ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW         ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW    

Heji Shin

Words by
Franklin Melendez
From Issue 34 – SS 19

As social media increasingly replace IRL public space, posting work online compares to placing a sculpture in a town square, vulnerable to controversy and vandalism. In the ambiguous work of Berlin-based photographer Heji Shin—think sexy cop intercourse, graphic baby deliveries, and those infamous Kanye West portraits—one could argue the elicited reactions are exactly the point.

Gazing at the comely (though less-than-satisfyingly plump) buttocks of one of the hot cops in Heji Shin’s “Men Photographing Men,” it dawned on me that it’d been a minute since I’ve thought about the art historian Hal Foster.  The work in question (Heji’s, not Hal’s) was Book Em Danny (2018), one of the tamer, campier snaps from the series, originally exhibited at New York’s Reena Spaulings Fine Art in 2018. The image presents two models dressed as sexy officers: one disrobed except for his utility belt, looking back whilst reading seductively on the couch, while above him looms his fully dressed partner shining a helpful flashlight onto the titular, pun-worthy book (to protect and serve, indeed). Both men look directly and intently at the camera, their cis male gazes triangulating the faintly tan-lined cheeks of the recumbent sub. The absurdity of the presentation somehow took me back to Foster’s The Return of the Real (1996), a critical treatise with absurdist tendencies in its own right. The passage in mind discusses the cleverly termed “artifice of abjection” as it pertains to transgressive practices in American art in the late 1990s (think early-ish Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelly and the like). For Foster, their aesthetic antics eventually reached an internal contradiction. As he notes: “Is this then the option that the artifice of abjection offers us: Oedipal naughtiness or infantile perversion? To act dirty with the secret wish to be spanked.”

Who’s to say if Miss Shin wishes to be spanked, but some of her pictures certainly flirt with the idea—but then again, I might just be projecting. At the very least, I would say they’re asking for it, although what that something is might be more difficult to ascertain. Perhaps it is simply a response. This becomes all the more apparent as her works circulate through the various platforms available to them: not only IRL exhibits, but Instagram posts, press releases, installation views, magazine interviews, even the images included in the following pages. The reactions are as varied as the figures and scenarios depicted: the wry identification sparked by monkeys playing with various Homo sapien accoutrements (dildos, toy guns, wallets); the visceral jolt of viewing newborns crowning in close-up in “Babies”; the humorous titillation of aforementioned costumed cops; the eyebrow-raising throes of real millennial couples having very real intercourse—the pixelated versions of which appeared in a number of glossies as an advertising campaign for the fashion label Eckhaus Latta, while the explicit shots popped up in art fairs as stand-alone works.
The astuteness of this distinction makes it clear that circulation is far from an afterthought, but rather an integral component of Shin’s output, constitutive of her visual architecture. As she notes, the elicited reactions “definitely complete the work conceptually, making the photos act as a receptacle for all sorts of emotions and mental states—a bit like a sculpture that you put in a public space just so it can get pissed on and vandalized with graffiti. It’s an interesting form of entropy.” 

To date, no body of work has performed this process as extravagantly as her most recent, consisting of fairly straightforward portraits of the rapper, fashion mogul and complicated public figure, Kanye West. The elaborate and somewhat serendipitous (and/or accidental) process found Shin whisked up by West in his post-White House/ TMZ rant flurry en route to Kenya, where she eventually pinned him down for a swift ten-minute session, followed by a few wayward snaps back in Chicago. The results depict the various phases of Kanye, which like the moon itself are temperamental but also slightly interchangeable. These were enlarged and displayed billboard-style at Kunsthalle Zürich, and versions will appear in the forthcoming Whitney Biennial.
As a grouping, these images of West present themselves as portraits in name only, lacking the intimacy or glimpsed interiority usually attributed to this particular mode of representation. Instead, they read as stubbornly inscrutable, no more revealing than an album cover, offering imperceptible variants on blankness (save for one that strikes me as suspiciously sentimental). At their scale, they feel more like ready-made backdrops, which they became (whether asking for it or not) when the show opened its doors and welcomed museumgoers, from critics to fuccbois and everything in between.

But it was only once these re-presented images starting popping up in various feeds that the fun really started—and, I would argue, that the real work began. Easy and highly visible targets, the pieces seem to say nothing other other than “Please comment below,” swiftly accruing a history of their own defacement, from a smattering of “sick” and fire emojis to more problematic accusations of exploitation and political tone deafness.  A particularly vociferous online commenter derided the West images in their totality as one of the “seven signs of the apocalypse,” which leaves one curious as to the material incarnations of the remaining six.
It is easy to see why these images strike such a nerve at this particular moment: they lie at the nexus of a number of incompossible cultural lay lines—almost too many to trace here. Ultimately, in their inexpressiveness, they force us to come face-to-face (get it?) with the limits of our projection, as its performance in real time reveals its gaps and fissures. Think New Year’s Mariah: the seams become visible, the illusion dispelled. A dreamer woken will always be cranky. The allegory of Kanye’s cave.

I suspect Ms. Shin would disagree with most of this—or, more likely, would hesitate to weigh in one way or another. This type of critical reticence hasn’t helped a perception of her practice as inhering in a type of post-critical nihilism or, at the very least, stylized edge-lording. But I get it—there’s no fun in exposition, and after a certain point, we all seem incapable of escaping our echo chambers. As she grimly notes: “Every time I argue with someone in a comment section, I probably reinforce their belief, and I definitely reinforce my own belief that they are hopelessly stupid. I don’t think comment sections are spaces where ideas are being exchanged. It’s more of a sort of public spittoon for emotional baggage, which at least makes for occasional quality entertainment.”
Or, to put it differently, it just stops being funny—and that might be a blind spot we all share. This is not to say that the issues surrounding West aren’t dead serious; it simply suggests that to tackle them deadpan runs the risk of replicating the discursive structures in which they inhere—those systems of viewing, monitoring and policing that Foucault named before we virtualized and networked them. In that bramble, a giggle might be just what is needed, if only to temporarily unfix the direness of these straights. After all, humor is one of those things you just can’t explain; you have to arrive at it in your own embodied way, especially when the stakes are no joke at all.

Heji Shin (Korean, B. 1976) is an artist who lives and works in New York. She was just featured in the 79th Whitney Biennial in New York.
Franklin Melendez is a NY-based writer and curator and contributing editor of KALEIDOSCOPE.

All images courtesy of the artist; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York; and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York.

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