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Lynn Hershman Leeson: “My work was considered bad art [for over 50 years]”

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, Humanity & Technology, delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

Art, science and technology blend in Lynn Hershman Leeson’s first solo museum exhibition in New York, a belated recognition of her forward-thinking work over six decades

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s work has always been ahead of the curve. The multimedia artist has explored issues relating to science and technology – specifically biotechnology – and the body since the 1960s. She was at the forefront of the second-wave feminism and new media art movements emerging during that decade and developed an art practice informed by these influences and her lived experiences, including an extended period in hospital during the 60s, suffering from cardiomyopathy while pregnant. 

It was Hershman Leeson’s hospitalisation that incited, in part, her ongoing interest in the notion of a cyborg (a term first coined in 1960 during the US-Soviet space race), which has been a focus of her practice ever since. However, despite the exploration of such contemporary subjects, no gallery or museum staged a comprehensive retrospective of her work until she was in her seventies. “It was considered bad art [for over 50 years],” she explains. “Museums didn’t even have staff that could deal with the technology or install it.”

Roberta Getting Read to Go to Work. 1976 © Lynn Hershman Leeson. Courtesy of Bridget Donahue, New York, and Altman Siegal, San Francisco.

Now, the artist has her first solo museum exhibition in New York at the New Museum. Twisted takes its name from the twisted double helix structure of DNA and brings together drawing, sculpture, video, photography, and interactive and net-based works, showcasing several of her better-known projects alongside new endeavours. As implied by its title, the exhibition explores Hershman Leeson’s ongoing interrogation of the ever-evolving and deepening relationship between humanity and technology, including the cyborg, and the social, political, cultural and ethical implications of this dynamic.

The name Twisted also derives from the title of a new body of work, Twisted Gravity (2020-21), which confronts the urgent issue of plastic and other contaminants polluting water worldwide. Created in collaboration with the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, the work transforms images of women, made by Hershman Leeson early on in her career, into water graphs. These exhibit newly developed technologies that purify toxicities caused by plastics and other pollutants; as Hershman Leeson describes it: “A good collaboration between science and art.” Indeed, throughout her oeuvre, science, art and technology blend physically, as with Twisted Gravity, but conceptually too, with Hershman Leeson exploiting traditionally artistic genres to probe ways of being and experiences that anticipated the popularisation of new technologies.

Roberta Construction Chart. 1975 © Lynn Hershman Leeson. Courtesy of Bridget Donahue, New York, and Altman Siegal, San Francisco.

One of her most well-known works, Roberta Breitmore (1972-79), for instance (parts of which are on show in Twisted), saw Hershman Leeson create and perform a fictional persona over seven years. The idea was that Roberta would develop as an individual by interacting with the world. This led her to evolve into the archetypal ideal of femininity as she absorbed the social norms, riddled with sexism, that surrounded her. Despite the work primarily being a performance piece, the process was arguably akin to how external datasets, with all their implicit biases, train and develop AIs. 

Although not a retrospective, Twisted traces Hershman Leeson’s practice and thereby her sustained engagement with new sciences and technologies developing over the past 60 years. Initially, those engagements manifested in conventional artistic mediums, but progressively, scientific developments and technologies – such as AI, social media and genetic modification – have become Hershman Leeson’s canvases themselves. And as she moves deeper into this realm, technology increasingly becomes an integral part of our everyday lives too. Indeed, the concept of the cyborg has never felt so tangible. 

Twisted is on show at the New Museum, New York, from 30 June to 03 October 2021.

   

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.

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