Monday, March 25, 2024

Art Eyewitness Essay: Chiseled in Soap, Sculptures by Meekyoung Shin at the Philadelphia Museum of Art


Chiseled in Soap

 Sculptures by Meekyoung Shin at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Original Photography by Anne Lloyd

Text by Ed Voves

Nothing lasts forever.

In the world of art, the constant danger of loss, damage and destruction is an inescapable fact of life. No group of professionals is more aware of the physical fragility of works of art than art curators and conservators - except artists themselves. Spectacular disasters like the fire which devastated MOMA in 1958 are  - thankfully - rare. Yet, the safety of beloved art treasures can never be taken for granted.

Creative genius and hard work giveth. Time, tide, and misfortune taketh away.

Recently, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) and a brilliant sculptor, Meekyoung Shin (born,1967), collaborated on an unconventional, multi-figure sculpture which directly addresses the tenuous nature of artistic endeavor. By extension, this visionary work of art confronts the universal fate of all humanity.

"The idea of impermanence," Shin succinctly described the theme of her work, "like people's lives."

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Meekyoung Shin’s Eastern Deities Descended,
 photographed on 10/20/23

Entitled Eastern Deities Descended, Shin's sculpture was commissioned by the PMA to complement the recent exhibition, The Shape of Time: Korean Art after 1989. In keeping with the unconventional nature of many of the works of art in the exhibition, Eastern Deities Descended was created using a most unusual material. It was carved from soap - 50,000 bars of Neutrogena soap.

Elizabeth Leitzell, Photo (2023)
 Meekyoung Shin, Artist at Work. 
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Shape of Time exhibition provided an interesting and provocative look at the way Korean artists have responded to vast social changes in their nation and the challenge of global influences since the end of the Cold War. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Gallery view of The Shape of Time exhibition,
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Oct. 20, 2023-Feb. 11, 2024

Meekyoung Shin went a bold step beyond these recent events and contemporary concerns, addressing existential issues basic to life itself.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 The Prophet Isaiah from Eastern Deities Descended,
 photographed on 10/20/23

Eastern Deities Descended
was not displayed in the Dorrance Galleries, along with the eclectic mix of other art works in The Shape of Time exhibition. Rather, it was situated outside the building on the Toll Terrace leading to the museum's West Entrance. This site overlooks the spectacular vista of the Schuylkill River where the rowers immortalized by Thomas Eakins practiced their sport in the late 1800's.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Meekyoung Shin’s Eastern Deities Descended
displayed on the Toll Terrace, 12/15/23

Shin's Eastern Deities Descended comprise a three-figure ensemble, based on the design of a never-completed figure group. This was intended to occupy one of the eight pediments of the Greek-revival styled Philadelphia Museum of Art when it was dedicated in 1928. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
View of the East Entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The story of the PMA's unrealized masterpiece is a complex one, which this Art Eyewitness essay will attempt to clarify. Much of the following text may read like an art history article. But the accompanying photos of the open-air installation offer a pictorial meditation on Meekyoung Shin's theme of the impermanence of man-made objects  - and human lives.

With dogged perseverance, my wife, Anne, took these photographs over the course of frequent visits to the PMA during the autumn/winter of 2023-24. 

"There was something about the figures, a sense of nobility that compelled me to photograph them repeatedly," Anne said. "Because the statues were outside, the light was always changing. No matter how many times one photographs the group, they're never the same three figures. There is always something new to capture."

Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
 Anne Lloyd with the Eastern Deities Descended2/12/24

Even as Anne documented the erosion of a physical work of art, her photos revealed the release of psychic and spiritual energies from Eastern Deities Descended as its "life force" slowly ebbed away, or wafted into the air with the scent of Neutrogena. 

Back in 1926, as construction of the Philadelphia Museum of Art neared completion, a model of the three figures in Eastern Deities Descended, along with several others from Asian culture and religion, was approved. 

The sculptural group, Eastern Civilization, was designed by the noted sculptor, John C. Gregory. A photo of the model, which was made at 1/3 scale of the projected statues, was placed at the base of Shin's Eastern Deities Descended. The circled figures show (from left) the Prophet Isaiah, an allegorical representation of India and Xerxes, the Persian King of Kings. 

The portrait statues, along with others representing the Buddha, King Solomon and Scherazade with the Sultan were to be executed in glazed terra cotta ceramics, an "almost" indestructible material resistant to industrial pollutants and harsh weather. When finished, these awesome figures of Asian spirituality and culture would be hoisted-up and positioned on the museum's southwing pediment.

It never happened.

To this day, the triangular space above the temple-like columns, approximately twelve feet at its highest point and seventy feet wide, remains "uninhabited." Destined to be the abode of prophets, goddesses and kings of the ancient Orient, the pediment was bricked-up to preserve the structural integrity of the building.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
View of the Southwing Pediment, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 
projected site of John Gregory's Eastern Civilization sculptures 

In October 1929, the Wall Street financial crash and the ensuing Great Depression brought a decade of "hard times" to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Donations and endowments to the new museum dwindled and funding was found for only one of the eight pediment sculpture groups, on the northwing pediment. A brilliant rendering of Zeus and other figures from Greek mythology, these pediment statues were designed by Carl Paul Jennewein and installed in 1932-33. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
View of the East Courtyard of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
and Northwing Pediment sculptures by Carl Jennewein

A look across the PMA's grand courtyard to the northwing pediment and a closer inspection of Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite and the ten other Olympians brings a twinge of "what might-have-been" for their Asian counterparts. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Close-up view of Carl Jennewein's Western Civilization Pediment

Actually, the more one studies the backstory of Jennewein's Greek gods and heroes, the more understandable is the failure to repeat the success by completing and installing Gregory's Eastern Civilization statues. From conception to completion, Jennewein's statues took five years. Special kilns had to be built at the Perth Amboy, NJ, factory which cast the colossal terra cotta figures. Lastly, an arduous, ten-week campaign, November 1932 to January 1933, was needed to raise and install Zeus and his minions to the northwing pediment.

