People Who Make NY Special

MTA: Metropolitan Transit Artistry

After seven long years, Jean Shin's biggest installation piece to date is finally front and center at the long-awaited Second Avenue subway line.

Have you ridden the new Second Avenue Subway yet? You should. Because not only is it a convenient way to get around the Upper East Side, it’s a veritable underground museum of world-class art. Jean Shin, an installation artist who was born in South Korea and lives in Brooklyn, earned the honor of creating a multilevel permanent exhibit at the line’s 63rd Street station. She chatted with WSWD about being a part of the city’s literal artistic landscape.

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What Should We Do: How did you become involved with the Second Avenue Subway?
Jean Shin: MTA Arts and Design has a rigorous selection process. Back in 2010, I was selected as a finalist for the 63rd Street station, the first of the Second Avenue Subway art commissions. It was very competitive, with many art-world celebrities, so I was especially thrilled that the panel selected me.

WSWD: Were there any restrictions for your work?
Shin: Yes, the MTA has strict guidelines. The public work it commissions must be permanent and within budget. This often means that artists transform their vision into materials and techniques that have proven to withstand the test of time, such as mosaics, ceramics, and glass. I worked with three different fabricators to realize the project: Stephen Miotto for mosaics, Frank Giorgini for ceramics, and Tom Patti for glass.

WSWD: How did you come up with the idea for your installation?
Shin: I wanted to make a site-specific public work that would speak to the nearly 100-year history and the long-awaited arrival of the Second Avenue Subway. Many New Yorkers will remember the promise of the Second Avenue Subway when the elevated trains on Second and Third Avenues were dismantled in the ’40s and ’50s. I wanted the current commuters going underground in the new subway to be transported in time and space to the dismantling of the previous transportation network. I found fascinating old photographs in the archives of the Transit Museum and the New-York Historical Society that documented these events [the dismantling of the elevated trains], which were the initial inspiration for the work. The artwork starts at the street entrance on Third Avenue and 63rd Street and shows the removal of steel beams, as we reimagine building our city’s infrastructure. Today’s commuters then descend down the escalator to the mezzanine level, where a blue sky is revealed in the shape of a ghostly silhouette of the El. Subway visitors stand next to former New Yorkers who once commuted on the El. On the platforms, riders see forgotten vistas of the city from the perspective of the elevated track. I wanted the permanent work to connect to this landmark moment in New York City’s history and bring the story of what was lost and gained in the making of the Second Avenue Subway to public life.

WSWD: How long did the piece take?
Shin: It took nearly seven years, from the idea to fabrication, and then a long while waiting for the subway’s opening in 2017!

WSWD: How does it feel knowing that your art will be a part of the daily lives of millions of New Yorkers?
Shin: It’s a dream to be part of the city’s public space, especially the NYC subway. It’s a special place where people encounter art every day in their commute and experience art in transit where they live and work.

WSWD: Do you just want to hang out at the station and watch people’s reactions to your art?
Shin: I do wish I could hear all the passengers’ responses to the work. When I was last there, so many people came up to me to share their own memories of riding the elevated trains during their childhood and how amazing it was to see their experience reflected in this work. People were posing next to the figures [the mosaic portrayals of the El commuters from the archival photos], guessing at who they might be. Who they actually are is unknown, but I am hopeful someone soon will identify them. These individuals happened to be captured in the photographic documentation of the Elevated during their commute one day and now they are here preserved in the new subway. I chose these individuals because they possessed a striking quality in their pose or expression that caught my attention. They are like the amazing strangers we might encounter in our commute every day.

WSWD: Any other subway art, or public art in general, in the city that you are fond of?
Shin: My favorites are James Turrell’s Skyspace at MoMA PS1 and Walter De Maria’s Earth Room at Dia in Soho. There are so many great places to see public art: Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City and the art along the waterfront at Brooklyn Bridge Park. And the NYC subway is really a public underground museum, with permanent works by legends such as Sol Lewitt, Nancy Spero, Mel Chin, Vito Acconci, Roy Lichtenstein, Nancy Holt, Alison Saar, Elizabeth Murray, Mary Miss…the list is vast!

WSWD: How do you think your work relates to the art at the other new stations?
Shin: Sarah Sze [the artist whose work is on view at the 96th Street station] shares my fascination with the everyday and immersive environments. Both Vik Muniz’s and Chuck Close’s artworks in the new stations reflect the diversity of New Yorkers and take on portraiture in different ways, like mine. There are other relationships, but my work is distinctive in how it also addresses the site directly, capturing its history and the constant rebuilding of New York City. Riding the Second Avenue Subway is really a journey of the city in the making!