This Artist Deconstructed More Than 400 Pairs of Shoes to Highlight Materialism & Undiscovered Beauty

One man’s trash is truly another man’s treasure at Jean Shin: Collections, opening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Satuday. The exhibition features six large-scale installations by Korean-American artist Jean Shin, who is known for creating elaborate artworks out of unlikely materials.

Of the six installations in Jean Shin: Collections, two of the pieces, “Worn Soles” and “Hide,” were derived from and focus specifically on shoes. Shin collected more than 400 pairs of shoes from friends and donors, deconstructing every aspect of the footwear to form the two modules. The result is an elaborate display that provides commentary on the many walks of life, including the relationship between materialism and consumption and how, despite being individuals, we essentially move as a collective group marching towards one goal.

“In ‘Worn Soles’ (2001), Shin displays soles taken from randomly collected shoes face-up and arranges them into groups moving in one direction or dispersing to resemble the movement in our everyday lives,” explained a press release by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

jean shin, collections, worn soles, philadelphia museum of art
Worn Soles, 2001, by Jean Shin. Installation at the Rotunda Gallery, Brooklyn.
CREDIT: Courtesy of artist

The release continued, “Born from the same castoff shoes, ‘Hide’ focuses upon their material qualities. Cut-out leather pieces are flattened and paired by attaching them at the heels. The units are then arranged together by gender, color, and texture, mimicking naturally-occurring groupings in our society. In this work, discarded shoes become surrogates for their former owners.”

According to Hyunsoo Woo, The Maxine and Howard Lewis curator of Korean Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Shin does not discard any of her materials. This led her to eventually repurpose the discarded leather uppers from “Worn Soles” into “Hide.”

“She made a tapestry that hangs from the ceiling. It looks like animal hide with perforations, so again with this work she also wanted to bring the viewers attention to the material aspect of the shoe,” said Woo.

“Through arranging by gender, color and textures of the leather she comments on the naturally existing groups in our society. Because I’m a woman, ‘I’m this and that,’ so we all have different groups we belong to. She’s so keen to address the idea of identity as an individual and a group and a network of people through community,” she said.

jean shin, collections, worn soles, philadelphia museum of art
Jean Shin.
CREDIT: Daniel Terna

Woo goes on to break down the several takeaways that the artist hopes viewers will glean from the exhibition.

“She wants people to take a look at this undiscovered beauty that exists in daily intimate unworn objects because you never pay attention to the bottom of the shoe and you had no idea that leather from worn out shoes can be a beautiful work of art,” said the curator.

Aside from an understanding about how inanimate objects can become expressive works of art, there’s a bigger message behind the installations about society as a whole.

“She also wants people to think about the consumer society because the fashion industry is all about conspicuous purchases. Some of the shoes aren’t even worn that many times but they were happy to give it up. Then, the network of people — we naturally have a relationship with different people as a social animal so that’s very clear in her work,” explained Woo.

“These objects are so close to a previous owner that they became a proxy of these people that used to wear them. It’s all about quantity and every single item represents someone in some way and once connected to some other unit it gains new function, meaning and beauty,” she added.

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