Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar

LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON’S “Breathing Machines,” a sculpture series from the 1960s, are coolly macabre self-portraits—masklike wax replicas of her face, styled with wigs and outfitted with electronics. In Self-Portrait as Albino, 1968, the artist’s expressionless face, eyes closed, is framed by hair like ratty white curtains, secured with a length of frayed silver fabric tied beneath the chin. As the viewer approaches, a motion detector triggers a cassette recording of her breathing. With this unsettling series, Hershman Leeson, who was traumatically confined to an oxygen tent for five weeks in 1966 with a potentially fatal heart condition, counters the traditional passivity of the art object, as well as that of the patient—and the woman. Inhaling and exhaling on cue, her low-tech “Machines” prefigure the feminist interventions and major themes—alternate selves, cloning, cyborgs, surveillance, and interactivity—that have defined her radical multimedia oeuvre for five prolific decades.

Civic Radar, the first major retrospective of Hershman Leeson’s work, presented by the ZKM Karlsruhe last year, was a rare opportunity to view these fascinating pieces. The substantial, handsome accompanying catalogue, replete with a reflective silver cover, charts her practice—from her early wax body parts to her recent 3-D-bioprinted ones—with a comprehensive and illustrated time line, interspersed with texts by diverse contributors. Art historians Pamela Lee and Peggy Phelan and film critic B. Ruby Rich provide deep context; Tilda Swinton, who has starred in three of Hershman Leeson’s experimental science-fiction films, contributes a love letter that illuminates the artist’s ingenuity and humor; and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras talks with Hershman Leeson about the hidden frontier of post-9/11 surveillance (the use of DNA mapping and genetic engineering), considering the possibilities for contemporary activist art that engages with these developments.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Self-Portrait as Albino (detail), 1968, wax face cast, bronze powder, makeup, wig, scarf, sensors, sound file, and recorder mounted on board, 36 × 24 × 8".
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Self-Portrait as Albino (detail), 1968, wax face cast, bronze powder, makeup, wig, scarf, sensors, sound file, and recorder mounted on board, 36 × 24 × 8". Courtesy the artist, Bridget Donahue Gallery, and Fundación Siam di Tella, Buenas Aires.

Hershman Leeson first emerged as an important figure in the women’s-art movement of the 1970s. She documented its heady emergence with invaluable videotaped artist interviews (excerpts of which appear in her 2010 film, !Women Art Revolution), and produced a germinal body of feminist work, the “Roberta Breitmore” series, between 1973 and 1978. Roberta was a persona who performed in real time, undercover, in the real world. She had her own wardrobe, body language, and makeup style. Importantly, she also saw a psychiatrist and had a driver’s license and bank account, leaving behind proof of her existence—an identity that became an entity, fictional but authenticated. Hershman Leeson’s prescient art, as Civic Radar shows us, continually mines the overlaps of the real and the virtual, exposing the mediating and monitoring roles of culture, technology, and the state. The book clearly maps out her career, circling back to landmarks such as the “Roberta” series, which functions, in the artist’s words, as a “two-way mirror,” embodying her subversive ideal of interactive art. Hershman Leeson’s work demands that we look at it through our own reflection, making us aware of our biases and desires as we grapple with that double image.