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Trophy Life, or: Jean Shin Plays Statue

trophy.jpgA few months ago in my column I mentioned that the Smithsonian was interested in your old sports trophies, those bits of wood and cheap plastic that encrust our mantles, basements and children's bedrooms. Handed out like candy, these things are nevertheless hard to throw away--it seems wrong somehow, like throwing away a book--and more than one reader has contacted me in the hope that I had some handy avenue for guilt-free trophy recycling.

Well, you can see one way if you go to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where Jean Shin has turned nearly 2,000 old trophies--most donated by people from the Washington area--into a piece of installation art called "Everyday Monuments."

The 37-year-old artist removed the sports equipment--the softball bat clutched in the hands, the outstretched tennis racquet, the soccer ball perpetually in the act of being kicked--and replaced them with more workaday objects: hammers, vacuum cleaners, strollers, steering wheels.

"The project is really a tribute to labors that go unnoticed and under-recognized," Jean told me yesterday when I called her in Brooklyn. The trophies now celebrate things that "you don't win a trophy for."


Jean grew up in Montgomery County and graduated from Whitman High School. (Barbara Steele, a longtime Whitman PTA booster helped gather many of the trophies.) She finds Washington an especially fitting place for the work: The teeny memorials resonate with the huge ones that dot the city. "I thought it was interesting, the relationship between these grand monumental figures in the capital versus the little figurines that we hold in our lives that are equally symbolic."

I mentioned that trophies are so cheap these days, she probably could have ordered a couple thousand from a wholesaler for not much more than she'd spend on more typical art supplies. That's now how she works.

"The reason that these are significant to me is that they are part of people's lives," she said. "My work can tap into that and reflect the existence of trophies that have been won by people, used in their lives as this place of memory...I'm only interested in the things which have an appearance of wornness."

"Everyday Monuments" is part of "Jean Shin: Common Threads," an exhibit of eight of the artist's massive works, including "Chance City," ziggurats constructed from thousands of losing lottery scratch tickets, and "Chemical Balance III," a towering assemblage of empty prescription bottles.

What you won't see in "Everyday Monuments" are any of Jean Shin's old sports trophies. She told me she never won any.

The exhibit opens tomorrow and runs through July 26. Jean will be lecturing on her work tomorrow at 7 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

And RROTB ("regular readers of this blog," remember?) will not be surprised to learn that I told Jean about my quixotic attempt to turn lost gloves into some kind of art. She approves.

By John Kelly  |  April 30, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
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