by Whitney Mallett
Heji Shin (Seoul, 1976) had to go to Mexico to make her X-Ray series because countries like the United States and Germany (the artist lives and works between New York and Berlin) have regulations against exposing yourself unnecessarily to the medical procedure’s penetrative radiation. For the photos, Shin posed with small canine companions that she street cast at a park in Condesa, Mexico City’s very fresa neighborhood dotted with art galleries and designer dogs. In addition to showcasing Shin’s graphic and direct visual vocabulary which develops out of the photographer’s hybrid practice spanning fine art as well as editorials and advertising, the X-Ray series includes three important elements recurring in Shin’s larger body of work: a commitment to challenging rules and norms; an involved in-the-world pre-production process finding subjects and gaining access, trust, and intimacy; and a self-effacing engagement with identity.
The X-Ray photos were presented as a part of Shin’s eponymously titled solo show at the Kunsthalle Zürich August 2018 to March 2019, a foil to the exhibition’s more talked-about portraits of Kanye West (underscoring and reproducing the inherent asymmetry, Shin printed the pics of her and the dogs much smaller than the larger-than-life images of Ye.) The Kanye photos then traveled to Berlin for another solo presentation at Galerie Buchholz which opened March 15. This year Shin is also one of the artists participating in the 2019 Whitney Biennial.
While the X-Ray series took Shin to Mexico, the photos of Kanye have their own cross-country back story. After reaching out by email, Shin first met with the rapper and multi-hyphenate in Chicago where she was invited to join Ye & Co. on a highly publicized trip to Uganda. (You can catch a glimpse on Breitbart.com of Shin on the roof of an SUV snapping away as West hands out Yeezy sneakers to orphans outside Kampala.) Only one of the photos included in the Zurich and Berlin exhibitions shows West during the trip—his daughter North sits on his shoulders; giraffes graze in the background. The majority of the portraits come from a ten-minute studio session in Los Angeles that the artist managed to wrangle after several canceled shoots. Shin is nothing if not persistent.
She’s also provocative. Shin knew there would be people who’d have a problem with an exhibition at a Swiss art institute centered around an American entertainment industry figure, especially a big ego like Kanye who’s constantly stoking controversy.
And there were haters. But Shin’s work regularly pokes and prods at the politics of good taste and bourgeois civility, playfully engaging with taboo. The phallic-filled Men Photographing Men (2018) at Reena Spaulings in New York was about gay cop tropes. Her large format series Baby 1-7 (all works 2016), presented at Real Fine Arts also in New York, consisted of unflinching close-up documentation of newborns crowning, their heads not quite out of their mother’s vaginal canals. Shin shot a 2017 series of ads for the art-adjacent American fashion label Eckhaus Latta where she captured images of real sex, blow jobs, hand jobs, and penetrative acts that were then censored in post via pixelation. And for the exhibition catalogue for Bjarne Melgaard’s solo show The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment (2017) at Red Bull Arts New York, Shin dreamed up what she describes as a “boho-fascist single-white-female in a farting contest with Satan” manifested in the image of an ass, shiny and red like a new Ferrari, smoky vapor wafting from its crack.
While Shin’s work is self-consciously provocative, she’s not labeled a provocateur like Melgaard who “never met a taboo he didn’t like breaking” as art critic Roberta Smith infamously put it. Titles like provocateur, enfant terrible, or “bad dad” (as Melgaard likes to call himself) are typically reserved for artists who have a different relationship to persona and ego than Shin, whose work actually depends on her ability to be unassuming. To get access to mothers in the delivery room or to gain the trust of dog owners in Mexico City or to make models feel comfortable sucking dick in front of you, it helps to be a small-ish woman without the ostentatious male ego that Shin clearly finds intriguing—it’s what drew her to photographing Kanye—but that she doesn’t personally carry as she moves through the world.
Through the mechanics of the X-ray machine Shin remains elusive even in a self-portrait. The most penetrating gaze, one that sees through to the foundational bones, actually reveals less than a normal photograph would. It’s a self-defeating gesture of revealing interiority that flatlines with the image of two skeletons, one of the artist and one of the pet. Shin tells me she was motivated to pose with lap dogs for the series because she wanted “little monsters” in her self-portraits. Maybe we can read the pups then as little proxies for the artist herself.
A precedent for this reading is Shin’s #lonelygirl show at Zurich-based Galerie Bernhard in 2016, a series of portraits of a monkey framed as a surrogate for the artist. One of the pics that shows the monkey nibbling on a dildo ended up on the cover of Artforum’s May issue of that year. Other photos illustrate the same monkey draped in pearls or rifling through money in a wallet. Several are fairly close up of the primate’s butt. Together they’re presented as a commentary on Instagram self-representation, the press release flipping the script of millennial pink (the pics’ backdrop color) self-empowerment and politically-correct buzzwords: “these allegorical selfies,” writes Shin, “evade society’s demands to regulate ‘my’ own body to fit the norm. They show a proudly unshaven female body in a safe space—a primitive consciousness over which the devastating condition of existence has barely begun to hove: ‘How do I represent ME?’” Monkeys, pets, little monsters, they’re all shit disturbers. They’re also cute.
Shin has a thing for animals. Her first US solo show The Great Penetrator (2013) at Real Fine Arts in New York consisted of portraits of cum-chewing hoofed mammals (horses, zebras, and camels) shot in their caged environs at a zoo in Berlin—plus one shot of a banal street corner bank superimposed with an anonymous waist, hips, and hairy vagina. Only Shin’s second ever gallery show, the bestial exhibition was framed as an extension of rather than a foil to her commercial photographic practice. She shot the captive creatures in a similar portrait style, the press release explains, that the photographer employs when shootings actors, writers, and models for commercial clients. (As she’s expanded the fine art side of her practice, Shin has maintained this commercial work, for instance, shooting the cover of Swedish pop star Robyn’s 2018 album Honey.) It’s the first of many examples where the animal behind the lens functions as a locus for psychological projection.
Shin’s work—and this probably comes from working outside of just an art context—doesn’t take your attention for granted. Images of sex and animals are sort of by default engaging, just look at Internet statistics for how many people watch porn and interspecies friendship videos. But the animals in Shin’s work also gesture toward a sort of primal instinct transmuted by a cool, detached, and sometimes ironic point of view. I Skyped with Shin and she said something that helped me understand better her work. She explained art that moves her tends to possess a “sublimation of aggression.” My interpretation: there’s an aggression at the heart of the creative process that drives your conviction that something needs to be made and energizes the act of producing it, but the more sophisticated the work the more this energy is redirected, resulting in art that transcends the sum of its parts, that hopefully makes someone say “wow” when they look at it. And Shin’s work provokes this visceral reaction, for me anyways. In our identity politics era of front-facing cameras where vulnerability is commodified through personal narrative, it’s a rare mix, but Shin is able to evade while making it feel like for her there’s still something at stake.
HEJI SHIN (b. 1976, Seoul, Korea) lives and works in New York. Recent solo exhibitions include: Kanye, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin (2019); Kunsthalle Zürich (2018); Reena Spaulings, New York (2018); Real Fine Arts, New York (2016). A selection of her group exhibitions includes: Whitney Biennial, New York (2019); Athens Biennale (2018); Museo Madre, Naples (2018); Kunstverein Leipzig (2016).
WHITNEY MALLETT is a writer and filmmaker. Her work has been presented at MoMA PS1 and the Baltimore Museum of Art as well as published by The New York Times, Artforum, Art in America, Nowness, N+1, Dis, and others.
All images Courtesy: The artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York