On Heji Shin at Consortium Museum, Dijon

— Benoît Lamy de la Chapelle

Heji Shin, Falling Cursed Soldier, 2021impression au pigment d'archivage 165 x 117.9 cm

Heji Shin, Falling Cursed Soldier, 2021, archival pigment print, 165 x 117.9 cm

Heji Shin, “Blood Bath”
Consortium Museum, Dijon
July 7, 2021–January 9, 2022

To discover, look at, and follow the work of Heji Shin, from one project to another, in exhibition spaces or in fashion magazines, means to continually refer one back to the question of the whether the existing conceptual tools for analyzing a photograph or, more broadly, an image, are still relevant today. If over the last few years her photographs seemed disturbing, or have been able to shock, it’s precisely because they are not subversive in the usual sense of the term, as in the kind of “subversion” that is immediately absorbed within politically correct, stereotypical, and grotesque neoliberal communication. Due to her savvy use of the historical code of the medium (from fashion photography, portraiture, advertising, selfies, photojournalism to pornography), each one of Shin’s photographs is first and foremost visually shocking. She shows that which the eye refuses to see—having digested violence, morality, beauty, sex, and horror—in a world where everything seems visible, or has already been seen. If it’s true that her photographs don’t invent anything, it’s in the way that the images are framed, the position of her subjects, their colors, their contrasts, their close-ups, that the artist manages to go beyond what is bearable, just as the limits of tolerability have long since been transgressed by new waves of cultural normalization. Shin’s approach derives, first of all, from the progressive realization that the photography, in the era of its inhibited circulation, can, from now on, no longer teach us anything about ourselves. And it’s exactly at this moment, out of the blue, that her photographs take hold, telling us that out of all of the accumulated sociopolitical conflicts represented in the world of her images, the more serious among them are perhaps not the ones we identify in the first place. Shin’s appropriation of the real hollows out the surfaces of circulating, networked images, and sinks into the strata of a totalizing economic system that seeks to colonize the minds of its subjects. She thereby extracts all the violence and pornography contained within this system, each and every person consenting, either consciously or not, to its (re)production within the current “prosumerist” regime of images.

“Blood Bath,” her exhibition at Le Consortium, is a logical progression from her earlier projects. If this “blood bath” is both tasteless and absent, giving way to a rather restrained display of photographs (the subjects of these photographs are not as sexually, socially, or physically explicit as in some her previous works), the viewer is nevertheless plunged into a high-ceilinged room, giving one the impression of being at the bottom of a basin, in which the images from two series have been dispersed: one series depicts a monkey, photographed against a pink background, handling a Supreme reusable camera; the other depicts soldiers in combat. “Blood Bath” thus refers more explicitly to war, the one the artist represents in her work, a fake war, a mise-en-scène of the war in Iraq, reenacted in the wastelands and other abandoned zones somewhere in Ukraine. The photos are of young people dressed as GIs or as veiled (Iraqi?) female combatants, cast by the artist to perform a simulated military conflict as though it were a live action role-playing game. Shin chose the photographic genre that seemed the most obvious to her, war photojournalism: black and white, slightly outdated, within the tradition of Robert Capa (Shin’s Falling Cursed Soldier, 2021, is an obvious reference to The Falling Soldier, 1936), Dickey Chapelle, or Don McCullin. As is always the case, the artist masters her subject, subtly manipulating its conventions. Constructed as they are, the photographs are believable; the viewer is able to project themselves in the scene recognizing the character’s gestures, the grounded postures, the body language of war, and so forth. Certain details nevertheless remain visible enough to disturb the apparent truthfulness of the series. No military stripes can be seen on the GIs’ uniforms, nor any other distinctive sign indicating their battalion. Their physiques recall the policemen in the series Men Photographing Men (2018), both too beautiful and too stereotypical to be true. A veiled warrior wears sneakers, a frequent occurrence within conflicts that involve civilian participation. Whether or not the artist consciously leaves clues about the unfolding simulation, the confusion between real and fake remains, reminding us that a photograph can made to mean everything and anything. However, this confusion would rather articulate an observation linked to the modern epoch, a period during which realism still made sense, as something fundamental that one could cling to in order to assure the existence of reality itself. It would also require one to refrain from a pure photographic analysis so as to take into consideration how this medium has technologically developed, leading us to the digital image, now even easier to manipulate and retouch. But this would still suppose the existence of an original, a tangible base. Here, Shin reveals a manipulation where there was nothing real left, where the real and the original have themselves become by-products. The artist produces contemporary images of an era in which dominating powers go to war over fake news and deepfakes, manipulating public opinion and fabricating consent through reality-distorting media technologies that are as perverse as they are invisible. Thus, the work of Shin goes further than a critique of her medium, instead responding to this globalizing reality. Her interest lies not in the representation of phenomena but in the fabrication of their hidden multiple meanings.

