Heji Shin’s Penetrating Gaze
The miracle of birth has never looked so gruesome as in Heji Shin’s Baby (2016), a series of portraits currently on display in the Whitney Biennial. The newborns’ oxygen-starved faces are bruised deep purple and dripping with blood. Their squashed, elongated crania—the result of soft skull tissue being squeezed by the cervix—resemble grapes fit to burst. Some have been captured between cries, as if stillborn, while others stare straight at us, mouths cracked open in anguish or relief, as they complete their violent escape from the womb. They may not remember this moment, but it’s eerie to think that the first thing these kids will have seen is the dull, unblinking eye of Shin’s camera.
“The procedure of birth is very similar to death,” Shin said in a brief audio didactic recorded by the Whitney. “It is excluded from social life, from public life—because it’s violent, it includes a lot of aggression.” Shin connected with midwives and expectant mothers, who invited her to shoot on delivery day. Shin considers herself a classical portraitist, and all of these babies are centered in the frame, their mothers’ thighs and labia cradling them like starched collars, pale against the muddy slick of blood and amniotic fluid.
The works are a far cry from Carmen Winant’s My Birth (2018), the star work in last year’s Being: New Photography 2018 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. There, two thousand archival photographs of women giving birth spanned a long corridor wall, where Winant pasted them with blue painter’s tape. The fine-grained detail of Shin’s photographs was absent: instead, mothers themselves were foregrounded, in tender scenes of intimacy and elation. By contrast, we can’t see the mothers’ faces in Shin’s work; our attention has been focused on the slightly warped, seemingly alien bodies they’re ejecting from between their legs.
In her latest book, Motherhood (2019), Sheila Heti spends 304 pages reconciling with her desire not to have children—what she ultimately considers “a once-necessary, now sentimental gesture.” Shin’s photographs have no room for such sentimentality. She loves to trash the stereotypes we use to simplify our many cultural contradictions. The more removed from her own experience these subjects are, the better she seems to maintain a critical distance in depicting them. In a presentation at the February 2019 Engadin Art Talks, Shin explained her decision to shoot a gay pornographic film in Reena Spaulings Fine Art for her 2018 show there: “For two months I tried to become a gay man as much as possible.” A statement like that might raise the specter of Rachel Dolezal, the woman who claimed to be “transracial,” but the photographs that emerged are a beautiful, highly explicit indictment of fascism and misogyny in the gay community.
Through a Craigslist ad, Shin found two male models and posed them in the starched navy uniforms of the NYPD. Embodiments of “New York’s Finest,” these hot cops recline on a casting couch in nothing but their caps and gun holsters, and fornicate on a table lit by the glare of a policeman’s flashlight held just outside the frame. In remarkable close-crops, including one cyanotype, their anal penetration resembles birth: a cheeky nod to gay barebacking culture and its vulgar references to “breeding.”
With PrEP use increasingly widespread in the gay community, and the historic precedent of Robert Mapplethorpe’s S&M photographs now forty years past, it’s not the barebacking that offends in these images, but the uniforms. The NYPD is infamous for its brutality, from the death of Eric Garner to the “broken windows” policing that has torn apart communities of color across the city since the 1980s. (On the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a splinter queer march was held parallel to the city’s official pride parade; its organizers noted the perversity of allowing cops to march in the main celebration of an uprising against police violence.) This perversity is what directs Shin to her subjects—what she shoots must be difficult; good art is anything but easy—and indeed, these bootblacks are irresistible.
“Bad cop” is a familiar role-play fetish, handcuffs a common bedside prop. Shin based at least one of her photographs directly on a drawing by Tom of Finland, who worshipped uniformed men and cruised Nazi soldiers in the parks of Helsinki during World War II. While associations to power, especially military force, have become less salient in queer circles lately, Tom still enjoys his spot in the gay pantheon uncontested. In two of the photographs, one of Shin’s boys in blue is reading Arthur Schopenhauer’s On Women (1851): a misogynistic screed whose racist authoritarian author, obsessed with ancient India and its Vedic culture of spiritual self-conquest, influenced the Aryan nationalism that gave rise to Hitler. Shin’s police porn also owes a debt to Collier Schorr’s many photographs of young men dressed as Nazis, which Schorr took in Southern Germany in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As Theodor Adorno observed in Minima Moralia (1951), “Totalitarianism and homosexuality belong together.”
The theme of penetration, well, penetrates Shin’s work: from a child’s rupturing of her mother’s birth canal to the probes of an X-ray. Shin’s photographs pry deep into our individual and cultural subconscious, stripping bare contradictory layers that, once exposed, can’t be unseen. In 2018, Shin chose her toughest—and, incidentally, most notorious—subject for her show at Kunsthalle Zürich, which presented earlier this year. Billboard-sized prints of Kanye West filled the galleries of the Swiss museum. The resulting photographs—two of which adjoin the Whitney cloakroom as part of the Biennial—are a study in celebrity cool. Their hypersaturated yellows and reds seem fit for a punchy album cover. Accompanying the portraits were X-rays Shin had taken of herself, holding small dogs. “I thought I could suggest to the viewer that, when you see these very huge Kanyes that show only surface, and are very impenetrable, then you see my self-portrait, with complete transparency,” she said at Engadin. “It raises the question that, if you see much more, you may see even less.”