The New Museum’s ‘Lynn Hershman Leeson: Twisted’ Exalts the Prophet of Digital Art

In a 2017 conversation with Interview magazine, visionary American artist Lynn Hershman Leeson observed, “Technology itself is neutral, it’s really up to what we, as a public, do with it. It’s about having faith in the next generation being able to use the media that was created during their lifetime to alter the systems that their parents or grandparents caused them to inherit, and reshape them into one of sustenance.”

It’s a pithily chicken-and-egg observation, addressing the eternal question of how much each generation is responsible for their seemingly own innovations, and the societal progress or decay/decline that results (like how we can conclude that social media in the end – sorry – is mostly bad). But she herself has always been a cultural prophet, of sorts, perhaps something of the contemporary art world’s answer to William Gibson, if you will. And a current exhibition at New York’s New Museum, provocatively titled Lynn Hershman Leeson: Twisted (on view through October 3), helps to explicate to exactly what degree that is the case.

Seduction, 1985 Gelatin silver print16 x 23 in (40.6 x 58.4 cm)Frame: 25 ¼ x 32 ¼ in (64.1 x 81.9 cm) Courtesy the artist; Bridget Donahue, New York; and Altman Siegel, San Francisco

Curated by the museum’s Margot Norton, it presents a nearly completist overview of her ’60s-era drawings and wax-cast sculptures, but also selected elements from other notable series’, including Water Women (1976–present), Phantom Limb (1985–88), and Cyborg (1996–2006). Her most recent multimedia installation The Infinity Engine (2014–present), explores the effects of genetic engineering on society – certainly deeply relevant at a time when our very existence is being threatened by insidious viral forces.

Elsewhere she deals with themes of consumerism, surveillance and even illness, mostly all through an ambivalent technological lens. Hershman was actually confined for several months to a hospital oxygen tank when she developed cardiomyopathy and almost died during a pregnancy in 1965 – and in fact, some more recent works are even the result of collaborations and interactions with the scientific community. When one considers that it was science that so recently saved us from a global and deadly pandemic, it all proves particularly poignant.

CybeRoberta, 1996 Custom-made doll, clothing, glasses, webcam, surveillance camera, mirror, original programming, and telerobotic head-rotating system. Aprox. 17 ¾ x 17 ¾ x 8 in (45 x 45 x 20 cm) Courtesy the artist; Bridget Donahue, New York; and Altman Siegel, San Francisco

“Drawings like Dress Ray (1966) and X-Ray Woman (1966) were made around the time when I was really sick and they didn’t think I was going to live through the pregnancy,” she recalls. “I couldn’t do anything at that time, but it was then that I made Conversation (1966), the tiny sculpture with wax and thread. After they started to look inside me with catheters and MRIs, I started to think of the body as a surface where all the intrinsic parts and mechanics couldn’t be seen.”

But in addition to its obvious futurism, there has also often been an unflinching feminist bent to her work, as Leeson has fearlessly explored how the female form is viewed through the lens of technology. For instance, 1985’s Seduction finds a woman posing, yes, seductively on a bed, with her head stuck inside of a television set – surely a biting commentary on the modern media’s ability to peddle its own male-generated vision of female sexuality. And CybeRoberta (1996) references her fictional alter ago Roberta Breitmore, first created in 1974, which found her transforming herself into said character over a period of years as a sort of existential experiment in female identity. An eerie looking (and perhaps even threatening, if you’re particularly paranoid) doll made specifically for the piece features a rotating, telerobotic head.

With the current billionaire space race depressingly replacing the ethereal with the profitable, the American West again up in climate-change-generated flames, and the fatal COVID virus still not yet down for the count, questions right now of how our own march of “progress” will ultimately save us or be our undoing are exigent to say the least. But in Lynn Hershman Leeson: Twisted, we may just find some useful answers.

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