The press release for “Blood Bath” fittingly reminds us of Jean Baudrillard’s famous observation that “the Gulf War did not take place.”[1] The theorist wrote that although the conflict had indeed occurred, the media coverage of this short event had nevertheless preceded it; that no real conflict had even really been shown; and that the war had been won in advance by an overequipped American army that, what’s more, lost nothing. Everything we learned from the television was broadcast in the form of propaganda. If this were different for the Iraq War (or for the second Gulf War), which lasted long enough to allow for more intelligible media content—therefore able to be analyzed critically—the political manipulation at the origin of this conflict also leaves us thinking that it did not so much occur as a war, but was motivated by entirely other reasons, which still remain obscure to this day. What makes these conflicts “simulacra,” to use Baudrillard’s concept, is the fact that they are not founded upon any reality. These conflicts are true only insofar as they produce their own truth out of nothing. They belong to what the theorist called the “Disneyfication” of the world, in which everybody is an actor, performing a role that is predefined by the political, economic, and cultural system, and its reproduction through the media: “What happened is that art substituted itself for life in the form of a generalized aesthetics []: a Disney-form, capable of atoning for everything by transforming it into Disneyland, takes the place of the world!”[2] This vision of the evolution of postmodern societies transforming the world into a theme park (tourism, often founded upon historically fallacious narratives, is now to a large extent what allows many deindustrialized countries to economically survive), where fact and fiction become one, is made explicitly real within live action role-playing games, such as the one played out in the photographs in “Blood Bath.”

We could think that, like her elders from the Pictures Generation, the neo-geo school, or even Jeff Koons, Shin interprets Baudrillard’s theories aesthetically, through imagining that art can still distance itself from the world in order to consider itself a marker of truth. Baudrillard was however stunned by the way in which certain New York artists had interpreted his concept of simulacra, acting as though they were his prophets:

This marking of distance culminated in an exhibit at the Whitney in New York, of which I become involved in spite of myself. True, some artists refer to me through my writings and my ideas on simulation. [] These artists are sly and pretentious when they claim to see things twice removed, when they claim to be even more null because they are the “true simulators” of pure appropriation, pure copying. [] In spite of myself, I served as an alibi and reference, and by taking what I said and wrote literally, they missed the simulation.[3]

