sculptor’s framed soap paintings inspired by museum antiquities

Korean artist Meekyoung Shin stands next to her exhibition 'Translation Paintings' which continues inside the Asia House Gallery until Friday 28 August

Korean artist Meekyoung Shin stands next to artwork from her exhibition 'Translation Paintings' which continues inside the Asia House Gallery until Friday 28 August

Korean sculptor’s framed soap paintings inspired by museum antiquities

24 August 2015

By Naomi Canton

When Korean artist Meekyoung Shin created a soap sculpture of the Duke of Cumberland on a horse and installed it in Cavendish Square in 2012, it created quite a stir. The original sculpture had been removed in 1868 when the Duke fell into disfavour and an empty plinth had stood in its place ever since – until Shin conceived the idea of recreating it – with a simple household product: soap.

Now a series of paintings – also made entirely of soap – from Shin’s Translation Series are on display in the Asia House gallery until Friday, 28 August. Each one emits a delightful fragrance.

“I never saw that original statue. I was just told it had been of the Duke of Cumberland, but I had no visual information,” Shin said during a quick tour of her Translation Paintings exhibition.

“I spent three to four years researching him and tracing the history and then I applied for planning permission from the council to put the soap sculpture up,” she explained. “I got a portrait of him and I used a little bronze sculpture from the National Army Museum to create him on a horse.  I made it as a clay sculpture first, then created a mould, which I put Melt & Pour soap in and put that round a metal skeleton.”

Written in Soap: A Plinth Project (2012- ongoing) was then left standing in the park (which is close to Asia House) to see how it survived the British weather.

The paintings in her Translation Series are presented in beautiful antique frames in the Asia House Gallery. A member of the public was viewing them when Shin dropped in. The first question she asked Shin was: “Is making sculpture from soap a Korean tradition?”

Among professional Korean sculptors, it is not, Shin replied, but she had indeed used soap in art classes at school in South Korea.

“When I was 12 we used to sculpt soap in art classes at school. It was much easier to carve than say wood, which is dangerous.  Once dry, soap is a tough material and lasts a long time,” she added.

Explaining the idea behind the intriguing soap paintings she said: “They are random colours in antique frames.  The idea was to make each one look like an old picture. All the paintings are in some way references to history, antiquity from museums, sculptures, and paintings in historical rooms.” Some colour pigments and fragrance have been added to them, she added.

The images in antique frames which are on display in the Asia House Gallery are all made from soap

The images inside antique frames which are on display in the Asia House Gallery are all made from soap. Meekyoung Shin’s exhibition ‘Translation Paintings’ continues until 28 August

Shin, 47, trained in sculpture, first in South Korea, at Seoul National University, where she obtained her BFA and MFA in 1993, then at Slade School of Fine Art, which she graduated from in 1998. She moved to the UK from South Korea in 1995 and now lives in Wimbledon.

In her sculpture course in Korea she had trained in how to sculpt with wood, resin, stone and clay. It was only once she arrived at the Slade School of Art from Korea that she started to make sculptures out of soap.

“When I came to London I wanted to go back to basics – as if I had not done anything before.  I wanted to make something massive and not follow the trend. The thinking behind the Translation Series was how life in the East and West are similar, but at the same time somehow very different,” she explained.

“I was confused by the cultural differences between Britain and Korea,” she continued. ”I went to the British Museum and I saw for the first time classical Western sculptures– the ones we had always been copied from books in Korea but never actually seen in real life.  I felt like the marble sculptures looked like soap as they were very softly curved.  These classical marble sculptures are very Western – we don’t have such things in Korea.  The marble in Korea is very tough and has a rough surface, it is not like this. Then this made me wonder ‘Why have I studied Western art and sculpture?’”

In Korea, she explained, she had a very classical art training, using pencils to draw Greek busts.

“I guess we had imported these ideas from Japan,” she said.  “But once I was in the UK, I felt that the way of doing things and lifestyle was very different and so I realised for the first time that the East and West are very different. It also dawned on me that I had studied in Korea without a critical view, without thinking too much. I did not distinguish between our cultures. Even though on the appearance of it, the UK and Korea seem the same, we have differences in the way we do things,” she said.

Soap then became the perfect material for her to express herself and her identity.

Korean artist Meekyoung Shin stands next to a painting made of soap from her Translation Series

Korean artist Meekyoung Shin stands next to one of her paintings made from soap which form part of her ongoing ‘Translation Series’

“It wasn’t just about my identity either,” she said. “I was also thinking about how classical sculpture was considered out of date now, but at one point it had been contemporary. I was thinking that there is a certain value to all art and it should not get out of date.”

Installation and conceptual art were the main trends in sculpture even then, she said. “No one is carving wood or stone anymore or making anything figurative. I thought ‘Why can’t we do this anymore?’”

So in 1998 she decided to make a classical sculpture out of soap.  She grated the soap with a cheese grater into a powder-like clay and then mixed it with hot water and then put it into an armature copying the original piece ‘Venus.’  Once dry she carved the soap sculpture using special tools and then polished it.

“I used soap donated by Unilever and added different colours to it to make it look like marble,” she said.

That became her first major solo exhibition in the UK held in 2011.

“Western classical sculptures might seem old in the West but they were very new to me. That is the translation part – about how they are viewed to a foreigner,” she said.

“Chinese ceramics and porcelain vases are transported East to West and yet there are still misunderstandings of each other’s culture.  What in fact is the East?  When Chinese people are making a vase they are thinking ‘Will Western people like this?’ It’s actually been made for Western import purposes,” she pointed out.

It was the artefacts she had seen in London museums, both classical European ones and Chinese ones brought to the UK, such as porcelain vases, that inspired her Translation Series (2012).

She recalled how when she first saw those museum pieces, having arrived from Korea, she also sensed a smell, the air, even the sound around them. For that reason she decided to use fragrance in her soap to give her sculptures a similar unique appeal.

The Translation Paintings were previously part of a solo exhibition she presented at the National Centre for Craft and Design in the UK. “The theme was ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’”, she said. “So I used the whole gallery as a cabinet and put the painting series (of which there were 300) on the walls. I put the Toilet Series in the middle,” she said. The Toilet Series (2004-ongoing) is a public art project in which she made Western and Eastern icons such as figures of Buddha and Greek gods out of soap and left them in various public toilets across the UK for people to wash their hands with. They subsequently lost shape and “become like antiques.”  So she took the weathered statuettes out after a few months and did an exhibition of them in 2013.

Translation Paintings will be exhibited at several Korean galleries after Asia House, as well as at Art Beijing Art Fair.

Shin revealed that her next project was not connected to soap. “I would like to try a new material that is not soap. I think I would like to make something with ceramics and glass. I never thought I would work with soap for 20 years but I kept getting new projects.  But now I want to try some other materials. I don’t want to restrict myself to soap and I want to create something different,” she said.


Meekyoung Shin’s exhibition Translation Paintings continues in the Asia House Gallery until Friday, 28 August. The exhibition is free and is open to the public Monday to Friday 10.00- 18.00. For more information click here.