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How do 400 broken shoes become art? Inside Philly museum's newest installation

Most museumgoers will never know what went into "Jean Shin: Collections" - the fact that the works arrived in hundreds of pieces, each one individually wrapped and labeled and accompanied by binders filled with meticulously detailed, illustrated instructions on how to unpack and install (and later uninstall and repack) the component parts.​

Installing Jean Shin's exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Installing Jean Shin's exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.Read moreSamantha Melamed

On first glance, it looked as if the world's most organized rummage sale was unfolding within the Philadelphia Museum of Art. More than 400 shoes, pared down to their broad, floppy soles or spiky heels, lay scattered across the gallery floor, each one of them numbered and labeled, destined for a particular spot on an invisible grid.

Art exhibitions, curator Hyunsoo Woo said, "come with different sets of challenges." For instance, in 2014 she hung a 360-year-old, 40-foot-high scroll in the museum's Great Stair Hall.

But complex contemporary projects like this one — a survey of work by Brooklyn-based artist Jean Shin, who assembles found objects into expansive, sometimes immersive installations — require a different type of obsessive attention.

Museumgoers who visit the show, "Jean Shin: Collections," which opens Saturday in the museum's Perelman Building, will arrive to find each piece precisely positioned, framed by pristine white walls. Most will never know what went into that — the fact that the works arrived in hundreds of pieces, each one individually wrapped and labeled and accompanied by binders filled with meticulously detailed, illustrated instructions on how to unpack and install (and later uninstall and repack) the component parts.

A week ago, as Shin walked through the gallery, a dozen installers, conservators, curators, and assistants had already worked three days straight to put the space in order, and there was still plenty left to do.

"The labor seems sort of obscene," Shin conceded, "but I end up doing it."

Her work starts much more organically — a process of experimenting with the materials available to her that fit the popular conception of an artist in the studio.

"Most of my work is about creating a second life [for those materials], where the meaning is broader and deeper," Shin said. "It talks about how we consume and waste, and also how we preserve."

Consider that scattering of discarded shoes, titled Worn Soles, arranged in a swarm on the floor as if to suggest a swirling crowd.

"It mirrors the natural movement of society," Woo said.

To arrange the shoes, Shin studied photos of people gathering, and selected each pair for its unique qualities.

"It's about the hidden drawing of the wear and tear that is an indication of a lived experience — someone on their feet all day, or someone being chauffeured in a limo all the time," Shin said.

But once she's created a composition, the process becomes rigid. The discarded soles find their places fixed in a photograph, overlaid with a grid that will provide a road map for each future installation. Then, this trash-made-precious is accorded a degree of care: to reach the museum, each sole was paired, wrapped in a fold of cardboard, secured by tape, sheathed in Bubble Wrap and boxed in numerical order.

"Sometimes," she said, "this takes as much time as it would to make the piece itself."

Another piece, Spring Collection, came together when Shin was at Materials for the Arts, a New York residency where she began sorting through leather scraps and discovered a pattern: fashion houses used the pristine interior of each piece to construct their samples, but rejected the edges with their contours and wrinkles that suggest leather does, in fact, consist of animal hide. So Shin pieced those edges back together, restoring the ghost of the animal.

"These were temporary placements in the studio. Then, once I have an invitation to show, it's got to commit," Shin said.

She created a template for each work, outlining each one in marker on a sheet of plastic to show the orientation and dimensions, and the placement of each and every upholstery tack.

"The hope is: When you're in front of it, that sense of craft comes through," Shin said.

The same goes for a mosaic of Army and Coast Guard uniforms, each one gifted from a veteran who Shin met with personally, dissected along the seams, ironed and starched and plastered to the wall so meticulously it looks more like wallpaper than segments of fabric. The color gradation that tracks the evolution of camouflage reflects different combat arenas, from the jungle-green of the Vietnam era to the desert sands of the Gulf, then Iraq and Afghanistan. The excised pieces, skeletal seams and pockets and leftover zippers, are festooned overhead.

Woo called Shin over to discuss a swath of goldenrod-colored leather laser-etched with Shin's name, a title treatment for the exhibition.

A quartet of accordion lifts sat waiting for adjustments to an installation strung from the building's atrium. The work, commissioned by Calvin Klein, used fabric and patterns from the company's 2010 women's runway — leftovers turned into banners raised in salute to spring fashion.

And back in the gallery, a team of five worked together to assemble an inordinately complicated piece called Unraveling that Shin created for the Asia Society in New York.

"I started by asking, 'What is an Asia Society?' " Shin said. It sounded like some sort of cabal.

So she asked members of the Asian American arts community to contribute sweaters — then circulated a list among the participants so each could identify which of the others she knew. Then, she used yarn unraveled from the sweaters to trace each individual's social network.

Woo first connected with Shin when she donated her own sweater for the cause more than a decade ago. For this installation, she collected 23 sweaters from the Asian American arts community here in Philadelphia.

There are now 182 sweaters in the show altogether. Some are mostly intact. One donated by Melissa Chiu, who was at Asia Society and is now director of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, has been reduced to one small square. Shin can imagine people being pulled in different directions, worn thin, as they become more connected.

Each sweater arrived with its yarn skeins in a labeled Ziploc bag. A spreadsheet arrived with them to document the interconnections, like a diabolical logic problem. One installer read the names aloud, while others unspooled the threads into a madman's crisscross, a suggestion of a close-knit community or, maybe, a conspiracy theory.

Having a process in place is crucial. But Shin planned to come back after all the spreadsheets and templates and diagrams were put away, to experiment with any last-minute adjustments.

But she won't do too much. After all, one change could lead to a dozen others.

"It becomes this epic project, a real journey. You set up the system and now you've got to do it."