For me, and I suspect for many others, the pandemic has prompted much soul-searching about different aspects of my life. Foremost is my dependence on technology, which I found especially troubling over the past year. At a certain point, after months of social isolation punctuated by video calls and Twitter binges, I felt almost like I was losing my mind, as if my ability to distinguish between the virtual and physical worlds were slipping. It was a strangely mesmerizing and frightening sensation that I recalled recently, after seeing Lynn Hershman Leeson’s exhilarating and intense solo show at the New Museum, “Twisted.”
A pioneering new media artist and filmmaker who has spent most of her life in San Francisco, after growing up in Cleveland, Hershman Leeson has been contemplating our connection to machines since the 1960s. Starting out in more traditional forms like drawing, painting, and collage, she went on to make wax sculptures, then videos and artworks using laser discs, touch screens (in the ’80s), webcams, artificial intelligence, and most recently, in collaboration with scientists, a water purification system and DNA.
As a woman making experimental work, often about female identity, Hershman Leeson was sidelined for decades by mainstream art institutions. In 2014, she had a career-changing retrospective at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, and five years later, her work was the centerpiece of a group exhibition at the Shed. Yet “Twisted” is her first solo museum show in New York City — and she turned 80 the week before it opened.
The exhibition goes some way toward rectifying her exclusion: It’s a strong, smart survey that gives her overdue credit. It also feels limited and sometimes cramped, omitting a lot while squeezing too much into basically a single floor. The show strikes me as akin to a greatest hits album: an excellent introduction for newcomers and a dose of reliable inspiration for those familiar with her work, but not deep enough once you’re tuned into her brilliance.
Hershman Leeson is perhaps best known for “The Electronic Diaries” (1984—2019), a decades-long project playing at the New Museum in a ground floor gallery. In it she recorded herself talking about her life, particularly her traumas, on videotape. The process served as a kind of therapy, giving her a chance to find herself, and to consider the nature of identity more broadly, through the lens of a camera. The works (there are currently six parts) are almost eerily visionary for how they anticipate the advent of confessional posting on social media platforms and for some of her early, astute observations. “I think that we’ve become kind of a society of screens, of different layers that keep us from knowing the truth,” she says, “as if the truth is almost unbearable and too much for us to deal with, just like our feelings.”
The “Diaries” offer a sense of Hershman Leeson’s style and concerns before you move upstairs, where the exhibition is concentrated. Both chronological and thematic, the show focuses on a major motif of her practice: the relationship between technology and the self. Around the time she took up this idea, the artist, then in her 20s, was pregnant and hospitalized with a life-threatening heart condition. She made drawings and collages of people with gear-filled insides — a way of visualizing the hidden workings of the body and perhaps imagining a mechanical means of warding off death.
Dozens of those early pieces (more than necessary) are hung tightly on the walls of the first room, but they hold interest primarily as historical documents. Aesthetically, they can’t compete with the “Breathing Machines” nearby. These ingenious and bewitching sculptures consist of cases holding eerie wax casts of female faces. Your presence triggers an audio track, whether the coughing and heaving breaths of “Butterfly Woman Sleeping” (1967) or the unnerving monologue of “Self-Portrait as Another Person” (1965), which asks, “What are you afraid of?” and says, “I feel really close to you.” The idea of being seduced by a machine recurs in Hershman Leeson’s work, as does her interest in viewer participation and her study of how gender norms shape women’s particular associations with technology.
Soon after, Hershman Leeson began a radical exploration of identity. For five years beginning in 1973, the artist created a character named Roberta Breitmore whom she also played in the real world. Having studied psychology, Hershman Leeson generated a back story for Roberta and, produced charts detailing the body language and makeup she used to transform into the character. The artist went out as Roberta and expanded her personality through experiences. Roberta got a driver’s license, opened a checking account, and saw a psychiatrist. She had distinct handwriting and kept a diary. At one point, Roberta placed a newspaper ad for a roommate, and a man who answered it tried to get her to join a prostitution ring.
“Twisted” extensively documents Roberta, from photographs to clothing and a psychiatric evaluation. (The doctor suggests “a schizophrenic condition, simple type.”) The archive raises the fundamental question of what elements make up a person. Beyond that, which ones are necessary, which are extraneous, and who decides?
Although she was resolutely analogue, Roberta functioned almost like a digital program or machine. She developed based on input from society — input that was so often negative, the artist ended the project with an exorcism. In a way, Roberta was a model for the gendered interactivity that Hershman Leeson would go on to explore in other works at the New Museum.
One is “Deep Contact” (1984—89), a videodisc and touch screen piece that recalls a choose-your-own-adventure book, only with more obscure situations. The journey begins by following the exhortations of a blonde in a sexy dress who calls out, “Touch me.” The other is “Agent Ruby” (1998—2002), described as an “artificially intelligent Web agent with a female persona” whom you can converse with online and who grows smarter with increased engagement. In both cases, the technologies are represented as female characters that seem to have more control than the passive Roberta did. They’re like more soulful, less obedient versions of Siri and Alexa.
If there’s one thing that “Twisted” makes abundantly clear, it’s Hershman Leeson’s prescience. She not only found ways to use advanced technologies, but also saw how they were shaping us. Her video “Seduction of a Cyborg” (1994) is like a parable: A woman who can’t see is given doses of electronic waves that destroy her immune system and turn her into a computer-addicted cyborg. In six short minutes, before the advent of social media, Hershman Leeson predicted the state of my pandemic-addled brain.
“The Electronic Diaries” contain a gap: The artist stopped creating them in the late ’90s and resumed about 20 years later. The exhibition doesn’t have the same strict break, but it makes a corresponding leap, from a past of now dated technologies into a present of futuristic ones. These appear in three new projects, among them “Twisted Gravity” (2021), a series of glowing panels connected to two water purification systems developed by Harvard. Figures of women are etched into plastic, and as the water is purified, the figures pulse in neon colors. Beautiful and hopeful as it is, “Twisted Gravity” lacks the tension that characterizes the artist’s best work: a profoundly double-edged view of technology, which may seduce and trick us but also gives us the opportunity to transcend ourselves.
The new project that carries the dichotomy forward is “The Infinity Engine” (2013–ongoing), a multifaceted exploration of bioengineering and genetic modification. Occupying three galleries, “The Infinity Engine” contains an array of material, including video interviews with leading scientists, a bioprinted ear, genetically modified fish that glow in the dark, and two pièces de résistance: an antibody named after the artist, developed with Dr. Thomas Huber, and a vial containing her artistic archive converted into DNA, made with Bill Peck. The installation is something of a mind-bending jumble: Hershman Leeson presents the results of her research, but I longed for more of a structure or story to help make sense of it. I’m glad to know about the creation, in 2002, of goats with spider genes but without more context, I don’t understand the implications.
“The Infinity Engine” represents Hershman Leeson’s recent shift from media to science and from a speculative, intimate tone to evangelistic wonder. The more time you spend with it, though, the more continuity emerges — and not just because the bioprinted ear echoes the wax facial fragments she made in the ’60s.
Bioengineering grapples with questions that Hershman Leeson has been asking all along, about what makes us human and what it looks like to create or modify life. At one point, a scientist she interviews, Caleb Webber, asks rhetorically, “Who do we want to be in the future?” The line stuck with me. It is a guiding inquiry of the artist’s career — and after six decades, she’s still creating answers.
Lynn Hershman Leeson: Twisted
Through Oct. 3 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, Manhattan. (212) 219-1222, newmuseum.org.