A New Future from the Passed: Lynn Hershman Leeson Comes into Her Own After 50 Years of Prophetic Work
In 1965, while pregnant with her daughter, Lynn Hershman Leeson discovered she had cardiomyopathy, a disease that makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body. A valve in her heart collapsed, and she was confined to an oxygen tent for five weeks. “I wasn’t able to do anything—I couldn’t lift a teaspoon,” she said. “You either die within six months, or you slowly survive.” Unable to make art the way she had since graduating from art school two years before, she slowly regained the strength to work with a ball of wax by her bed, molding it until it resembled two human heads—one male, one female. The process took two weeks, and she was proud of the result. Then she got an idea.
Having gone through X-ray machines and isolating medical procedures as a consequence of her health, Hershman Leeson learned to pay close attention to the sound of her breathing. When no longer confined to bed, she made what she called “Breathing Machines”—wax casts of her face accompanied by cassette decks that played sounds of heaving breaths, giggles, and recorded dialogue. Even though these sculptures looked dead—their eyes blank, like a corpse’s—they evinced a sense of life in line with her self-diagnosis at the time. As an older Hershman Leeson said, looking back: “I always knew I’d survive.”
Five decades on, Hershman Leeson continues to produce art in many different modes, though it wasn’t until the past couple of years that the art world took proper note. When a retrospective opened in Germany in 2014, under the title “Civic Radar,” her work was thrust into public view. Some 700 pieces—many of which had spent decades in boxes, under beds, and in closets in Hershman Leeson’s San Francisco home—were exhibited at the ZKM Center for Art and Media. Reactions were ecstatic. Reviewing a smaller survey of her work at Bridget Donahue gallery in New York around the same time, New York Times critic Holland Cotter wrote of the exhibit far away in southwest Germany, “someone here should grab that prophetic show now.”
For the artist herself, the attention had been a long time coming. “People say I’ve gotten rediscovered,” Hershman Leeson told me, “but there’s no re-. I was never discovered before two and a half years ago.” Since then, she has been retrofitted back into history as a pioneer of feminist art and an essential figure in the evolution of art and technology.
Art from a different era can appear new if shown at the right moment, and that has been the case with Hershman Leeson’s 50 years of drawings, sculptures, performances, installations, videos, internet-based works, and feature films, some made with studio backing and released to theaters nationwide. At a time when young artists are exploring how we construct identity through technology, Hershman Leeson’s work in all her different media has proven remarkably ahead of its time. Her art proposes that identities are, in essence, aggregations of data—we are all masses of information gathered over time—and that who we become is shaped by computers, television, electronics. We make technology, but technology makes us, too.
At age 75, Hershman Leeson is pleased and also a bit disarmed by how suddenly she has been embraced. For the first time, she is out of debt, and she finally has a studio in San Francisco (as well as an apartment that she keeps in New York). When I met her for lunch this past fall, she was in Manhattan to oversee the installation of several works in the Whitney Museum’s “Dreamlands” show, which surveyed an enterprising notion of “immersive cinema” since 1905. And she had more work ahead of her: a solo show at Bridget Donahue running from January to March 2017 and, on view until late May, a version of her ZKM retrospective at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. The year was shaping up to be one of the biggest of her career. She smiled through most of our lunch, her shoulder-length brown hair bouncing as she laughed. Though known to wear stylish Armani suits, that day she was dressed down, in a tweed jacket and cozy wool scarf.
In “Dreamlands,” Hershman Leeson’s work was shown alongside pieces by younger artists like Ian Cheng, Dora Budor, and Ivana Bašić, all of whom are under 40. Their art involved human bodies altered by the internet, 3-D computer imaging, and algorithms. Hershman Leeson’s video installations—delving into surveillance, avatars, and cyborgs—shared a certain kinship, even though they were made years before. Chrissie Iles, the show’s curator, said of Hershman Leeson’s art, “I think her influence is strong, but I think it’s going to be stronger now that her work is more visible.”
