Photo by Scott Indrisek.

The Whitney Biennial 'Almost Put Kanye In The Toilet'

Photographer Heji Shin sounds off on the exhibition, Steve Bannon, and the 'almost hysterical fear of ambiguity in art.'

by Scott Indrisek
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May 20 2019, 5:37pm

Photo by Scott Indrisek.

“People think I’m some sort of provocateur, but this isn’t my main motivation,” Heji Shin tells GARAGE. “Normally, I just look out for things that are exciting to me.” For the photographer, that has included Kanye West, childbirth, the imaginary S&M exploits of police officers, and the line between pornography and fashion advertising.

Shin has two bodies of work included in this year’s Whitney Biennial—an exhibition that critics have been swift to brand as altogether too safe. On the 5th floor are several images from her “Baby” series: visceral images of childbirth, produced in conjunction with open minded German midwives and mothers. (Shin, who had never witnessed a live birth before embarking on the project, says she was drawn to the “unpredictable, volatile energy of babies” and the “Dionysian” feeling of childbirth.) But it’s her images of Kanye West—and, specifically, where they’ve been hung at the Whitney—that has her bemused. Shin had reached out to Kanye with the intention of shooting his portrait, specifically for the biennial. The resulting large-scale images were shown late in 2018 in Zurich, generating a flurry of online buzz, partly thanks to the rapper’s controversial proclamations about Donald Trump, slavery, and “dragon energy.”

Shin finds in Kanye “a persona that reflects or unifies so many contradictory things,” someone at the crux of broader conversations about gender and power. Because the Whitney had recently staged a massive Warhol retrospective, she lit her portraits of Kanye in a way that alluded to the palette of the artist’s epic portrait of Chairman Mao. When speaking with the biennial’s curators, Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, Shin even suggested that they mount Kanye in the same pride of place that Warhol’s Mao painting had hung—a conceptual call-back. She jokingly had told Kanye that his photos would be “really big, looking down on the very bougie museum visitors.”

That didn’t happen. The curators, Shin relates, worried that Kanye might be “too dominant in the show.” And so, her two large portraits of the rapper have ended up tucked away in the museum’s basement level, where visitors go to stow their bags and coats. One could argue that the curators were just allergic to celebrity subject matter in general, rather than singling out Kanye, but Shin remains unconvinced: “They would never have put Barack Obama between the coat check and the toilet.”

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Photo by Scott Indrisek.

Shin stresses that she doesn’t want to come across as bitter; if anything, she’s mildly amused by where Kanye has ended up. It’s easy enough to put a psychoanalytic spin on the installation choice, she says, as if “the house is the psyche of a person, and the basement is the subconscious—and that’s where they put him.” Overall, she sees the choice as being in keeping with a growing “denial of ambiguity in art,” the idea that “art has to have a utilitarian, political, social use.” For Shin, that’s the opposite of exciting. (I have the feeling she’d get along with Andres Serrano, who recently launched a museum of Trump ephemera in the Meatpacking District, and has shot grand portraits of KKK members.)

I ask Shin if there were other complicated figures she’d be interested in photographing, to which she offers Melania Trump (“it’s so crazy that nobody’s photographed her for a fashion magazine—she’s the best-looking First Lady in a long time”) and Pamela Anderson (“a great woman in general, courageous and empathetic”). What about a fashion shoot with dirty trickster and Nixon fanboy Roger Stone? She says that she’s aggravated when the media uses unflattering or horrible pictures of right-wing politicians, simplistically making them “look like Satan himself.” It all seems too easy, too one-note. Shin idly ponders photographing someone as divisive as Steve Bannon, but putting him “on a farm, with a horse.”

We talk a bit about the hipster white-nationalist zealot Richard Spencer, whom Mother Jones photographed looking like GQ’s face of hate, leading to a backlash. Shin had been surprised to learn that Spencer had certain affinities for Bernie Sanders’s platform. “Things are much more complex than people are willing to talk about,” she says. Art, as well, should be treated as something tangled and unruly, not didactic or easily condensed into a slogan or statement. Shin certainly isn’t demanding we admire the subjects of any of her photographs, but simply that images are allowed to remain complicated and disruptive.

There’s “an almost hysterical fear of ambiguity in art,” she says. “If anything is ambiguous or unresolved, it must be a device to camouflage evil intent, to subliminally brainwash audiences into voting for Trump in 2020 or endorsing fascism....Museums should expect more of their audiences. After all, if something is in a museum, shouldn’t it be a little bit more sophisticated than propaganda, public-service announcements, or Hulu ads?”