Fotograf Magazine

Heji Shin

Poor in World

Although the German-Korean artist Heji Shin attained wider popularity through her photographs for the Spring/Summer 2017 collection of the New York-based brand Eckhaus Latta, which featured explicit images of couples of varying ethnicities and sexual orientations engaging in sexual acts, the true scandal arrived with her portraits of the American rapper Kanye West, who recently elicited controversy through his relationship with the incumbent president of the United States. The artist claims, however, that the declared social and political positions used to justify negative opinion of the work were only a front for a simple hatred of art.

Heji Shin is among the artists who manages to bridge the gap between applied and free photography. She does so not by transferring obsolete techniques from “fine art photography” into the field of applied photography, but by importing impulses from the fashion and advertising industries into fine art. She does not merely draw on the surface of the neoliberal aesthetic – instead, she aims straight for the heart of neoliberalism, which she locates predominantly in the “practices of subjectivization”. This is apparent from the unique photograph shown at Shin’s first solo show, The Great Penetrator (2014), at the now defunct Real Fine Arts gallery in New York: it features a translucent shot of Deutsche Bank HQ overlaid over a shot of a woman’s crotch. Although it might seem that both the work’s title (Poor in World) and composition refer to Courbet’s painting The Origin of the World (1881), thematizing the relationship between art, sex and capital, the title actually refers to Derrida’s famous polemic with Heidegger’s simplifying opposition of man and animal. “Poor in world” is an English translation of Heidegger’s term weltarm, which the German philosopher uses when he claims that “animals are poor-in-world (weltarm)”. Here, Derrida uncovered Heidegger’s anthropocentrism, which led to a ‘genocide’, and not just of animals. This is confirmed by the context in which Shin placed her photograph: the rest of her photographs in this exhibition show animals in captivity at Berlin’s zoo, some again overlaid with transparent images of cages and walls, illustrating Derrida’s favorite quotation from Jeremy Bentham: “The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

Shin explored similar themes in other series, such as #lonelygirl (2016), Baby (2016) and Men Photographing Men (2018). For the former, she was inspired by a hashtag that young girls use on Instagram to accompany their amateur photographs embodying their unfulfilled desires. Shin therefore also stylized herself into figures playing around with objects such as money, sex toys and firearms, the only difference being that she had a stand-in for the photos: a female baboon named Jeany. The second series consists of portraits of babies during childbirth immediately following what is known as the crowning: as the newborn’s head pushes out, their bloody faces gasping for breath remind one of the victims of violent crime. In the third series, Shin explored stereotypes related to homosexual pornography, including scenarios such as police interroga- tion or military training. At the heart of these three projects was the selection of their protagonists, who embodied the processes of subjectivization in these photographs. The ape, for instance, was photographed playing the part of a young girl whose stylized self-portraits exposes who she wants to be. As-yet-unseen newborns were captured in the throes of the painful process of becoming human. Finally, two actors whom the artist found through adverts demonstrate how gay pornography is made, playing the parts of policemen or sailors. In all these photographs, Heji Shin demonstrates the stereotypes linked to processes of subjectivization, as well as the practices of power through which society forces us into these processes.

If most of Heji Shin’s series of photographs gene- rate meaning through a tension between poses and their protagonists, the Kanye series, which she gradually introdu- ced at Kunsthalle Zurich (2018), the biennial of the Whitney Museum in New York (2019) and at the Berlin branch of the Galerie Buchholz (2019), the tension was located exclusively in the subject matter. She photographed the American rapper and music producer Kanye West at a time when he had elicited controversy through actions that included his relationship with the acting American president. Even though Shin prepared her shots of West for the Whitney Biennial as a response to Warhol’s portrait of Mao Zedong, which formed part of a Warhol retrospective that immediately preceded the biennial, the cu- rators opted for an early series, Baby, and only presented two samples from the West cycle – outside the exhibition, in the cloakroom. Shin could thus only realize her original intention at her European exhibitions: in Zurich, she pasted monumental prints directly on the gallery walls and complemented them with x-ray self-portraits with dogs; in Berlin, she used smaller framed versions of the same material. Even though this subject matter also reveals certain aspects of subjectivization – when the American rapper admitted to being bipolar, he revealed his difference from the majority – these were most clearly manifested in her critics. When they accused her of making Kanye West the subject matter of her images in order to identify with him, they divulged their own incapacity to think outside the neoliberal regime of the economization of the subject.

Heji Shin stated her position most clearly at her latest exhibition, Angel Energy (2019–2020), at the Gaga Reena gallery in Los Angeles, based on portraits of the Kardashian sisters and their doppelgangers. She had the portrait of the doppelgangers blown up to cover the entire wall, while the polaroids with the Kardashian sisters were chemically degraded to the point of being unrecognizable. Shin also complemented these with photomontages of Jedy Vales (ambassador of the platform) breastfeeding, clearly demonstrating that her aim is not to consolidate the neoliberal subject but to destabilize it. 

Karel Císař


The German-Korean artist HEJI SHIN lives in Berlin and New York. She entered the mainstream with her fashion photographs for the New York-based brand Eckhaus Latta, which she later introduced at the sixth Athens Biennale (2018). She also took part in group shows including the Whitney Biennial (2019) and Maskulinitäten, Bonner Kunstverein, Bonn / Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne / Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Dusseldorf (2019). She has had solo exhibitions at Reena Spaulings, New York (2017), Kunsthalle Zürich (2018) and the Galerie Buchholz, Berlin (2019). 

KAREL CÍSAŘ teaches at the Academy of Art, Architecture and Design in Prague (UMPRUM). He has published in magazines including Camera Austria and Texte zur Kunst.