Heji Shin: Big Nudes
Through October 17, 2023
By J. SCOTT ORR, August 2023
The 3D rainbow-hued brain is spinning silently inside its tinted glass pyramid-like vault, which offers this naked cerebrum the protection more commonly afforded by a human skull. Meanwhile, some pink hairy pigs are affording the thing due consideration from various points around the room. One is giving it the side-eye, one seems to be laughing, one looks a bit anxious, another, which is lounging lazily on its side, looks completely nonplussed.
Humanized pigs and a human brain. The human brain and humanized pigs. You can toss those two things around in your head for a while and not understand how they fit on the same bingo card. And maybe that’s the point, or part of it.
Big Nudes, the latest solo show by New York–based artist/photographer Heji Shin, opened July 21 at 52 Walker, the David Zwirner satellite location in downtown Manhattan near Broadway and Canal. It is a stunningly complex examination of humanity, vulnerability, doubt, precarity and wonder. It pairs the ultimate nudity, an un-skulled human brain, with expressive adventures in porcine pulchritude, high fashion photography on the huff. Ask why and there you have it.
The brain that is the cynosure of Big Nudes is Shin’s; well, it’s a representation of her gray matter created using diffusion tensor imaging, or DTI, a type of MRI that creates very pretty and colorful images of brains and other internal stuff, but offers no real insights into their function.
So, while Shin’s spinning 3D scan offers a snapshot of her brain and an apt suggestion of human consciousness at its most vulnerable, it sheds no light on her thought processes. Still, she said a few months ago that brainwise, she’s just fine: “I don’t know much about disorders,” she said, “because I don’t think I have any.”
And yet here we are, with the brain as consciousness at the center, surrounded by the surreal humanized pigs looking on with expressions that range from uncertainty to glee. Is this a dialogue, the consciousness considering the surreality and vice versa? “Maybe,” Shin says. One of the bovines, Derek, seems a bit frightened by it all, yet he can’t look away. “I see Derek as a soul in need of rescue,” Shin said.
But what of this unusual pairing of a human brain and pigs, two things that go together about as well as, say, giant Waholesque portraits of Kanye West and x-ray images of a woman holding a dog. Oh, right, that was another of Shin’s shows, a 2018–2019 Kunsthalle Zürich solo exhibition that, like Big Nudes, brought together seemingly unrelated elements. On the surface both presentations would seem to suggest simply that Shin is comfortable with random duality, but is it random or is there intent to escort viewers somewhere?
“I don’t think about those juxtapositions with a precise effect in mind, or a specific place I want to take the viewer,” Shin told WhiteHot Magazine. In fact, she said she prefers to empower viewers to be their own pathfinders.
“If I did fully understand what I’m communicating, it wouldn’t be interesting for me to make exhibitions. Those things come together in an intuitive way, not random, but it gets a life of its own if you leave this association up to the viewer,” she said.
The exhibition's title, Big Nudes, is drawn from 1980s work by the German-Australian photographer Helmut Newton, which included life-sized prints of nude or semi-nude models, and which was later issued as a book. Like Newton, Shin has ably negotiated the parallel career paths of commercial and fine art photography.
Newton’s commercial work was edgy, while his fine art, especially the urban-erotic portfolios Big Nudes, Naked and Dressed, and Domestic Nudes pushed the boundaries further. Shin’s fashion photography is hardly normative, but her fine artwork, like the seductively posed pics, or doggy skeletons, is far more provocative and transgressive.
Still, her provocations have at times been misleading, which has itself been a teasing commentary on contemporary mores. Take for example her 2021 series Big Cocks, which had nothing at all to do with the size of anyone’s manhood, but instead was a remarkable collection of photographs of colorful, manic roosters in ninja-like poses. And witness Big Nudes, which sounds like it could offer the erotica that was contained in its namesake work by Newton, but delivers only nudity of the porcine kind.
Her 2016-17 show that carried the anodyne title “Baby,” was in fact a collection of newborns emerging angrily from birth canals, their alien-like faces all bloody and smushed by the violence of the birthing event.
In a conversation with the artist Jordan Wolfson, transcribed and published by Interview Magazine in June, Shin said she was still working out the details of the brain scan project, but noted that it would “be about consciousness and the brain and physicality.”
“I have a very, very good brain scan. The brain surgeon I was working with is a leading neurosurgeon,” she said, after sharing earlier in the conversation that bit about how she has no disorders. “A brain scan,” she told Wolfson, “is just an interpretation. The brain doesn’t look this way, of course. I looked at my brain scan and thought, why are they using these colors?
Ebony L. Haynes, director of 52 Walker, said she had hoped to feature Shin’s work even before 52 Walker opened less than two years ago. This is the space’s eighth exhibition.
“I’d been following her and speaking to her at length, as her practice grew, about what she’s interested in and where the concepts are going. So, I planned this show a long time ago,” Haynes said. “Big Nudes consists of the nude bodies of pigs with brain scans; the brain is Heji’s, the pigs are not,” she said.
Born in South Korea, Shin was raised largely in Germany. She started taking photographs at age 20, after receiving a camera as a birthday gift. Her early goal was to become a fashion photographer, but her fine art ambitions would not always yield, so her practice has two sides to it, like a brain.
She has created edgy fashion photography for Tom Ford, Givenchy, Supreme, Goomheo, Gentle Monster, Adidas and other brands and her work has appeared in Vogue, Frieze, Harper's Bazaar and other magazines.
Big Nudes runs through Oct 17 at 52 Walker, 52 Walker Street, New York. The gallery is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday: 10AM–6PM and Thursday: 12–8PM WM