November 1932 to January 1933 was the darkest period of the Great Depression. The song of the hour was "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Nobody had a dime for terra cotta statues of Asian prophets and heroes.

It is no wonder then, that the current curators of the Philadelphia Museum chose Meekyoung Shin, an artist who specializes in sculpting with soap, when they decided to revisit the ill-fated Eastern Civilizations project of the 1920's-1930's.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Meekyoung Shin’s Eastern Deities Descended, 12/15/23

It was a wise decision, as well, to to stay with the 1/3 scale dimensions of Gregory's model rather than go "big." 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Allegorical Figure of India, 12/15/23

Jennewein's Zeus measures twelve feet high and weighs approximately one ton. The allegorical figure of India, occupying the equivalent center position in Gregory's design, would have had similar dimensions. The number of bars of soap needed to create such a towering goddess does not bear thinking about!

What does deserve serious reflection is the brilliant use by Meekyoung Shin of a prosaic, limited-lifespan substance - soap - to create images which address cosmic issues on a down-to-earth level. 

The serene, terra cotta Greek gods remain aloft in the "Olympus" created by Carl Jennewein. By contrast, Shin has incarnated John Gregory's Asian holy men and women in soap. Thus embodied, they are able to mingle with us, mortal men and women, and to live, to age, to pass away as we do. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 The Prophet Isaiah, photographed 10/20/23 (top) & 12/04/23

In a remarkable process of visible decay, the bodies of these Eastern sages started to disintegrate, drip-by-drip of melting soap. And as they did, the light of transcendence began to pour through.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Weather-erosion of the Shield of Xerxes, 12/04/23

What really impressed Anne and me about Eastern Deities Descended was its ability to channel sun light and project shadow. In dazzling visual displays, light streamed through the faces, hands and arms of the "deities", through the folds of garments, the scroll of sacred scripture carried by Isaiah and Xerxes' shield.

 Humble soap was made to glow, transformed to glisten like precious amber or molten gold. In the pure, sparkling light of our December 15, 2023 visit, Anne's most successful photo session, the features of Isaiah, India and Xerxes projected a celestial radiance.

Luminous had changed to numinous light.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
The Prophet Isaiah (top), India and Xerxes, 12/15/23

There is, of course, a scientific explanation for all of this, based on optics - the power of light penetrating substances of varying degrees of solidity, etc. People of a religious frame of mind, however, are alive to symbolism in art and nature. The ancient prophets and magi portrayed by Gregory and Shin certainly took manifestations of light seriously.

During our repeated visits to photograph Eastern Deities Descended, a number of uncanny light effects seemed to confirm that something magical, ineffable, call it what you will, was taking place.

On our December 4th visit, an overcast day generally unfavorable for photography, a single ray of light suddenly illuminated Isaiah, enhancing his status as one of the Bible's great prophets. Ten minutes later, the clouds parted just enough, for Xerxes' eye to cast an imperious glance our way.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Meekyoung Shin's Eastern Deities Descended, 12/04/23

On a later visit, February 5th, 2024, the "skies opened" again. Another beam alighted, this time on the plaque giving details of the sculpture group and its historical background. We could not have planned this photo "op" if we tried.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Views of the Eastern Deities Descended2/05/24

Then, we were brought down to earth. The Prophet Isaiah's mighty staff was missing.  And his hand along with it.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 The Prophet Isaiah, Eastern Deities Descended2/05/24

January had been a cold month in Philly with several snow storms, causing us to postpone regular visits to the museum. During our absence, the freezing weather had shown the Eastern Deities to be mortal after all.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 View of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, West Entrance,
 and the Eastern Deities Descended2/12/24

We paid our final visit to Eastern Deities Descended on February 12th, another gloomy day. The Shape of Time exhibition had closed the day before. We hoped that the PMA would keep the Eastern Deities on view a while longer. This was a site-specific exhibition and the statues, despite the loss of Isaiah's staff were holding their own, amazingly well, against the weather and the vicissitudes of life.

As we left the museum on the afternoon of February 12th, Anne took a long-range picture of the Eastern Deities. We hoped it would not be Anne's last photo of them.

It was.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 The Toll Terrace, Philadelphia Museum of Art, March 2024

The removal of Eastern Deities Descended has left an empty, almost desolate, space on the PMA's Toll Terrace. There is an unsettling sense of loss in our feelings about the fate of Eastern Deities Descended

Anne and I came to regard the three statues as powerful statements of art and life. We even took to calling them the "soap people." These Eastern Deities made quite an impact on our lives.

One thing is certain. Meekyoung Shin's message of the impermanence of life has been powerfully confirmed. Yet, the "here yesterday, gone today" departure of Eastern Deities Descended feels like a life has been terminated before its time. All we are left with is our memories. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Meekyoung Shin’s Eastern Deities Descended,
 photographed on 12/15/23

Perhaps, that is the ultimate lesson here, a blunt manifestation of the reality of impermanence. Life is short and art is long, but even art is not forever.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved.

Original photography, copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by Anne Lloyd.

Introductory Image: Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Statue of the Persian King, Xerxes, one of three figures in Meekyoung Shin's Eastern Deities Descended, 2023.

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