Gyung Jin Shin's video, "Smiley Suicide" at Night Gallery is one of the more disturbing works of art I've seen of late.
The short piece, created in 2009, depicts close-ups of the Korean artist's visage as she paints it to look like a generic yellow smiley face, that ubiquitous icon of 1970s cheerfulness, now more familiar as an emoticon. Then, she inserts the barrel of a large silver gun into her mouth and pulls the trigger.
As it turns out, the gun is filled with laughing gas and Shin gasps and wheezes as she struggles to inhale. Soon, she's giggling…or sobbing; it's unclear.
She inhales repeatedly from the gun, becoming increasingly intoxicated, to the point where she begins to droop and lean out of the frame, often dropping the gun with a loud clank. As inhibitions dissolve, the only thing she talks about is her need to go to the bathroom. At the end of the video, her make-up is thoroughly cracked and coming off in flakes.
The piece is mercifully only 5 minutes long, but this doesn't mitigate the impact of Shin's self-destructive behavior—non-medical forms of laughing gas, commonly used to make whipped cream, often contain substances that lead to oxygen deprivation. The gallery in which Shin's video is shown is ominously littered with laughing gas cartridges, while the elaborate gun-device she used hangs on the far wall.
Harking back to early body-centric performance art, the video operates on several levels. Putting on the smiley face like a mask or makeup refers to social expectations that women be perpetually cheerful and pleasant. "Smiley Suicide" was in fact inspired by Shin's father exhorting her to always smile, no matter how she really felt.
The artist powerfully "kills" this notion by inhaling a substance that parallels those external pressures, enforcing a false happiness literally from the inside. As her lopsided laughing/crying jag attests, it is not a pretty sight.
In the U.S., Shin's donning of yellow paint also has a racial connotation, referring to slurs that label people of Asian descent as "yellow." This association, while certainly not a dominant feature of the work, is likely not lost on Shin, who received her MFA from Columbia University. As her makeup begins to dry and crack, we begin to see how a racist trope might fall away.
This metaphoric disintegration also operates on a more general level. "Smiley Suicide" is not just a critique of enforced, artificial happiness or racism, but of the generic, reductive nature of symbols.
Emoticons in particular are used as a kind of emotional shorthand—we often insert smileys into our emails or texts not because we are genuinely happy, but to soften the blow of difficult news, to curry favor, or because we are passive-aggressive.
Complex human interactions once textured by actual facial expressions, body language and vocal intonations are now negotiated through blots of pixels. By corrupting the smiley face in genuinely horrifying fashion, Shin critiques the over-simplification of our emotional lives.