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Lynn Hershman Leeson's Existential Questions In The First Person Plural

At a warehouse in Berlin-Kreuzberg, commissioned by the KW Institute, the artist explores technology's mediation and manipulation of our identities

As one of the hosts of the 10th Berlin Biennale, KW Institute for Contemporary Art is holding this season’s exhibitions in several locations around the city. Lynn Hershman Leeson’s solo show, ‘First Person Plural’, occupies a warehouse formerly used by a van rental company. The depot, located in a gentrifying corner of Kreuzberg, has been taken over by a developer who plans to convert it into offices, restaurants and other commercial spaces after ‘kindly providing’ it to KW. Following ‘Civic Radar’ (2014) at ZKM in Karlsruhe, which travelled to Hamburg’s Falckenberg Collection, ‘First Person Plural’ is Hershman Leeson’s third large-scale exhibition in Germany within five years. The show opens with a sculptural installation (Venus of the Anthropocene, 2017), in which a white torso sits on a zebra-patterned stool as facial-recognition software attempts to identify the viewer’s gender, age and mood. Otherwise, the works consist primarily of early media art – a register familiar to visitors in post-internet savvy Berlin. Produced between the late 1970s and early ’90s, it is perhaps this media analogy – and her oeuvre’s prescient attention to self-promotion, auto-analysis and feminist emancipation – that have spawned a renewed interest in Hershman Leeson’s work.

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Lynn Hershman Leeson, Venus of the Anthropocene, 2017, installation view, 2018, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and Bridget Donahue, New York; photograph: Frank Sperling

Seated in a living-room installation on leopard-patterned armchairs and surrounded by the February, March and August 1969 issues of LIFE magazine (the latter reporting on the space-flight that landed on the moon), we flip – remote control in hand – through the menu of an interactive videodisc, supposedly the first in art history. The interactive work Lorna (1979–82) prompts us to scan the on-screen, lounge-like space for objects and traces of the protagonist’s 16,325-day existence there. Lorna lives in a one-room apartment in Texas, at pains with the outside world. Progressing through the menu to the chapter titled ‘Learn from Your Dreams’, we glance at a yellow table featuring a goldfish bowl, Lorna’s wristwatch and a handgun in her drawer, and are thus prompted to determine her destiny: whether she endures imprisonment in the apartment, opens fire against the television or commits suicide.

In the adjacent industrial hall, four monitors are suspended to the left and, to the right, are four projections. The monitors present a series of single-channel videos such as The Dante Hotel (1972–73) or Commercials for New York Hotel Rooms (1974) and circle back to Hershman Leeson’s installations outside of traditional exhibition and gallery settings (often in rented hotel rooms; one of which, ‘The Novalis Hotel’, 2018, was presented concurrently with the show) as well as her construction of alter-egos (the show’s eponymous first person plural, ‘we’). The avataristic strategies employed in these early works set the tone for her ‘Electronic Diaries’ series (1985–90) produced in a therapeutic attempt ‘to wipe out the prison of the past’. 

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Lynn Hershman Leeson, First Person Plural, the Electronic Diaries of Lynn Hershman, 1984–96, installation view, 2018, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and Bridget Donahue, New York; photograph: Frank Sperling

Over four chapters, Hershman Leeson faces the camera in a confessional style akin to US talk shows. Here, the character reveals personal details: what provoked her to become an artist, her own estrangement from her body, that her husband’s leaving her led her to substitute cookies for sex. We see the taped progress of an illness and imagery of body scans juxtaposed with footage from the October 1989 earthquake in northern California. Her diaries become gradually more tragic and an initial suspicion provoked by their demands for empathy gives way to compassion. Hershman Leeson’s existential question: ‘What would you take if you were given 15 minutes to take anything that means something to you if you were dislocated forever,’ resonates uncannily within the bare walls of the defunct warehouse. As the artist adds, however: ‘Sometimes dying in your own prime leads to immortality.’ Despite her recent work being of uneven quality, this exhibition manifests Hershman Leeson’s pivotal role in envisioning our identities, which are mediated before they are anything else.

Lynne Hershman Leeson: First Person Plural was on view at The Shelf, Prinzenstraße 34, 10969 Berlin-Kreuzberg, hosted by the KW Institute For Contemporary Art, Berlin from 19 May until 15 July 2018.

Main image: Lynn Hershman Leeson, Lorna (detail), 1979–82, installation view, 2018, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and Bridget Donahue, New York; photograph: Frank Sperling

Tobi Maier is a critic and curator based in São Paulo.

Issue 197

First published in Issue 197

September 2018
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