Per Contra Reviews

Miriam N. Kotzin

The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson: Secret Agents, Private I serve both as an absorbing introduction to the career of Lynn Hershman Leeson, and, also, through her work, to: aspects of the relationship of art and technology; site-specific installations; interactive art; and performance art. In the forward to this fascinating and informative collection of essays, Robin Held credits Hershman with being a "pioneer in 'new media' art" including producing "one of the first interactive artworks on videodisc, ...the first artwork to use a touch-screen interface; one of the earliest robotic art installations; and the Lynn Hershman Leeson (LHL) Process for Vitual Sets." Lynn Hershman is also known for her Roberta Breitmore project l974-1978, in which, as Held wrote, Hershman "explored spectacle, surveillance and spectatorship and their roles in constructing a sexed identity." This collection of essays includes two chapters by the artist, both of which are must-reads for those interested in the history of art during the last decades of the Twentieth Century and the start of the Twenty-First; the book will be especially interesting to someone interested in a feminist perspective of that time period.

In "Private I: An Investigator's Timeline," Hershman uses "public records and private thoughts" to describe her artworks from the period l958 to 2005. The anecdotes she uses to flesh out her descriptions provide additional insight to her work. Through a variety of media, and work spanning several decades, she points out consistent themes: "the interplay of gender, bodies, and machines" what she calls a "techno human identity," by which she goes beyond the cyborg.

She is, in addition to her other talents, a fine writer, so that when she writes about the process of compilation, she notes that she didn't hide "the breath, the scars or the dreams." Dreams are, she says, "this private I's secret weapon."

In looking back at the Roberta Breitmore project, Hershman writes something you ought not read if you are given to excessive introspection. So read on at your own peril--but it's worth it: "Ingested experience never really ends, but hovers inside like a bat, fanning its wings in your psyche." For those who don't remember, in the Roberta Breitmore project, she created an alternative identity, complete with rented apartment, ads in the paper for a room mate, and answering singles ads. Roberta Breitmore, whose name was derived from Roberta Bright, a character in Joyce Carol Oates' story, "Passions and Meditations," eventually had not only Hershman but other women assuming Breitmore's identity. The project ended in an "exorcism." (The excellent accompanying DVD includes a video of the transformation of Lynn Hershman to Roberta Breitmore as she applies make-up and puts on the blonde wig that Roberta wore.)

Hershman describes the genesis of The Dante Hotel installation and the way in which the unexpected played a role both in this and other site-specific hotel artworks. The Dante Hotel project arose out of discussions with Eleanor Coppola when they "were arranging a carpool for our then two- year old children." and The Dante Hotel installation ended when a visitor to the room found the life-size bodies with wax heads, thought there'd been a murder and called the police. Hershman writes that the police took the wax heads and other art elements to the evidence room. Other hotel installations had unexpected terminations as well.

In her chapter, "Romancing the Anti-Body: Lust and Longing in (Cyber)space," Hershman posits that in some ways the virtual world is "safer" than the physical world, not only for intimate relations, an idea she attributes to Howard Rheingold--but also to "reformat collective dreams and begin to embrace the imperfections, inherent obsolescence, temporality and fragility of our vulnerable human existence." (Networks, Agent Ruby and, which are discussed in this book are accessible online.)

Hershman's engaging entries on her works make for fascinating reading, especially as presented in conjunction with the comments by art critics. I confess to doing a google search of the bios of these authors, as early in her career as part of an MFA thesis, and also as a way of publicizing her art, Hershman's performance art was the creation of three personae, art critics named Gay Abandon, Prudence Juris and Herbert Goode -- all of whom published articles about other artists, but also included references to her work. This can be seen as a beginning of her performance pieces involving multiple identities. 

The authors in this collection are articulate and perceptive. Each offers a discussion of one aspect of Hershman's work and places it in the context of art history and appropriate theoretical constructs. We find essays on the films Teknolust and Conceiving Ada, the networks, and photography. Steve Dietz' "Animating the Network," for example, looks at the body of Hershman's work as being divided into "B.C."(Before Computers) and "A.D." (After Digital).

The book includes a generous selection of photographs (both black and white and color) documenting the work and stills from the films. Additionally, a DVD edited by Kyle Stephan provides photographs, documentation of site-specific installations, including the Dante hotel, some videos, with some parts of the video diary and a video of her transformation to Roberta Breitmore (mentioned above), as well as clips from the films (Teknolust and Conceiving Ada) and images of the other work. Navigation of the disc is smooth, and each section is introduced by an animation of a work that appeared in the window of a department store in Philadelphia, in which a mannequin's hand appears to have broken through the window. The disc allows for downloading files onto a computer, another generous aspect of this collection. The Art and Films of Lynn Hersman Leeson: Secret Agents, Private I is a delightful example of scholarship that is attentive to nuance, even as it succeeds in presenting an overview of a productive, varied art career spanning more than three decades.

Meredith Tromble, ed. The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson: Secret Agents, Private I. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press; and Seattle: Henry Art Gallery, 288 pages; includes DVD. $24.95


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