ZKM/Museum of Contemporary Art, Karlsruhe, Germany
13 December 2014 – 6 April 2015
by LILLY WEI
Civic Radar, a comprehensive, long-overdue retrospective of her work, presents the remarkable breadth of her thinking about art, technology, politics and the increasingly elastic and complex definitions of what constitutes identity and being, thinking that has always been timely. Perceptively curated by Peter Weibel, himself a pioneering advocate for new media, and Andreas Beitin of the ZKM (Center for Art and Media), Karlsruhe, in collaboration with the Deichtorhallen/Sammlung Falckenberg, a version of it will travel to Hamburg in May 2015, as well as to Modern Art Oxford, UK. Shamefully, Hershman Leeson has yet to receive a similarly indepth assessment in the US, although her work will be the inaugural show at Bridget Donahue, a new gallery opening this February on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Civic Radar, the title luminously projected as a band circling the space near the entrance like a searchlight, emphasising the omnipresent theme of voyeurism and surveillance, begins with Hershman Leeson’s early 60s drawings, paintings and sculptures, then explores her shift to performance, installation, conceptual work and her enthusiastic embrace of evolving media that is a subject in itself, from photography to film, video and digital, including sound, interactive and social media. It continues to the present with her newest projects, among which is the Infinity Engine, a functioning genetics laboratory that proposes possible scenarios for the future of life on Earth, not “sci-fi,” as Hershman Leeson puts it, but “sci-tru,” based on biogenetic research, artificial intelligence, cloning, mutations, transgenic experiments and regenerative medicine.
Among the other highpoints of the show is the documentation for The Dante Hotel (1973), one of the first installations that used a setting outside a gallery. Hershman Leeson created it with Eleanor Coppola, an artist and documentary film-maker: each of them rented a room in the hotel and filled it with objects to evoke a narrative. Hershman Leeson’s room, the key given to anyone who asked for it, was arranged to suggest the imagined lives of its previous occupants in a study of fiction on fiction, of masks, impersonations and the conjured identities that lead to both truth and lies. Soon afterward, she conceived Roberta Breitmore, one of her most acclaimed works, a thoroughly documented, extended performance that lasted from 1973-79, in which she alternately lived as both herself and Roberta, the character she created. Others include Lorna (1983), a character who is the opposite of Roberta, existing only on videodisc and seen on a monitor. She also never leaves her apartment, imprisoned by agoraphobia. It is the first artwork to use an interactive videodisc, programmed to be remotely accessed (now transferred to DVD). Here, played on an old television set, it is part of an installation that corresponds to Lorna’s home. The viewer, choosing from among 36 chapters, determines the progress of the story and its denouement, in essence creating Lorna’s life.
Another striking heroine is Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, a 19th-century English mathematician, now credited as the writer of the first computer program, played by Tilda Swinton in Hershman Leeson’s 1997 film Conceiving Ada. Swinton also stars in the smart, engrossing feature film Teknolust (2002), in which she assumes the triple role of three replicants as well as the scientist who created them, in a world where men might become redundant, necessary only for their DNA, an earlier treatment of a theme more chillingly reprised in Jonathan Glazer’s recent film, Under the Skin. Also shown, again with Swinton as one of the protagonists, was Strange Culture, Hershman Leeson’s 2007 documentary on bio-artist Steve Kurtz, who was arrested as a “bioterrorist” and indicted for mail fraud because some specimens used for his projects were deemed pathogens. In !WAR (Women Art Revolution), 2010, her documentary on how feminism changed art, the well-selected archival footage and interviews with the women who fuelled it was especially absorbing, capturing the period’s climate of excitement, iconoclasm and urgency. In addition to feminist issues, freedom of expression and individual rights, Hershman Leeson these days is deeply concerned with bio-politics. Her simulated laboratories, her black comedies – or not so comedic – address the ethical and pragmatic quandaries and potential disasters, as well as the enormous possibilities, that scientific breakthroughs have raised, with an even clearer, more vigilant eye. One reason why her work continues to matter is that it has always reflected its present, looking towards the future, with criticality and apprehension, but not despair, believing that we can do better, that awareness will ultimately be our salvation, however uncertain that future is.