Lynn Hershman Leeson

Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe, Germany


Shower, still from the film Teknolust, 2002

Shower, still from the film Teknolust, 2002

An important precursor of the Pictures Generation, Lynn Hershman Leeson has been left out of traditional accounts of conceptual photography. Her retrospective at Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) has finally injected much-needed momentum into this staid discourse. Entitled ‘Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar’, and curated by Peter Weibel and Andreas Beitin, the exhibition spans the length of Hershman Leeson’s career, from the early 1960s to the present. This massive but meticulous and intelligently organized show brings hundreds of objects into a single space – presenting a beautifully vibrant archive that never feels dated. Hershman Leeson’s career has encompassed performance, photography, film and painting – work that has often prefigured the projects of other artists.

Discussions of Photo-Conceptualism have changed little since curator Douglas Crimp’s initial manifesto for the movement-defining ‘Pictures’ exhibition at Artists Space, New York, in 1977, in which he concluded that ‘underneath each picture is always another picture’. After viewing Hershman Leeson’s retrospective, we cannot repeat the same truisms about the construction of identity and the constant citation of the image. Something different is happening here: for Hershman Leeson, behind each body is always another body, in a strange dance of presence and absence.

For example, in the 1973–79 ‘Roberta Breitmore’ series, Hershman Leeson lived as an imagined woman named Roberta, starting some years before Cindy Sherman created her Untitled Film Stills (1977–80). During the six-year span of the project, Hershman-Leeson-as-Roberta got a driver’s licence, was psychoanalyzed, opened a bank account and interviewed potential roommates for an apartment share. Hershman Leeson meticulously documented the scenes, clothes, objects and paperwork involved in this performance and, in doing so, summoned a human being into existence from photographic evidence. Inviting other women to act as surrogates, Hershman Leeson produced a number of iterations of Roberta, until the character was ritually exorcized on Lucrezia Borgia’s grave at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara in 1978.

In the photograph Roberta’s Replacement At Her Temp Job After She Was Fired (1978), a nameless woman has replaced Roberta, herself a fiction, producing the effect of a double absence. Hershman Leeson’s signature crosses slightly onto the edge of the silver gelatin print, as if to ground the imagined situation in the real via the corporeality of the artist’s hand. The piece marks an oscillation between embodiment (the body of the woman who replaces Roberta) and disembodiment (the absent Roberta who, in turn, has already replaced Hershman Leeson). Similarly, another photograph, Roberta Contemplating Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge (1978) reminds us of the importance of the (specifically female) body to the discourse of Postmodernism. We see Roberta from behind, standing near the edge of San Francisco’s iconic bridge. The moment is charged with the potential for a body to hurl towards the water, but whose body – Hershman Leeson’s or Roberta’s?

Such explorations of photography and performance reach a pinnacle in Hershman Leeson’s most recent project, The Infinity Engine (2013–ongoing): a functional replica genetics lab that explores the limits of Postmodern insights into identity in light of developments in regenerative medicine, bio-printing and DNA programming. Created in collaboration with a team of scientists working in the fields of synthetic biology and bioelectronics, the lab has created a flesh-like human nose using biological print technology and interactive facial-recognition software that attempts to predict the viewer’s DNA profile. This work suggests ways in which we can copy bodies through images, as well as the potential realization of the Postmodern vision of endless citation – a future free of bodies and populated instead with discursive chimera. But Hershman Leeson also uses The Infinity Engine to ask whether this is a world we want: in which we become a series of bodies-cum-photographs and photographs-cum-bodies. This may be the limit of the Pictures Generation – the final coalescence of art and life – but to what end?

Issue 169

First published in Issue 169

March 2015

Most Read

Ahead of its South London Gallery performance, how Tom Phillips’s Irma – a work that questions the genre of opera...
With the opening of the 15th Istanbul Biennial this week, a guide to the best exhibitions around town
Ahead of the openings of EXPO Chicago and the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial, a guide to the best exhibitions...
Florine Stettheimer, Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P.T. Barnum, 1924, oil on canvas, 1.2 x 1.5 m. Courtesy: Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut and Ettie Stettheimer
The Jewish Museum, New York, USA
Highlights of the exhibitions and performances taking place during Berlin Art Week 
Reflections, a favourite verse, and a new poem dedicated to one of the English language’s most renowned poets of the...
Nicole Eiseman, Sketch for a Fountain (Skizze für einen Brunnen), 2017, Skulptur Projekte 2017, bronze, gips, wasserbecken. Courtesy: Skulptur Projekte Münster
Various venues, Münster, Germany
Buoyed by Manifesta announcing it will dock in the port city in 2020, is Marseille becoming the new LA? 
Ahead of this year’s DC Open and gallery share Okey-Dokey, a round-up of the best shows across the Rhineland cities
From artist Enoch Cheng’s nocturnal balletics to fascist violence in Charlottesville, rethinking the political agency...
Opened 15 months ago but remaining empty until now, the inaugural show at the landmark Palestinian Museum in Birzeit
The dual sides to the city’s Cph Art Week
Queer cringe at the BBC and other diversity dilemmas
Marta Minujín, El Partenón de libros (The Parthenon of Books), 2017, under construction in Kassel as part of documenta 14. Photograph: © Rosa Maria Ruehling
On documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel
Chris Kraus’s biography of the first female ‘Great Writer as Countercultural Hero’
Remembering the artist whose occultist experiments transformed her body and biography into art 
In this microcosm of the disenfranchisement of ‘Late Great Britain’, what use is art?
Public debate around Confederate insignia has little to do with historical fact, and everything to do with collective...
A multi-faceted collaboration between Matthew Barney, Ragnar Kjartansson and the Iceland Dance Company reflects on...
What Luc Besson’s Valerian and a number of recent artists’ 3D films are getting right about our current reality
The removal of the Confederate monuments in Baltimore shows decisiveness after years of inaction – already they stand...
Yayoi Kusama to open her own museum; Confederate monuments removed in Baltimore; David Roberts Art Foundation to leave...
From a tribute to Straub/Huillet to Valerie Massadian’s portrait of teenage motherhood, the turn to real situations and...
Japan’s growing number of art festivals tread a precarious path between state-sponsored leisure-culture and soft-power...
Fifty years after the term was coined, a show in Samos reflects on ‘the unlikely liaison between love and politics’
Arsenale and Giardini, Venice, Italy
SoundCloud has been invaluable to the new music community for both documentation and discovery – now the audio-...
The extraordinary life of the late, great, gallerist and collector Alexander Iolas
Various venues, New York, USA
At a time of instantaneous information and fetishized immersivity, artists are evoking scent as an alchemical, bodily...
With her current show at Gasworks, London, the Kuwaiti artist shares some influential images
Romare Bearden, Pittsburgh Memory, 1964, mixed media collage and graphite on board, 22 x 30 cm. Courtesy: © Romare Bearden Foundation / DACS, London / VAGA, New York 2017
Successfully layering a broader socio-historical narrative onto a period of radical non-conformity, this is an...
With a strong surrealist strain, and including a welcome number of female artists, highlights from the 48th edition of...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

May 2017

frieze magazine

June – August 2017

frieze magazine

September 2017