The London gallery Haunch of Venison, currently housed in the back of the Royal Academy, would seem to be out of place. While its main location undergoes renovation, the contemporary art gallery is running its shows in the cavernous spaces of the eighteenth-century museum. Upon first impression, however, the sculpture (a polychrome fragment of Roman Antiquity?) in the niche at the top of the landing of the grand main staircase appears to fit right in. The sculpture, though, reveals itself to be Korean artist Meekyoung Shin’s Translation- Greek (1998), a figure made entirely of soap. Within this artist’s first major exhibition in the UK – entitled Translation – her choice of subject matter and material stimulate a fascinating engagement with ideas of translation and transmutation, specifically reflective with regard to originality, material languages and dislocation.
Mounted on shipping crates and mirrors, variously shaped copies of Chinese porcelain vases fill a room in dappled formal rhythm. Get close enough in inspecting these colourful creations and you can smell their material. These copies, like the translations into soap of Western antiquities, embody multiple layers of intellectual thought. A Korean artist has transplanted a foreign cultural tradition not only geographically (from origin to Korea to London) but also in terms of media (from marble or porcelain to soap). The creations call into question notions of originality as well as national identity. These artistic forms (Chinese porcelain and Western antiquities) have become languages recognizable the world over. The languages transcend location and, as Shin demonstrates, material as well.
In her Ghost Series (2009), Shin groups vases of various shapes and translucencies into colours to further explore notions of identity. These luminous shapes have no indication of original markings – colour is all that separates these shadows of their former selves one from the other. Excellently curated, the glowing soap sculptures haunt the space and capture the viewer (much like the Golden Buddha  in the neighbouring blackened room). They are simultaneously placeless and timeless.
Soap as a medium ultimately betrays this eternal quality. A tension exists between the eternal and the ephemeral. Do these soap sculptures have commercial value and longevity? Or are they doomed in their use of a transient material (excellently demonstrated in the variously worn iterations of wear shown in the Toilet Buddha Series )? I imagine these sculptural objects could melt and collapse like the Crushed Gilded Vase (2009) if not properly maintained. The fragmented Crouching Aphrodite (2002) demonstrates this fragility, cracking where flesh folds quite realistically. The space at the left shoulder reveals the towel-rack-like inner armature. Aside from evoking the timeless model of the goddess of love with its name, the sculpture uses non-ideal human modeling along with delicate material to capture the very transience of time.
The appropriately titled show Translation vividly navigates a complicated space of artistic traditions, transmutations and dislocations. The setting, framing a clash of contemporary art in historic architectural space, quite deftly creates an exchange with the art that it houses. Shin’s layered (and scented) work with its rich visual attributes compels the viewer to approach, a movement that leads to a transposition from sensorial to ideological.
Meekyoung Shin’s Translation runs until April 2 at Haunch of Venison, 6 Burlington Gardens, London, W1S 3ET.