It seems that Kanye West is all over the art world these days—and as ever, audiences can’t seem to agree on whether they want more or less of him.
At the Kunsthalle Zurich, nestled past the picturesque scenery of the Swiss landscape, the controversial rapper is on full view in a provoking exhibition of photographs by artist He-Ji Shin. Her self-titled show presents nine inkjet portraits of West that are so big, they consist of two separate prints pasted together. Split right down the middle of the megastar’s face and applied directly to the institution’s walls, the images will be inevitably be destroyed once the show is over. But just like West, who is forever in the public eye, Shin’s images can—and probably will—pop up again.
“He-Ji Shin raises the question of portraiture today, and therefore addresses the difficult business of intimacy and exposure as they are undergoing a radical reevaluation in the context of social media,” says the institutions director and curator, Daniel Baumann. But the Kunsthalle Zurich’s Instagram reveals an audience that is deeply split. “Kanye is bigger than god!” one user commented. “Is this art?” wonders another. Another comment is less ambiguous: “Fuck this garbage.”
“I knew people would hate this exhibition,” Shin tells artnet News. “This desire to have art to meet their moral and political standards has always existed. Today, more than ever, art is considered as the ultimate validation. It’s easy to agree with publicly-approved opinions. It protects you.” Not that Shin trying to protect herself from her association with the rapper: the show includes two portraits of herself alongside portraits of West.
Shin has always bordered on—or stepped right into—forbidden territory. Last year, she presented portraits of babies being born at MEGA Foundation in Stockholm. At Reena Spaulings last summer, her show “Men Photographing Men” depicted models as hyper-sexualized cops. Before that, she took pictures of a monkey’s butt and called it a self-portrait. This March, she will have a solo exhibition at Galerie Buchholz in Berlin, though the details are undisclosed.
Shin says she got West’s contact information from a friend. And although he didn’t know her or her work, he agreed to meet in Chicago, later inviting Shin to travel with him to rural Uganda and then back to Los Angeles, where he sat for a promised photoshoot that lasted only about ten minutes. “Surprisingly, he doesn’t like to be photographed,” she says. These pictures, along with an intimate photograph of West carrying his daughter, North West, on his shoulders while in Africa, are included in the show.
“At that time I wasn’t particularly interested in his comments on slavery, if he liked Trump, or if he did his incoherent tweets,” Shin says. “But it changed quickly when I saw people getting really mad. I was interested in how the media portrayed him all of the sudden, when he expressed his opinion.”
Last October, Kanye angered many with his visit to the White House, where he met the President Trump and wore a “Make America Great Again” hat. Earlier in the year, he proposed that 400 years of slavery “sounds like a choice.” For Shin, West’s actions (and the public responses) are what she finds intriguing. “He was the only celebrity that made me excited to read about,” she says.
And Shin doesn’t shy away from the controversy either. She recently posted a selfie to Instagram in which she wears a Trump-inspired, red New York Yankees cap, which West custom made for her. On the brim, it reads: “Make New York Gay Again.” She says the hat is about making a stand against politically correct culture. “My work wouldn’t be possible if I restricted myself in these terms,” she says. “I don’t even understand how somebody can possibly think this is about gay rights. What has Trump got to do with gay rights?”
While West’s spectacle perpetuates and polarizes opinions everywhere, Shin isolates an instant of it in an unlikely context, the so-most neutral country in the world. It begs the question, albeit a bit uncomfortably: is the art world as open to taboo as it imagines itself to be?
See images below of He-Ji Shin’s exhibition, on view until February 2 at Kunsthalle Zurich.
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