B.C. and A.D

Article excerpt

HERSHMANLANDIA: THE ART AND FILMS OF LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON

HENRY ART GALLERY

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

NOVEMBER 4, 2005-FEBRUARY 5, 2006

In 1972, Lynn Hershman's exhibition at the University Art Museum in Berkeley was closed due to her inclusion of an audio track in her sculpture. The piece in question, "Self-Portrait as Another Person" (1969), was a recording of a woman's voice posing questions to listeners such as, "When was your first sexual experience?," and "What brought you here today?" The subtle nuances of her speech and audible breaths compelled listeners to decipher her intent. While listening to the tape, viewers pondered a wax casting of a face covered in black spray paint that sported a wig of unkempt hair. The curators at the University did not deem the materials appropriate for museum display nor did they consider it art. (1)

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Today, addressing artistic practice as it relates to multimedia, sound, and digital space is nearly unavoidable. Hershman Leeson's retrospective "Hershmanlandia" is an example of this embrace, spanning over thirty-five years of work from the B.C. (before computers) and A.D. (after digital) eras. The show includes a version of the sound sculpture "Self-Portrait as Another Person" as well as documentary photographs, drawings, robotic works, digital art, videos, films, and interactive installations. Hershman Leeson's works contribute to an artistic discourse about the dualistic nature of the self, one that is viewed internally and another that is perceived externally. The exhibit highlights her investigations of this notion through invented personas and work that alludes to the influence of technology on human behavior.

Between 1974 and 1978, Hershman Leeson engaged in an ongoing performance by enacting the life of a created character, Roberta Breitmore. The artist transformed herself externally by wearing a blond wig and applying a specific makeup combination. Additional physical alterations included a distinct handwriting, body posture, and speech pattern. Breitmore had an apartment, opened a bank account, and saw a psychiatrist.

The name, Roberta Breitmore, was inspired from Joyce Carol Oates's 1972 story, "Passions and Meditations," in which the character Roberta Bright finds celebrities through letters she writes to them and ads she places in newspapers. Similar to Oates's heroine, Breitmore also places personal ads in newspapers, but in this case, she seeks companionship and shared rent. The strangers who answer the ads are mostly men and not aware of the performance. In the photograph Untitled (Roberta and B in Union Square, San Francisco) (1975), a man in a denim jacket is seen sitting next to Roberta in a park. A copy of the ad has been pasted onto the surface of the photograph, covering the man's face and identity. The couple appears engaged in conversation. A transcription from their conversation is printed below the photograph, revealing their discussion of past friendships and places of residence.

Alongside the documentary photographs from this project, personal objects from Breitmore's life are also on display: an American Express card, simulated blood and urine samples housed in plastic bottles, and a series of letters she received in response to her ad. The construction of Roberta Breitmore points toward the idea that identity is a fluid embodiment that can traverse roles and personas. The invention of a second identity highlights the notion of a duplicitous existence that employs both the ego and the other. The strangers she meets also illustrate this idea in that they too inhabit a projected personality that they hope will be acceptable. Similar in nature to photographer Nikki S. Lee's assimilation into various cultures in "The Schoolgirls Project" (2000) or "The Hip Hop Project" (2001), Hershman Leeson also transforms through physical conditions. However, unlike Cindy Sherman's "Untitled Film Stills" series (1977-80), which could be seen as another example of external alteration, both Lee and Hershman Leeson assimilate other personas in real time to interact with that particular environment. …