When people see the image of a human fetus, they often associate it with abortion and the warring political perspectives that come with that issue. But to artist and entrepreneur Lily Su, the image of an unborn baby symbolizes ultimate comfort. After creating a series of light boxes featuring images of developing embryos, she moved on to sculpting her ideas in soap. The unexpected new medium allowed customers to interact with her art in ways that aren't permitted in traditional art galleries (a Basquiat canvas wouldn't be of much use to you in the shower). The result was a life-size 12- to 13-week-old soap fetus measuring 2.5 inches incased in an amniotic sac.
In 2012, Lily launched an Etsy shop, Yours in Soap, to sell her Castile creations, which included other pieces like human feet, the male form, and realistic-looking fruit. A few months later, the now extinct site Regretsy featured the fetus soap as an item that "Rick Santorum probably bought his wife for Mother's Day." This brought a lot of positive and negative attention to Yours in Soap from angry people who mistakenly thought Lilly's product had a political agenda.
Offended customers messaged Lily urging her to take her products down because they felt she was "degrading humanity." But she was already pushing forward with new ideas in the art-soap field, like her recent collection of 3-D-printed soap jewelry.
I recently met with Lily to talk about her controversial soap, deformities, and 3-D printing.
VICE: What is your background in art?
Lily Su: I started really young in Beijing. Since I was four, my parents wanted me to play piano, dance, and study art. I always thought I was going to be a product designer or architect, because it was something practical plus it had the art aspect. I did architecture for one semester at the Rhode Island School of Design, and I didn't feel like I fit in. So I transferred into sculpture.
Why'd you start working with soap?
Before I went to college, the first $500 I had in spending money, I used to try and start a soap business. Around that time I saw a lot of soap projects that you could do that were pretty cheap. I bought five-gallon tanks of oil and mixed that with lye to make traditional soaps.
It's kind of a strange material to work with. What do you like about it?
At first I did soaps because I thought it was a viable business. During my last semester I was working in a gallery, and I could feel there was an uneasiness because there was a security guard standing there saying, "Don't touch that." I would see students come in during the deinstallation and stuff the projects in their backpacks. There are times when people want that interaction between a stranger and their piece, but that just doesn't happen because people are uncomfortable. I essentially took my already working projects and made them in soap, because with the ability to remelt and pour, you can make anything, especially with the resin and silicone stuff I was already doing.
How did the idea to do a fetus-shaped soap come about?
At the time I was working with the idea that through birth we were all connected and the idea of infinite comfort visually. I researched more about birth, and I found this encyclopedia of birth deformities. I saw a few that really interested me, like the "cyclops baby." When I started to make the deformities through soap, I realized that through the casting process there are a lot of ways to imitate deformities very naturally.
What was the initial response to your soaps?
In general, people like it because it is different. But, I have had people who are really freaked out about it. When some people think of fetuses, they automatically think of abortion. I just think it is something cute. I had people who messaged my Etsy shop and told me to take it down because it is offensive to portray humans in this form. I like the idea of just being in the comfort of your own home and taking the soap in your hands and realizing that we all came from this, we were all this size.
What are you working on now?
I have been trying to expand my product line, but nothing seems to be as viral as the fetus soap. In 2012 I got interested in 3-D printing, and I really wanted to bring CAD modeling into sculpting. The soap jewelry I am working on is about turning the shower into a performance art space.
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