The theorist reveals the impasse in which the strategies of a number of Post-Conceptual artists found themselves in, and continue to find themselves in, through their desire to reveal the abhorrent paradoxes generated by late capitalism itself. Before “Blood Bath,” there are many precedents to the juxtaposition of war images and the universe of fashion by artists known for being politically engaged. One could site the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (2004–8) by Martha Rosler, which updates her Bringing the War Home (ca. 1967–72), a notable example of the genre, defendable due to the technological context in which it appeared, when the mass circulation of images was still in its early stages. However a more appropriate example to discuss would be the exhibition “3 ‘Easycollage’ and 6 ‘Collage-Truth’” (2015) by Thomas Hirschhorn at MAN – Museo d’Arte Provincia Nuoro in Sardinia: the Swiss artist seemed to still believe that the association of fashion photography with brutal images of burnt-out and torn-apart bodies “represents a mindful strategy that aims to invert the process of assuefaction/hypersensitivation induced by the media.” Hirschhorn represents the perfect example of the artist who believes that their work can lead to the truth and thus help the public to better understand the world: “Thomas Hirschhorn’s works intend to create awareness among viewers of their visual experiences, to come to grips with their sensitivity and recognize the need for careful critical thought when dealing with the world of the media and, more in general, with geopolitical realities and social conditions today.[4] In 2015, the artist seemed to imagine that, through this series, the overinformed public still needed the artists to access “truth.” The pretention of Hirschhorn and the confidence he has in his role as an artist must have momentarily prevented him from realizing that such a strategy of juxtaposition was inevitably doomed to be subsumed within the incessant flow of images and signs, no longer signifying anything, adrift in the void like all other online content. As for the art of Shin, it does not claim to apply adequate strategies in order to think outside of the media’s flow. It admits to creating a simulation, to being in a simulation, without imagining any escape. The artist openly produces images within a system, generated by the system (for example, her fashion photographs), without being fooled by it. Her art claims nothing and leaves nothing to believe, “making believe” already being the everyday task of any other image in circulation. And if sometimes some orientations toward certain moral, political, or ethical subjects appear in her photographs, her work is never the banner for any cause. Ironic, lucid, but never cynical, the work of Heji Shin fights an unnameable combat.

Installed as though in confrontation with the war photos, the ape in the series Embedded photographer (elated) (2021) holds a camera that he is in the process of both using and destroying. It is thus suggested that the monkey is the photographer of the war photos. This series is actually composed of the rejected images from an advertising campaign commissioned by the brand Supreme, used by the artist toward artistic ends. Like in the series #lonelygirl (2016), the artist considers that the animals represented in her work function like self-portraits. The choice of the ape as photographic subject is thus significant through its resonances within popular culture: this animal is always a caricature, imitating man, the verb “to ape” being a synonym for “simulate” in British English. And if one is right in saying that her art mocks certain self-proclaimed progressive attitudes, Shin doesn’t forget to mock herself as well, conscious of her role within the bottomless masquerade currently playing out in the world. This monkey holding a camera branded Supreme is an advertising prop. The context of this rather trivial commercial image’s production as well as the grotesque aspect of the situation annul any drama that the war photographs could have possessed, hung on the opposing wall: we can no longer take them seriously. Should we have anyway?

In “Blood Bath,” Shin immerses us within a blur that renders any attempt to dissociate true from false, humor from horror, morality from indecency as pointless. However, all the signs are not on the same level, and from one series to the next, each one possesses its own force, its own irreducibility. Her work does not resist its own recuperation within a capitalist system; as we’ve now understood, the work of Heji Shin is a part of it and isn’t seeking redemption. What it rather resists is a moralistic conception of art in which artworks can be imagined as vectors of progressive political messages and social change, pure from any form of corruption. Yet another manipulation that art ought to rightly defend itself against.

Translated from the French by Aodhan Madden

  1. [1] Baudrillard’s thoughts on the war were initially published as three short essays in the French newspaper Libération and the Guardian between January and March 1991.
  2. [2] Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art: Manifestos, Interviews, Essays, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Ames Hodges (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2005), 53–54.
  3. [3] Ibid., 47–48.
  4. [4] To read the press release about this project: http://www.museoman.it/en/exhibitions/exhibition/Thomas-Hirschhorn. Hirschhorn describes his artistic practice: “Today, more than ever, I believe in the notions of Equality, Universality, Justice and Truth. Through my artwork, I want to give a form which insists on these notions and includes them. This is how I define my mission, and in order to fulfill it, I use art as a tool or as a weapon. A tool to understand the world in which I live, a tool to confront the reality in which I am living, and a tool to live within the time in which I am.” For further reading: https://www.crousel.com/exposition/thomas-hirschhorn-pixel-collage-2016.