If you’re even slightly interested in skincare, it would be hard to ignore the current popularity of K-beauty, or Korean cosmetics and skincare products such as sheet masks, serums, and snail-slime face creams. Many of these products contain lactic acid, an organic compound that’s also used in fermentation and produced by the body. For her solo show at Silent Barn’s Disclaimer Gallery, artist Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin has delved into this multi-use microbe both figuratively and literally, investigating its presence in beauty, bodies, and Korean identity by making her own lactic acid skincare products.
Shin, a Korean immigrant, has a “very personal relationship” with lactic acid in all its manifestations. She grew up eating kimchi, which has more lactic acid than other fermented products, and uses lactic acid as skincare and to help balance vaginal pH levels. Even the gallery walls are personal; they’re painted the same shade as Shin’s complexion, an homage to the makeup store practice of matching your foundation to your skin color.
In addition to the cosmetic component, “I’m basically finding correlation between lactic-acid gut health and racial trauma,” she says, explaining that another use for lactic acid is to “fortify the gut,” and that this can actually help the body become “less vulnerable to PTSD.”
For a show occupying a relatively small amount of space, Objectumsexual and Lactic Acid takes on a lot, just like how lactic acid can play a role in a surprising amount of processes. In addition to the focus on lactic acid cosmetics, there’s Taoism, Confucianism, PTSD, Korean vs. American linguistics, and more. These topics are explored in the form of large posters, which mix scientific language with personal anecdotes. The poster on Taoism is paired with a lactic acid humidifier (to “talk about invisibility,” Shin says) and another on Korean essay writing and cultural norms hangs above the face masks, perhaps a sly reference to the brain.
While Shin’s posters are meant for looking at, her beauty products are meant to be used, working to exfoliate skin while simultaneously promoting the growth of new skin cells. Though she’d never made beauty products before, you could never tell by looking at (and sampling) the lotions, masks, gels, and essential oils in their minimally-designed packaging, which she says was inspired by Glossier, medical supplies, and the concept of an “empty vessel.”
“It was really surprising, because it wasn’t that tough,” she tells me, explaining that she looked at the back of her own cosmetics to learn what the common components were, such as glycerin and Xanthan gum, and conducted research from there. Her next project will be a larger-scale immersive sauna, where lactic acid will also play a role.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve walked into a swanky gallery and I was just like, so I can look at this but how am I gonna remember it? How is it going to make an imprint on any audience’s life?” says the show’s curator, Jin Hee Kwak. “Tiffany gave it to us, it’s like a science experiment, it’s so sick! You can deliberately insert yourself and take some away with you, which is really special.”
The American interest in K-beauty does bring about some skepticism for Shin. To her, it reads as “people literally trying to achieve Korean flesh without wanting the subject of the Korean person and their stories.” This ties in with the other part of the exhibition’s title, objectumsexual, which refers to people who feel desire or attraction to objects. Her exhibition seeks to instead “fuse the boundaries of personhood and thingness.”
Shin also notes that K-beauty itself isn’t without flaws, as its focus on “glass skin” and even “a preferred lack of pigment” (as Elle UK phrased it) can be exclusionary to the black community and other darker-skinned people.
Objectumsexual and Lactic Acid will be the final show at the current iteration of Disclaimer Gallery, an independent gallery within Silent Barn helmed by a team of six showcasing marginalized and/or low-income artists. Though the longtime DIY space will be departing 603 Bushwick Avenue at the end of the month, Kwak tells me Disclaimer Gallery plans to live on elsewhere, and that they’re currently looking for a new space.
“It was so funny, while I was preparing the show, I was visiting my brother in Baltimore. Inside the mall in Baltimore, I go in and I’m like, Wait, why does it feel like I just entered Korea? It felt so weird, only to realize I was in a Korean beauty store. I didn’t even know, I didn’t look at the products, it was before I caught Korean everywhere,” Shin says. “That’s kind of what I mean by objectumsexual as well, realizing your sexuality and your identity is trapped and displaced in all these different places. Maybe you’ll find it in a moment in a mall in Baltimore.”
Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin’s Objectumsexual and Lactic Acid is on view at Disclaimer Gallery through April 26. Proceeds from the show will go to Educated Little Monsters.