Someone posed the question to a group of us in the car, en route to downtown LA through the winding maze of freeways, “is hell is having to do the same thing over and over, in a straight line, forever or is that heaven?” Easily hell. I can’t even think about what that repeated action would be or I become anxious. The night before, I had attended a performance with a new friend. It was in a church, a space to make one feel closer to heaven but as soon as the music started I thought oh no they’ve made a mistake, this is hell. The musicians set up and played the same note quietly for 90 minutes. A drone concert, drawing ones audial attention to the sounds that emerge within that drone and the sounds that exist around it. I had heard this before, while attending experimental music concerts in college. My friend and I had snuck in boxed wine we bought at Target so while the cellist and oboists were focused I was swaying, crossing and uncrossing my legs. We were stuck there sitting in church listening in a straight line. He was searching for the english translation of a German word that was something like all-seeing.
There were two women at the opening of Heji Shin’s solo show Angel Energy who looked a bit out of place among the casually cool crowd (including a famous writer and an up-and-coming alt-pop star) at Reena Spaulings Fine Art on a Sunday night. They wore full faces of make-up and clothing that was just slightly tighter than that of the rest of the turnout. Their ensembles lacked a sense of irony that so many others possessed; I wondered what had brought them out to the gallery in Koreatown. I realized that the women were models for the “fake Kardashian” photo series that was up in the show and who Shin had cast via instagram.
A friend had told me that they were the real Kardashians just “untouched” and for a minute I really believed that that much alteration could be done with digital retouching. The photos are only slightly exaggerated than ones you might see of the actual Kardashians, a double take is required. In one, “Kim” takes a phone call while she breastfeeds one of her offspring. Another of the series that revolve around an amalgamated modern fertility goddess, is a collection of portraits of Jedy Vales, a digital avatar created by the platform YouPorn, and a human baby suckling at her breast. The avatar has been generated by the data-mined desires of porn watchers. She is no distinct race but every race too. The works have a quality of Virgin and Child portraits of 15th-century Northern Europe: bizarre proportions, pale skin smooth and hairless, breasts as abject round sacks suggestive of fertility. This amalgamation of race and desire, a data-mined ideal woman becomes what everyone wants and then simultaneously what no one wants — a person who is not real, digital and two dimensional.
Natasha Stagg suggests a similar ideas in her essay about the Kardashians called “Right Place.” She writes, “Kim is every race and no race, smoothed and bronzed and contoured beyond natural indicators… they [the Kardashians] get treatments in order to appear prettier for the very same audience watching them get work done. Treatments are more closely documented than the results.” Smoothed and flattened is best. The results become irrelevant but the existence in a limbo is pleasurable. The initial goal forgotten, there is no goal anymore, just a simulation of one. The mechanisms at work behind celebrity have become transparent there is no longer a need to conceal one’s desire for fame, sometimes it’s seen as brave to sell out. She writes of Kim, “Maybe she’s not the void at all, but a surplus of the behaviors we were once told to suppress, like mixing business with pleasure.”
In a third photo series, Shin prints images of the real Kardashian, whom she photographed for a magazine editorial, on brass and metal plates. Their likeness is printed, smeared in ink, over the metal surface a literal flattening and spreading thin of this ideal woman. The work reminded me of the kind of thing that one might see in a Kardashian home on the TV show, a giant portrait of herself. They also remind me of Andy Warhol’s electric chair series; repeated over and over in crude bright colors is the mechanism that will lead one supposedly to hell. I bet the Kardashians love Warhol.
Heji Shin gives us a sneak preview of our impending future — a culture of homogeneity — in which Artificial Intelligence, in an attempt to appeal to uniqueness, makes us all the same. Everything is as bland smooth and linear as the contours of the Kardashian profile. Like Elvis impersonators at Hollywood and Vine, on the smooth sparkling concrete, the fake Kardashian models stuck out from the rest of the opening crowd, as reality TV stars might in an art context, but after a double take they fit right in. In a straight line, forever.