‘I Never Wanted to Be Avant-Garde’: Heji Shin Doesn’t Claim Her Provocative Photographs Are Intellectual, But Many of Her Biggest Fans Are
You won't find any naked bodies in “The Big Nudes” the artist's new show 52 Walker. Then again maybe you will.
There are no naked bodies in “The Big Nudes,” Heji Shin’s new show at 52 Walker—at least not the kind implied by the title. Instead, what you’ll find are giant pictures of pigs, shot against a studio backdrop, and MRI scans of the artist’s own brain. Both subjects are technically bare, but this is not exactly the stuff of late-night sexts.
For some, Shin inspires “emperor’s new clothes” doubts. Her irreverent, provocative pictures have found fans in bleeding-edge fashion brands and art institutions, but for others, they flummox and inflame. There’s a good chance “The Big Nudes” will generate the same range of reactions.
“I’m not that subtle,” the artist and editorial photographer said, deadpan, during a recent Zoom interview. She was sitting in an old farmhouse in the Hudson Valley, which she recently purchased and is trying to fix up. Born in South Korea, raised in Germany, and now mostly based in New York, Shin exudes a cosmopolitan cool that makes it hard to picture her doing housework in the sticks. “I don’t claim any intellectual approach in my art practice,” she went on. “I never wanted to be avant-garde.”
As with her 2020 exhibition “Big Cocks,” which exclusively featured photos of roosters, Shin uses the title of her new show as bait. “The Big Nudes” also nods to a 1981 portfolio of the same name by the late fashion icon Helmut Newton (which does feature a lot of naked bodies). Tellingly, Shin is an avowed admirer.
Critics of Newton’s work point to its objectification of female bodies. Susan Sontag once called him a “misogynist” who “humiliates women.” But others see genuine affection: “The true subject of his photographs, as rooted as they were in male fantasy, was the awesomeness of feminine power,” Variety critic Owen Gleiberman wrote in 2020, echoing a common—if somewhat flimsy—pro-Newton rebuttal.
Shin shares Newton’s wit and sense of style, and she similarly revels in the thrill of the gaze, even—or especially—if that gaze is a little prurient. But it’s not the space of “male fantasy” that her pictures explore. What she’s interested in is difficult to put a finger on, but it has something to do with the economy of images in the 21st century, where news and products and porn all blur together in the fight for real estate on our screens.
That’s the space where Shin’s work lives. She photographs farm animals like pinup models and lovers like documentary subjects. Her photos twinkle with a commercial polish, but what they’re selling isn’t clear.
Just as punny titles are one of Shin’s signatures, so are odd pairings. She’s shown appropriated images of the Kardashians next to illustrations of A.I.-generated avatars breastfeeding and pictures of monkeys next to shots of role players recreating war scenes. As with those combos, the ties between the swine and brains of “The Big Nudes” are not obvious. (The MRI scans were generated specifically for this show and did not come from a health scare, Shin pointed out.)
It’s easier to map these new pictures as coordinates in the broader constellation of Shin’s work, where, say, the “Big Cocks” birds relate to the “Big Nudes” pigs, which in turn point to the NYPD officers penetrating each other in her 2018 exhibition “Men Photographing Men.” “I think [they exist in] the same cosmos,” she said. “When you’re interested in certain archetypes, then one leads to another, one references the other.”
Shin’s current exhibition isn’t going to inspire the backlash that some her previous efforts have. The “Men Photographing Men” pictures made headlines, as did her 2017 Eckhaus Latta campaign, for which she shot real couples mid-coitus. The 2019 Whitney Biennial featured her two most infamous series: “Baby” (2016), which captured shriveled newborns emerging from their mothers, and “Kanye” (2018), for which she documented the eponymous rapper at the height of controversy and on a monumental scale.
In past interviews, Shin deflected questions about taste. “I thought people would have more humor,” she once said of audience responses to her 2018 Kunsthalle Zurich show, which featured the “Kanye” portraits. “They could really only see one layer of the work.”
Whether or not she agreed with the taboos others identified in her work, it’s clear Shin knew what she was doing. “There used to be a time when a certain kind of outrage would give meaning, in a certain context, to a work,” she said. But more recently, the artist has grown bored of provocation. “Maybe I’ve just changed,” she explained. “Back then, I think it was more interesting to see certain kinds of reactions. Now I don’t think it’s interesting.”
Shin paused, eyes to the sky. “I think you choose your battles,” she continued. “I think that my battle is definitely more about doing art that interests me than going into a dialogue with people that I’m not interested in.”
If the artist is in dialogue with anybody in “The Big Nudes,” it might be herself. At the center of the show is a freestanding glass pyramid, inside of which floats a 3D hologram of her brain, imaged from the MRI scans. It’s a work unlike any Shin has shown before, and yet it ties everything around it together. The real pleasure of “The Big Nudes,” it turns out, is seeing an artist trust her vision enough to indulge her singular impulses. Literally and figuratively, her mind is on display.
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