Iles added, “Paradoxically, you run a great danger of disappearing when you’re young. Lynn never disappeared. She was hiding in plain sight, and now she’s appeared.”
Lynn Hershman Leeson was born in 1941, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her father was a pharmacist, her mother, a biologist. Science appealed to her, she said, because “you put things together and form something completely hybrid and new.” From a young age, she combined that interest with art, going to the Cleveland Museum of Art almost every day. Although her childhood led to her life of art, it would also haunt her work. She was abused, both physically and sexually—“broken noses, bones,” she said. “I feel I withdrew from my own body during some of those episodes and watched things happen.” Those experiences informed her early work from the ’60s and ’70s, which confronts the difficulties of being a woman in a patriarchal world. “I think the use of surveillance and not being present, of living virtually and the continual fear of brutal confrontation,” she said, “came out of those episodes.”
After college at Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University, Hershman Leeson moved to California in 1963, to study painting at the University of California, Berkeley. She had been lured by the student activism there, but she gave up her studies before the semester even started. “I quit because I couldn’t figure out how to register,” she said, with a laugh signalling her disinterest in—or indifference to—the kind of abstract painting coming out of the Bay Area at the time.
In between protests, she found time to make paintings and drawings about living in a world being changed by technology. Her early works from the mid-’60s, some of which were on view in “Dreamlands,” show mysterious women in forms reminiscent of anatomical drawings. Hershman Leeson depicts them without skin so that we see their innards, which are mostly cogs. “I thought of [the drawings] as a symbiosis between humans and machines—feminine machines,” she said.
When she began making her “Breathing Machines” shortly after, not everyone was receptive to art that so aggressively disregarded traditional painting and sculpture. In 1966, when a black wax version of the artist’s face with a recording of her asking the viewer questions was shown at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, the curators removed it because the sculpture included sound. “There was no language for it,” Hershman Leeson said of the reaction to works like Self-Portrait As Another Person, “and nobody thought it was art.”
Fed up with the kinds of conversations her work was generating in museums and galleries, in 1968 Hershman Leeson invented three art-critic personas who reviewed her work for Artweek and Studio International. With her editors unaware of the ruse, she gave herself good reviews but also wrote that her “Breathing Machines” were riddled with “clichéd social amenities and contact games to those who will listen.” She brought these published reviews to galleries as proof—both positive and negative—that her art was worthy of attention.
In early actions like these, Hershman Leeson was “blurring the space between art and life,” said Lucía Sanromán, who organized the San Francisco iteration of “Civic Radar.” No doubt this was the case with The Dante Hotel (1973–74), a covert piece staged in a site-specific fashion at a seedy hotel in San Francisco’s red light district. When museums would not show art by women, Hershman Leeson and her collaborator on the piece, artist Eleanor Coppola, took matters into their own hands. “We liked the democracy of exhibition opportunities” outside institutions, Coppola said. In a room they rented for $46 a week, they installed two life-size wax dolls in a bed. Anyone in the know could walk into the hotel, sign in, and head upstairs to see the work. The installation concluded when one visitor called the police, having mistaken the sculptures for dead bodies.
That was merely a warm-up for Roberta Breitmore, a piece for which Hershman Leeson invented a fictional persona by that name and performed as her for five years, from 1973 to 1978. The name came from a character in the Joyce Carol Oates short story “Passions and Meditations,” in which a woman attempts to contact celebrities through print ads and letters. The inspiration for Roberta Breitmore, Hershman Leeson said, was the result of thinking to herself: “What if someone were liberated—if they were able to go out in real time, in real space—and blur the edge of reality?”
Under her new persona, Hershman Leeson was able to get a driver’s license and a credit card for Breitmore, and she enrolled Breitmore in Ph.D. classes about how people create their identities, as well as sessions for Weight Watchers and the then popular personal transformation training known as EST. Breitmore had her own psychology—she contemplated jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge at one point, only to end up choosing life instead.
