Heji Shin is a New York–based German-Korean photographer. She works commercially on projects such as fashion shoots as well as in the—no less commercial—art world. Shin became known, amongst others, for her images commissioned by the American fashion label Eckhaus Latta and for Make Love, a much-discussed sex education book for teenagers, as well as for the image series #lonelygirl and Babies.
Heji Shin's photography raises—from a variety of perspectives and with great audacity— the question of intimacy. At the center of intimacy sits always trust, something that is today called into question on all sorts of levels (think of fake news, misuse of data, skepticism towards experts, etc.). Yet intimacy is the fulcrum between our body and the public sphere, capable, at turns, to protect or expose us. Currently undergoing a reevaluation in the context of social media, it is a momentous subject of crucial importance. It has become a global battleground and a site of profound upheavals and confusion. Once again, we face the challenge of the “difficult business of intimacy” (Virginia Woolf), in other words, there is a need to fundamentally readdress the complex question of intimacy. This is the trajectory of Shin's image production; her photography is a demand to face this task. Yet at the same time, it proceeds with seeming equanimity and casualness. This, however, is precisely what defines the caliber and provocative potential of the work: its calm exposure of what is deeply stirring.
At Kunsthalle Zürich, Heji Shin presents two new bodies of work: portraits of Kanye West and a series of X-ray self-portraits with a dog.
Kanye West is an American musician, producer, designer, and international pop star who calls himself a genius. He polarizes audiences due to his political views and scandalous appearances—some see him as a genius, others consider him to be a megalomaniac. Many, especially visual artists admire his prolificacy. According to Heji Shin, it is not just those we love who deserve admiration. The artist has met Kanye West on several occasions and also accompanied him to Uganda. It was on that trip that the image of West with his daughter North on his shoulders was taken. The further nine portraits are the result of a 10-minute photo shoot in Los Angeles. The portraits were printed on paper, scaled up to billboard format, and applied directly to the wall. Thus, the exhibition shows West „larger than life“—both with regard to his work and his media presence. Despite all this, his “self” remains, of course, inaccessible, because the work’s seeming intimacy is illusory and its familiarity artificial. This individual’s staging ultimately is nothing more than the staging of the medium of photography itself.
In her series X-Rays by contrast, Heji Shin let herself, together with specifically cast dogs, literally be scanned down to the bone. The X-ray images show the innermost structure of the bodies in their purest form. In a world concerned almost exclusively with outward appearances, these self-portraits appear to convey an illusive veracity.
“The most beautiful thoughts are always besides the darkest.”
- Kanye West, Today I Thought About Killing You
“ Culture attracts the worst impulses of the moneyed, it has no honor, it begs to be suburbanized
- Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge
Ye is as American as they get, the kind of folk hero that can only be born in a place like this: not a physical place; a pattern, a biomass that originated in the New World, in the assembly lines of Ford and McDonalds, the circuits of the Apple II, the pages of Xerox and the packets and channels of ARPAnet, the nuclear reveries of the Interstate Highway System, but has long since eaten the rest of it. Everything is design; design is the new divinity, the immanence of Spinozan Nature made in man’s image. The new heroism, the new salvation, is to be the Producer, the channel through which the parametric contours of our new reality flow. This is what he meant when he proclaimed “I am a god!”
Yeezus was an album about liberation through communion; the 99 Theses, a call for us to become the Producer, to take design away from the clergy and put ourselves in direct contact with Product in all its shapes and essences.
“and he goes on to tell me about the way it works and what he said was "You are a celebrity. So basically what's going to happen is, there's product here, and this is where you end up, right here. If you can communicate the product you can make money of the product, cause look at Gaga. She's the Creative Director of Polaroid." I like some of the Gaga songs. What the fuck does she know about cameras?”
The medium is the message, and the celebrity is nothing more than a medium: Polaroid isn’t a camera, it’s a lifestyle, and now it’s Gaga, and Ye knows this; you think he doesn’t understand branding? It’s media all the way down, and that’s exactly why money, let alone acclaim, won’t save you from filling the ranks of the New Slaves: are you an architect, a Producer? or are you a court jester? “Success” isn’t the same thing as power, the ability to shape things, however large or small, to act as an extension of your own conatus, to set the rules instead of playing someone else’s game, lest you reach “a point in my life where my Truman Show boat has hit the painting”.
That wasn’t the first time he made this analogy: it first appeared in the streets of Neo-Tokyo where death-defying gangs of hoverbikers raced and battled one another against a backdrop of perennial apocalypse; where Tetsuo, entangled with forces beyond human comprehension carries within him the seed of a new universe and a need to escape the confines not only of the underground facility of his military captors, but of his adoptive Big Brother, Kaneda; much like the subject of a similarly named song on the same album. Truman and Tetsuo alike fight tooth and nail against neoteny, discontent to achieve anything short of defining their own terms, driven by a compulsion to not merely traverse but terraform the ground beneath their feet. If America is a place, if the world is a place, it’s the electromagnetic spectrum. You can plop a computer down anywhere you want, but without the omniscient bath of waves and particles, always passing through us, penetrating and rendering us transparent, nothing happens. Design has a substance, design is a substance. We’re citizens; lords, vassals, and peasants of the intangible; difference, skin, clothes, brands, combinatorics, stripped away, leaving us on equal ground with the animal, the best friend that therefore I am.
Modernity implodes, ending with a whimper, and atop it the entrepreneur, the architect, stands amongst us children of the spectral polyphony, kids seeing ghosts; offering cleansing hellfire, entangled contradictions, patched-up dreams and broken infrastructure; shouting I am a God!
- Alexander Boland
Heji Shin, born 1976 in Seoul, South Korea, lives and works in Berlin and New York.
With special thanks to Heji Shin and Galerie Buchholz and additional thanks to Galerie Bernhard and Reena Spaulings Fine Art. Images courtesy of Heji Shin and Galerie Buchholz.