Saturday, May 6, 2017

Heji Shin at Real Fine Arts

The end of any year brings the same old habit of reflecting upon the past, the present and the future: what happened in our lives over the past year, what is to come and what we will gaze at into the future.
An exhibition of Heji Shin’s new works that opened in the last month of 2016 couldn’t have found a better time to be shown. These works mainly depict the emblem of future - newborn babies. Yet Shin’s photographs do not entirely evoke the emotionally charged topics that circle around when you think of babies.
Seven close up photographic images show the very moment of a child’s birth. By focusing on the head being pressed out of the vagina, the images do not show much more besides this first “act” of birth. Crumpled little heads covered in a mix of human discharge–especially blood and shit (and whatever else comes with it)–are the center of the photographs. Some babies are still strangled with a hand or the umbilical cord, some are screaming directly towards the viewer, but all babies have their eyes closed– none of them have ever seen the world around it yet; and especially not the artist’s camera! Just imagine if a camera was the first image you had of the world–a monstrous object rather than a smiling face? But the camera and the photographer think the same as they examine the babies: what is this new weird looking alien?
Every context of the situation is cut out. The background becomes is a blurry, dark undefined substance and there are no other disruptive elements that would give us a glimpse of the surroundings. Sometimes you see a bit of hospital inventory, but most of the time you don’t even see that much of the women’s body parts giving birth. The immediacy but also the estrangement of a child’s birth is aligned with so much orchestration, an almost magical description, while the true event is long, hard and disturbing. Shin knows a lot about this now!
Whatever is created and comes to life–it’s a painful event, bloody with images of dysmorphic body parts and far away from a cute little nature around the baby cult and their hetero normative family constructions! While obviously still being intimate due to its subject matter and the specific angle the artist chose, Shin’s photographs focus on a different aspect. They don’t fall into the trap of emotional overload. If one listens to birth stories that range from “I thought I’d die” to “the greatest trip of my life”, looking at these works by Heji Shin evoke completely other thoughts, since nothing of the above mentioned can be subjected to these photographs: the women are not the subject here! With an extreme directness, the little heads almost jump into your face. The colors of the photographs are not much more processed than the actual situation at hand and so the works become a very bold statement of “reality”. The photographic subject we see here cannot be staged or interfered with. Especially when the production must consider that being in labor can take up to 8 days with a lot of waiting, but the whole shoot only requires one minute or even less to get a good take.
Due to their reduction and the chosen close-up angle the images confront the viewer with a disturbing mix of voyeurism and intimacy.
While only hearing about Shin’s endeavor during the months of production, I always imagined the images to be way more brutal and violent. The works that one can see in the exhibition still are quite aesthetic. The color scheme and compositions of focused/unfocused parts are very defined and strong. It clearly shows that the medium is not only “a” message but its also the medium. Shin works as a commercial photographer and is used to dealing with “difficult models”. The photographer’s eye completely guides the viewer and won’t give him the chance to get lost in too many details. The images follow some hidden rules of composition and placement. Of course while the usual retouches have to be made, the works still operate on a level of a public realness. Displayed throughout Real Fine Art’s gallery space, they leave enough room given the selection is very much singled down and directed in such a way that won’t give too many chances to shy away!
Also on display are three installations of colored plinths that are building rather the opposite of the described above. Greeting the visitor at the entrance of the exhibition space, they show playfully arranged objects and paraphernalia. In a mix of fetish sex toys, children’s toys, decorative porcelain figures, all three sculptures are opposing the strong and direct imagery of the photographs. These works are the only titled works you’ll find in the show. While the photographs are just strung together as Babies 1-7 you find an Italian Vendor or a latex butt that greets you with a Good Morning America. One sculpture is still untitled. These titles give some hints about the direction they want to be thought about. Where the “In Your Face”-strategy of the photographs doesn’t really need titles for explanation, it’s a helpful guide for the sculptures to connect. The first assemblage on a black plinth is arranged with a little puppet sized wheelchair and a plastic toy goat that is pushing the chair. The goat wears a funky fedora and is attached to the wheelchair where a small b/w picture of Osama Bin Laden is pinned on its seat. On the second plinth, that is painted in a red color, one finds a latex butt that is in fact a real sex toy, decorated with cigarette ends, an American flag stuffed into the butthole and a fried egg on one butt cheek. For the third installation, the artist used a white plinth with a scene of two Italian lookalike porcelain figures lying/standing on a wig, one covered with a condom. The kitschy campiness of the installations is inevitable and a bit silly. But with this little foolish wink they comment on more or less recent political events of our time with a punk/pop/camp like gesture. The humor that comes through is a good and welcome balance to the boldness of the photographs. Completely revealing their playfulness and even silliness, the sculptures can all be associated with the areas of sex and domestic life. Therefore they draw a line to the subjects of the photographs– even if this can be a stretch. Notably this stretch is a challenging one but even more important for seeing the exhibition as exhibition. Particularly this balance that is created in connection to the sculptures is likely to be needed for the whole–even if it’s clear that the photographs stand out!

Reproduction mostly serves the purpose of people’s desire to become immortal–since it can be understood as a egocentric reflection of the self. Therefore we can also question the idea of the ideological use of the baby. Here the baby as the outcome of a hetero normative family conception is especially in question. In a city like New York creating your family can’t be a “natural desire” anymore but has to be considered as some kind of “luxury” as it even more starkly divides the society into rich and poor. But despite exposing the ideological subject of the baby, Shin’s photographs imply these thoughts on a very concealed level as they just refuse to sugarcoat! But on the same concealed level they can function as an examination and empowerment of the female body: the women who agreed to get photographed are in fact freeing themselves from embellishment and obfuscation. From a pure angle, which is the only view the photos are taking on, this is even more a feminist proposition without the necessity of screaming it out loud.
So especially with a female mindset it’s hard to separate the seen from one’s own body (the changes that it’ll be affected by and the physical and emotional pain that is involved with it). Since cis-male bodies are still not able to execute reproduction, their interpretation won’t underlie so much emotional empathy; the images of male birth giving is still exclusively reserved to the film industry–thinking about Ridley Scott’s chestburster scene in Alien. But asking for the reaction within men, there seem to be more an interest in the weird sensation of examining the alienating look of the babies’ heads and body parts and therefore the followed estrangement of how to relate oneself to the seen image. These works build an immediate gut feeling–whatever reaction comes along–you can be sure that there is one.

- Monika Senz 


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