The piece became dangerous in other ways. Performing as Breitmore, Hershman Leeson put out an ad for a roommate, unaware that was how sex workers at the time recruited women in need of money. “Roberta was asked to join a prostitute ring at the San Diego Zoo,” Hershman Leeson recalled. “They were chasing her! When you’re dealing with real life, it has a different trajectory of risk than just changing costumes for a photograph.”
Hershman Leeson ended the Breitmore piece when people started phoning her house looking for her alter ego—it had simply gone too far. Her friends and family thought so too. When the artist’s daughter went on a field trip to the de Young Museum in San Francisco, where documentation of the performance was shown, she pretended not to know her mother’s work. In 1978, after Breitmore cloned herself into four other women, Hershman Leeson held an exorcism for her by burning a photograph of Breitmore. For the artist, this was a way of liberating the character. Having become her own complete person, Breitmore was able to “convert that victimized single woman in the ’70s into someone who was less victimized,” Hershman Leeson said. “You could be a witness to her and also be her.”
After her actions and performances in the ’60s and ’70s, Hershman Leeson turned her attention to technology. Her interest in new media, she said, goes back to an experience she had when she was 16. She was Xeroxing a life drawing she’d made when the paper got crumpled in the machine. The woman’s figure in the picture came out warped and distorted in a way she could never reproduce by hand. This, Hershman Leeson said, was when she first understood technology’s impact on the human body.
She went on to work with LaserDiscs, touch screens, and webcams. “The idea of using technology as it’s being invented in your own time—people think it’s the future, but it’s not the future,” she said. “You’re living in it.”
LaserDiscs, which for the first time allowed users to skip through films with precision and ease, were new when Hershman Leeson used them to create Lorna (1979–82), a work in her latest show at Bridget Donahue. By clicking on various objects using a remote control, viewers command the life of Lorna, an agoraphobic woman whose only connection to the world is by phone and television. “It’s not that radical now,” she said. “At the time, it was.”
She built on Lorna’s effect with Deep Contact (1984), which explores the life of Marion, a seductive blonde who invites viewers to caress her. Thanks to Hershman Leeson’s pioneering use of a touch screen, Deep Contact makes visceral the ways men might control women and turn them into objects. To spring the piece into action, viewers have to touch Marion against her will.
But Marion is not as innocent as she seems. Depending on how viewers navigate the work, she can become a devil or a Zen master. Maybe she is in control after all—maybe she plays the viewer rather than the other way around. Perhaps she is like the protagonist of A Room of One’s Own, a later work from 1993 in which viewers peer into a periscope to see a video of a woman staring back at them and saying, “Go look at your own life—don’t look at me.”
“The voyeur becomes the victim,” Hershman Leeson said of such works. “When you begin an aggressive act, you’re victimized by it also. You’re not separate from the result.”
Some of Hershman Leeson’s art has more directly addressed violence. For America’s Finest (1990–94), she reconfigured an AK-47 machine gun with a viewfinder that projects images of explosions. If the trigger is pulled, the work captures the image of the viewer and then puts it in the crosshairs. Donald B. Hess, Hershman Leeson’s first collector, acquired the piece and holds it now as part of the Hess Collection in Napa, California. Hess told me he admired the work’s “visual presence and impact” in service of a statement about gun violence. Other works of hers in his collection seem to evolve with advances in technology—“a little like a cyborg,” he said.
Hershman Leeson has enlisted artificial intelligence and the internet to update old pieces in such works as Life Squared (2005), which reconstructs The Dante Hotel installation in the form of a Second Life virtual world. Viewers could go online and explore a digital version of the hotel, and, if they were lucky, they might even encounter an avatar of Roberta Breitmore. Hershman Leeson sees Life Squared as an “animated archive” of her work, and an interest in storing information has led her to explore genetic engineering. The Infinity Engine, an installation from 2014, includes a scanning booth that can identify the genetic makeup of viewers through reverse facial-recognition software. Like many other works in her oeuvre, The Infinity Engine is about, in the artist’s own words, “understanding that we’re all being captured.”
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Teknolust (still), 2010. ©LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON/COURTESY BRIDGET DONAHUE
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Teknolust (still), 2010.
©LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON/COURTESY BRIDGET DONAHUE
One of the most unexpected aspects of Hershman Leeson’s career is how she fell into filmmaking. Since 1997, she has commercially released four feature films via independent distribution companies. Though none fared especially well at the box office, a couple have gained cult followings. “My films don’t make any money, but they cost a lot of money,” Hershman Leeson told me, half-joking.
She never received a true film education. In California in the ’60s and ’70s, however, she witnessed the rise of New Hollywood filmmaking, which resulted in darker, more complex mainstream movies like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. She even had a channel to the leading directors of the time through Eleanor Coppola, her friend and Dante Hotel collaborator—and the wife of Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. Hershman Leeson attended screenings at the Coppolas’ house, where she met auteurs like Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders.
“They were all making movies, and it didn’t seem to me that it was that hard,” she said. “At the time, I was broke. They made a lot of money, so I thought I would do that too.” A class in 8mm filmmaking at City College in San Francisco would be the whole of her cinematic schooling.
Conceiving Ada, her first feature film, from 1997, tells the story of a frustrated computer scientist who develops a program to communicate with Ada Lovelace, the inventor of the first computer algorithm in the 19th century. Lovelace is played by Tilda Swinton, who would return in 2002 for Teknolust, in which she plays four roles: a scientist and then three cyborg clones she creates of herself, each of which needs human sperm to survive. Despite its improbable premise, Teknolust foreshadows more recent speculative sci-fi movies like 2013’s Under the Skin.
Teknolust was a flop. The New York Post called it “muddled and shallow and obvious.” It earned just $29,000 at the box office. Hershman Leeson insists that critics, audiences, and even the movie’s crew did not understand the film’s ironic sense of humor. “We were there laughing,” she said, “but nobody got the jokes.”
Two documentaries met with more success. Strange Culture, in 2007, explored the events leading up to the arrest of Steve Kurtz, a member of the art collective Critical Art Ensemble who, after making work about genetic modification, was detained by the FBI under bioterrorism charges. !Women Art Revolution, from 2010, drew on four decades of interviews with artists—including Judy Chicago, Adrian Piper, and Nancy Spero—and has been lauded as an essential history of the feminist art movement.
Hershman Leeson’s latest film, the forthcoming Tania Libre, is a documentary about the artist Tania Bruguera that focuses on the aftermath of her recent experience in Cuba, where she had her passport confiscated (it was later returned, after protests among activists) and where she faced near-constant surveillance. “Artists, and in particular women artists, suffer so much censorship in culture,” Hershman Leeson told me. “It seemed like this was something I could help with.”
Not long ago, Hershman Leeson’s name would scarcely have raised a brow for many, in the art world and the film world as well. With her newfound popularity, however, she has been able to show work that has never been on view before. When she was in New York this past fall, seeking distribution for her latest creation for the silver screen and installing work in the Whitney for one of the most momentous shows of her career, she sounded pleasantly surprised by all the recent attention but focused on furthering a trajectory started long ago. Even though some of her art has been illustrated in textbooks and catalogues for years, around 80 percent of her 2,000 pieces have never been exhibited, she told me, with a look of expectancy in her eye.
A few works have already been retroactively written into art history. This year, the art-and-technology-focused enterprise Rhizome added Tillie, the Telerobotic Doll (1995) and CyberRoberta (1996)—two dolls with webcams for eyes, both broadcasting images of gallerygoers to viewers online—to its Net Art Anthology, a digital compendium of classic artworks on and about the internet.
Humble but with a clear sense of validation, Hershman Leeson is aware that her work has been ahead of its time, but, as her New York gallerist, Bridget Donahue put it, “there’s not a cockiness” to the way she has carried herself during her career. Asked how often she now hears from appreciators of her work, Hershman Leeson said, “All the time. People write to me from all over the world—young people.” With a note of humility and satisfaction, she added: “That amazes me.”
Alex Greenberger is managing editor at ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 66 under the title “A New Future from the Passed.”
Copyright 2018, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.