The art and politics of Korean skin care.

Tiffany Shin1

Installation view of Universal Skin Salvation . Image courtesy of the artist.

Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin creates work about the fetishization of skin by reverse engineering its laboratories. In her film and installation work, the aesthetics of Sephora, Glossier, and the crisp imaging pivotal to their influence is referenced, with the caveat: no products are sold here, no lifestyle extended or promoted. Instead, the language of haunting is invoked. Of the Korean skin-care industries, Shin asks: How do certain skins become separated from the body? How do we come to desire this process of attainment? And what are the violent historical processes that have elevated certain skin types above others?

—Eunsong Kim

Eunsong Kim I wanted to begin the conversation by discussing your film 5 Step Skin Care (2018), which I found incredibly moving. I imagined it to be a play on the ten-step Korean beauty skin regime, which is often a listicle or a fun YouTube video. Your film is not like that. Your film is a silent poem, and it takes the viewer through the racialization of the body and the traumas that might be illuminated through an understanding of “care.” Whereas skin care has become affixed to self care, and particularly the gendered labors involved in beautification, your film narrows in on the clinical, the abstracted elements (though you retain some familiar imagery, like the application of creams onto the skin), and the desires associated with the genre of racial betterment. Could you discuss how you came to this work and how you conceived of 5 Step Skin Care ?

Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin 5 Step Skin Care is very much inspired by K-beauty’s emphasis on holistic care that consists of ten steps such as cleanser, exfoliator, serum, and more. This step-by-step formula guides the users in achieving a flawless and almost synthetic complexion—“poreless,” “glassy,” and “porcelain”—quite antithetical to what is advertised in their natural substrates in the beauty products.

The video, which overlays highly fetishistic moving images of my custom K-beauty products with text, consists of five “steps” to achieving an impermeable glossy surface and erotic flesh. I wanted to capture in corporeal detail the beauty products that serve as the “exteriors” and “containers” of Korean skin, suppressing real biological flesh. In the step-by-step process, I wanted to obversely “peel” away the superficial shine, locating what skin we are really looking for and celebrating in K-beauty—one that emphasizes rehabilitation from the Korean War, machinic assemblages of Asiatic femininity, and the derealizing hypervisibility of yellow women in America. I wanted to locate the fantasy of K-beauty not as an individuated fetish but as a mechanism of a “desiring production” that arises from a complex history that continually dispossesses the Korean woman of a biological body. At the fifth step, I consider how the Korean War, hentai , and yanngongju are inseparable when discussing the racialization of the Korean woman in America.

EK Certain lines appear in the film, such as, “A subject emerges from and through the fetish,” and, “In the middle of desire, I emerge from the vacuous tags.” I wanted to know more about the “I”—at times the “I” seems bolded. And the “I” reappears, but never as a full body or a person to whom we can attach the “I.” Could you talk about this?

TJS The video starts with the line “to want desire, to be desired, and to be dispossessed are one thing, and in the right point of introduction, a subject emerges from and through the fetish.” Fetish is a form of sexual desire in which gratification is linked to a particular object, part of the body, etc. The cosmetic products become the ultimate fetish objects, providing K-beauty users a chance to enflesh themselves with a second skin of a Korean woman.

How does the Korean woman emerge through flesh that has undergone extreme processes of cultural possession? Does she exist on the shiny surface of the beauty products, which supposedly “animate” her impermeable body? Why does she appear from disappearance? The subject “I,” which refers to the subjectivity of the yellow woman, finds herself tethered to ghostly identifications and the in-betweens of flesh and objects, biological and artificial, and matter and shine.

If she is racially illegible because she is dispossessed of an organic body and nestled in the opacity and transparency of objects, we need to form new, alternative modes of understanding—technologies of “seeing”—how her subjectivities are intertwined and conflated with objecthood. How do we understand the life of a subject who emerges from and through an object? I am interested in investigating the condition and racialization of yellow bodies that have been severely compromised and de-animated, appearing as manufactured prosthetics for Western modernity.