B.C. and A.D
Fugami, Tracey, Afterimage
HERSHMANLANDIA: THE ART AND FILMS OF LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON
HENRY ART GALLERY
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)
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.
A similar performance project created in 1973-74, "The Dante Hotel," was a collaboration between the artist and Eleanor Coppola. The two women rented a room in the Dante Hotel in San Francisco and collected abandoned items from the neighborhood. The artists placed the objects throughout the room, as if it were inhabited. To view the installation, visitors would sign in at the hotel and ask for a key to the room. The retrospective includes documentary photographs of this installation. One image in the series depicts a dirty sink with two toothbrushes, a nearly empty Colgate toothpaste tube, pills, and a small shelf with an open Tampax box. In "The Dante Hotel" and "Roberta Breitmore" the fictitious personas move beyond the mimicry or facsimile of Duane Hanson's photorealist sculptures. Instead, the characters occupy psychological and physical spaces that merely allude to human presence and existence.
Hershman Leeson also produced non-documentary style photographs such as the "Phantom Limb" (1986-present) and "Hero Sandwich" (1980-87) series. Regarding the "Phantom Limb" images, the artist says in the exhibition catalog, "Robotic appendages further dehumanize the bodies, referencing a society evolving toward a techno human existence." (2) One photograph from this set, Seduction (1988), depicts a woman lying on her side with her legs partially crossed. On top of a bed, she is wearing heels and black attire against a mostly white background. Her head is replaced with a monitor showing a section of the face, the bridge of her nose to her forehead. The eyes shown on the screen are closed, diverting her gaze from the viewer. The "Hero Sandwich" pictures focus on male and female celebrities. Bowie/Hepburn (1987) exhibits headshots of the singer and actress split down the center and then merged. Similarities in bone structure and hairstyle, alongside the red lips and blue tint added to their faces with acrylic paint, furthers their co-existence. The applied coloration links to Andy Warhol's treatment of celebrity photos taken later in his career such as his 1975 "Mick Jagger" series. Both series employ a similar fusion of separate and recognizable images to create an unrecognizable hybrid.
Employing multimedia techniques has allowed Hershman Leeson to brilliantly devise moments of interaction while cleverly emphasizing technology's influence on human behavior. "Agent Ruby" (2002-present) is a computer program responsive to human voices. A monitor depicting a brunette Caucasian woman invites interaction by asking a series of questions such as, "What is your name?," and "Are you male or female?" Although the audio response is often poetic and not always decipherable, the visitor is forced to try different words or phrases to prompt Agent Ruby to keep speaking. While human interaction is somewhat predictable, with Agent Ruby the visitor is forced to be more intuitive in regard to the computer's "personality" and attempt to construct a dialogue in an unfamiliar interactive setting.
"Room of One's Own" (1990-93), based on Thomas Edison's "peep show" machine, allows the viewer to peer into a diorama of a woman's bedroom. A moveable periscope allows the onlooker to select an area of the room such as a bed, chair, pair of shoes, table with a telephone, or a screen with video. Depending on where the periscope is aimed, a red light floods that area and specific video and audio responses are cued to play on the screen within the diorama. A German woman undresses, sits in the chair, or barks in a defiant tone, "How did you get here?" or "What do you want?" A second screen on the far left is an image of the viewer's eyes. In this work, the viewer interacts with the woman by prompting specific videos or sound cues to play. The viewer is constantly being told to look away by the German woman, which adds to the mystery and actually persuades the viewer to keep watching.
In the piece "Lorna" (1983-84), viewers enter into an installation that mimics an apartment including a table, chairs, magazines, and a television. The visitor sits down at the television to watch Lorna, an agoraphobic, brown-haired woman in her living room also gazing at the TV. By using a similar remote control, the DVD prompts the viewer to choose objects within Lorna's apartment such as a fishbowl, mirror, or telephone. Depending on which object is chosen, Lorna is guided into certain plots and endings. In this work, the audience is given the opportunity to decide Lorna's fate and take part in a simulated reality.
While the interactive works and performance materials were particularly interesting, the exhibition also included digital prints, drawings, and two films, Conceiving Ada (1997) and Teknolust (2002). The artist's first cinematic endeavor, Conceiving Ada revolves around Emmy, who seeks a way to travel into time and make contact with Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter. Teknolust features a bio-geneticist named Rosetta Stone, who devises a formula to download her own DNA into her computer and thereby clone three replicants. The clones go on adventures and experience emotions, reflecting the potential for humanistic traits in the engineered robots.
The exhibition highlights Hershman Leeson's skillful application of technology and conceptual rigor in a major retrospective, which was long overdue.
TRACEY FUGAMI is a freelance curator and writer currently residing in Seattle, Washington.
1. Lynn Hershman Leeson, "B.C. and A.D.: Before Computers and After Digital Virtual Space, Expanded Interaction, Infinite Reality," Domus no. 816 (June 1999), 112-18.
2. Lynn Hershman Leeson, "Media Phantasmagoria," Meredith Tromble, ed., The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson, Secret Agents, Private 1. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), 64.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: B.C. and A.D. Contributors: Fugami, Tracey - Author. Journal title: Afterimage. Volume: 33. Issue: 4 Publication date: January-February 2006. Page number: 43+. © 2008 Visual Studies Workshop. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.