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heji shin Kanye II
Heji Shin, Kanye II (2018)courtesy of Heji Shin and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

Heji Shin’s oversized Kanye West portraits are proving controversial

‘I knew people would hate this exhibition,’ the artist says

Heji Shin is no stranger to controversy. The photographer – who is responsible for the cover of Robyn’s recent album, Honey – has previously photographed babies as they are literally being born and she’s questioned art labels with her “self portrait” consisting of a monkey’s bum cheeks. Of course, Kanye West doesn’t exactly shy away from the controversial, either, so the two seem like a perfect match.

Some of Shin’s newest work, exhibited at the Kunsthalle Zurich, includes nine massive inkjet portraits of Kanye. They’re so big that they’re actually two separate prints pasted together and printed directly onto the gallery’s walls.

The size of these portraits is kind of controversial in itself; it seems to cater to the rapper’s (undeniably outsized) ego, while also perhaps fueling some of the problematic idolatry he’s treated with by fans. And then, of course, there’s Kanye’s recent actions: “the one-two of the MAGA hat into the slave comment”, the gifting of signed Yeezys to the Ugandan president, the usual Twitter rants.

“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.”

For her, the pictures are a rebellion against political correctness. After meeting Kanye in Chicago, Shin was invited to join him in rural Uganda (where he reportedly worked on his unreleased album, Yandhi) and later photographed him back in LA. “At that time I wasn’t particularly interested in his comments on slavery, if he liked Trump, or if he did his incoherent tweets,” she 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.”

Well, there are plenty of opinions being bandied around now. “Is that art?” one commenter on the Kunsthalle Zurich Instagram writes, while another exclaims: “We love it! Kanye is bigger than God!!!”

Another commenter goes for a pretty scholarly burn: “His work may be far beyond the scope of my art history and theory training I received while in school. As far as I can tell the purpose of this work is to simply elicit the feelings of contempt for every party involved in this work.” And yet another keeps it to the point, writing, simply: “Fuck this garbage.”

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it, to stir up controversy? That’s why Shin is interested in Kanye in the first place (and, presumably, why she wore a MAGA-hat-esque New York Yankees cap with ‘make New York gay again’ on the brim, which Kanye custom made for her, in an Instagram post). Whatever the reason, people probably aren’t going to stop arguing about it anytime soon.