Since the mid-sixties, Lynn Hershman Leeson has been negotiating the interfaces of bodies and machines, of visibility and invisibility, of perception and deception. Always aware of current developments in media, technology, and biology, her art has absorbed, as well as anticipated crucial debates about constructivist feminism and post-humanism.
Apart from her photography, performance art, and short films, she explored these matters in three full-length feature films that made her a name in art house cinema.
In 2011, a more concrete aspect of her work came to the surface: her documentary !Women Art Revolution is a compilation of over 30 years of archived footage in which she interviewed artists who were and are part of the Feminist Art Movement. This remarkable panorama of feminist art will be shown as part of her first retrospective at the ZKM in Karlsruhe in December. Excerpts of her works spanning from 1966 – 2014 are currently displayed in her first German solo-exhibition at the Aanant & Zoo gallery in Berlin.
KubaParis met with Lynn Hershman Leeson to talk about the pros and cons of success, belated recognition, alter egos, and how we are all disappearing.
Let me ask you about your most recent work that is exhibited at Aanant & Zoo. “The Ballad of J.T.Leroy” picks up on the scandal that unfolded in 2006 when it was discovered that the novels “Sarah” and “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” were not written by a young man named J.T.Leroy but by a middle-aged woman named Laura Albert. She had not only invoked a literary nom-de-plume but created a whole persona which was embodied by her then boyfriend’s half-sister Savannah Knoop. In your film you reconstruct these events mostly by interviewing Knoop and Albert. Why did you choose to deal with this subject now?
I was interested in the story right from the beginning. I think what Laura Albert did was brilliant and I think in most contexts what she did would have been appreciated rather than condemned. Around two years ago she approached me and asked me to do this film about her. I was involved in other work back then but eventually I came around to doing it.
Why did she choose you? Did she know about the fictional persona Roberta Breitmore you invented and embodied for 4 years in an art project that started in 1974?
I don’t know whether her project was inspired by Roberta but she must have learned about it in the process.
Did you want to give a new, more empathetic perspective on the whole case by letting her speak about it? Albert got so much criticism for it back then. People felt betrayed.
Definitely. The concept of an alter ego is not new at all. Writers have been protecting themselves in that way for centuries. Mary Shelley did it. Of course Laura took this practice further and I think that was very smart and I do not think she deserves the kind of condemnation that she got. If I had done the Roberta thing ten years later, I would have faced the same problems. But back then there were no computers so it was safer.
Do you think taking on different characters as an artist, playing with masquerade, is a practice more often used by female artists? I am thinking of Martha Wilson and Linda Montano for example.
Not really. Duchamp did it! In my case, I chose a character that was culturally close to me. It’s not like I wanted to be a black woman or an old woman. I think maybe women were doing it more because we were trying to find an identity.
So in a way the concept of “disappearance” also plays a central role here. Do you want to say more about the title of the exhibition “How to disappear”?
My earlier works were destroyed and my practice was a very destructive one, like in “Fire Film” where I set the canvas on fire. That was part of my “Suicide Series.” Apart from that there is a lot of dealing with lost identity; the problem of female identity but also the problem of not being seen as an artist which is my history as someone who has been overlooked until recently. 85% of the work that will be shown at the ZKM retrospective has not been shown before. Nobody would show my work for decades. So it is a theme that is very critical to me.
But also dealing with genetics now, changing our inner structure and changing the species itself. So in a sense we are all disappearing. There are even “banking seeds” that exist so we can remember what we were originally like. There is so much mutation going on.
Speaking about not being recognized: In your documentary “!Women Art Revolution” there is a very touching scene in which 81-year-old Nancy Spero says that she had just had the most successful year of her career.
On the other hand that way you get to do your work. You know, success can also distract you and maybe lead you to only do the kind of thing that got you successful instead of pushing into new areas. So I never want to complain about that.
The image “Biological Clock” might also stand for the way in which a woman disappears from the public perception once she has reached a certain age.
Society puts different kinds of pressure on women. But women do have a biological clock that men do not have when it comes to reproduction. So there is a more acute awareness of time. But the clock on the image is going backwards.
The “Cabbage Cropped” image is an exaggeration of the scientific experiments you portray in the “Infinity Engine Wallpapers” series. I thought it was very funny. Does humor play a big part in your work?
Definitely. You feel something more if you are going to laugh. If you take something to an extreme, it is usually not that far off from what is actually happening. So I use humor a lot in my films and my work.
You have used narrative film, documentary film, and photography in your art. How do you decide which medium you are going to use to explore an idea? Or do you have the idea and then express it in all the media?
It is usually the same idea. The “Infinity” project will be a large installation at the ZKM with film, video and photography. The same elements could become a feature film or a documentary or an installation. Usually I try to figure out whom I want to reach and what is the best form for an idea. “!Women Art Revolution” needed to be a fairly forward documentary so people would understand it. I didn’t want anything too experimental in it, it shouldn’t be misinterpreted. Whereas something like “Teknolust” is a sci-fi film. But often I incorporate all of these forms together.
I have a question concerning the relationship between theory and art. You have taught at universities, and your work also seems to reflect feminist theory. Donna Haraway comes to mind in your works about the cyborg, maybe the anti-essentialist approach in general, which is also there in your work because you are also affirmative of certain types of “disappearance.”
Mine was first! I used the term “cyborg” in the 1960s already. I am not really involved with theory even though I wrote about my work to explain it because nobody could understand it 20 years ago. But I think you have to have a different intellect to do that kind of writing.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, the only thing that matters is the ZKM retrospective and the catalogue that goes with it. Parts of the ZKM exhibition are also going to be shown in Hamburg and in Oxford, and hopefully the States after that. But after that I want to do another feature film, which will be part of the trilogy of “Conceiving Ada” and “Teknolust.”
Is Tilda Swinton also going to be in that film?
Yes. I am very fortunate that she and I have similar sensibilities and a similar sense of humor. It is always fun to work with her.
Why is the USA not picking up on it?
I don’t know. I have no idea. But on the other hand I believe that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will add my work to their collection in the near future, just as MOMA New York just added 42 pieces to their collection recently. Germany has always been very kind to me and especially the ZKM has supported me for 30 years now by incorporating my pieces in their collections. Maybe they understand the kind of work I am doing better and I am grateful for that.
Text & Interview: Nadine Hartmann