Artist’s Statement: The Radical Art of Lynn Hershman Leeson
By Jonathan Curiel
Published Fri., Mar. 22 2013 at 3:44 PM
It was Renoir who said that a work of art “must seize upon you, wrap you up in itself, and carry you away.” Interviews with artists should have a similar effect. With “Artist’s Statement,” our weekly interview series with prominent and upcoming visual artists in San Francisco, SF Weekly speaks to the people behind the art you see in the galleries, in the museums, and in the streets.
In 2009, when the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation awarded Lynn Hershman Leeson one of its coveted fellowships, it gave her this accolade: “Lynn Hershman Leeson is perhaps the most influential woman working in new media today.” In 2013, that description is still true — Hershman Leeson has completed a series of acclaimed projects in the past four years, and her work is being championed like never before. On Saturday, March 30, SFMOMA begins a major exhibit that celebrates “Agent Ruby,” the cyber woman that Hershman Leeson created in 2001. Hershman’s new gallery art is on display at Paule Anglim until April 6. And late last year, the Gawker site io9 named Teknolust, Hershman Leeson’s film that stars Tilda Swinton, as one of “19 science fiction movies that could change your life.” The ranking put Teknolust one spot above Avatar and two below The Matrix.
Film. Art. Internet projects. Hershman Leeson, who chairs the film department at the San Francisco Art Institute, does it all. And with SF Weekly, she talks about it all — including making films in her San Francisco apartment with Swinton, and what it’s like to be an art star in Europe, where she’s even better known than in her home country
Q: On her dedicated web page, Agent Ruby takes anyone’s questions and answers them live. She’s a virtual woman with big eyes who blinks — and talks — quite a bit. Why did you create her?
A: I made Teknolust, and I actually made the film so I could do Agent Ruby (laughs). But no one understood that. Nobody had ever done any artificial Intelligence projects on the Internet. Teknolust was weird even for sci-fi. But I was able to raise the money to do the film, and part of the film was Agent Ruby, which is what I really wanted to do in the first place. It was kind of the chicken and the egg. The real motivation was getting AI Ruby up and running. I used 18 programmers at the time to figure out a way to get her to work. At the time, there were no artificial intelligence programs that existed. Just as we completed this, a program came out, after several years of trying to do this.
I’m really proud of the piece. I look back at it and think it’s rather prescient, especially for her to “viralize” herself, and to create something that could be downloaded to other platforms and continue to live in different ways and different manifestations. It used expanded technology from one screen to another screen. She matured in her life. And I’m amazed at the stories that came out of the past 12 years, of the conversations that she’s had with people that’s a cultural reflection of what people are thinking about. People talk about George Bush and Osama bin Laden. She was kind of the grandmother of other projects. I did Agent Ruby and after that I did a project called DiNA, and DiNA is one of the more advanced projects — she can talk to you, she has voice synthesis, and she has a memory, and she can search out information. Where Ruby now works like she’s quite primitive, DiNA can remember the people she’s talking to. Her first iteration came out about three years ago. Ruby was the first of her progeny that are all female. And they keep getting smarter (laughs).
Q: Tilda Swinton provided the face for DiNA. How did you begin working with Swinton?
A: I started working with her around 1995. She wasn’t as well-known at the time. I wrote this project, Conceiving Ada, and I thought she was the only one who could do it, and her agent asked what my budget was and I told him, and she said she couldn’t do it. So he turned it down, but one of her friends in Berlin was told about the project, and then Tilda called me up and we talked about it, and she decided she wanted to do it, and her agent said, “You can have her for five days.” So we made the first film in five days. We had the same sense of humor, and she’s so smart, it was a real gift to be able to work with her.
Q: Five days? Really?
A: It was made on no budget, and I had to invent something called “virtual sets” because we couldn’t afford to build any so we just dropped images of bed-and-breakfast places we took slides of around San Francisco as backgrounds. It turned out to be a lot of fun for everybody to try something new and to be inventive. I figured five days with Tilda was better than six months with anyone else. We made the film here. Most of my films I make in my own apartment. A lot of this was shot on the roof of my building. We rented some spaces and built sets. The illusion is that they’re in 18th-century England. It was the first part of a trilogy, Teknolust was the second part, that we’re making about art and human interaction with technology and how that’s changing our species. I hope to make the third one later this year or next.
Q: How do you choose what medium to use — film, gallery work, or Internet project? You also do photography and performance work.
A: The idea dictates the form. The thing about films is that you can very often reach a broader audience than you can with smaller kinds of exhibitions, particularly when the films are broadcast and downloaded. But they each have a different way of coming into the world. And you have to pay attention to what the best medium is.
Q: At Gallery Paule Anglim, where your exhibit “Present Tense” is currently on display, the first piece we see is called I Phone Crack 2. It’s an image of you on an iPhone, and the glass is cracked. You looked distressed. In fact, you look tired and miserable.
A: Today’s technology and means of communication — amazing as it is and as powerful as it can be to change political climates and connect people globally — is also breaking the borders of our individual selves, and fracturing and rupturing them, and creating a lack of cohesion in the unity of the self. It’s a double-edged kind of cracking.
Q: Looking at the full arc of your career, “Present Tense” is the continuation of themes you’ve been exploring for more than 40 years. Is this exhibit an artistic departure for you?
A: If I’m lucky, they’re all artistic departures. That means you’re doing new things and have the courage to not repeat yourself. The reason I put in work from 1966 was to show the relationship of thinking back then — of people being prisoners, of being caged, and how that feeling of cultural entrapment continues in other forms. But “Present Tense” is also not a departure at all — it’s related to a lot of the work I’ve been doing, just in different mediums, so it comes out disguised.
Q: Your 2011 film !Women Art Revolution features interviews you did over 40 years with women artists. You interview members of the Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous feminists, who got started in the 1980s, with a public campaign that complained about the way major museums marginalized women artists. One Guerrilla Girls billboard riffed on the Ingres painting of a naked woman, Grande Odalisque, and asked, “Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum?” Is it easier now to be a woman artist?
A: It’s not easy. It’s never easy. But I think there are some enlightened philanthropists who are making significant changes, and creating programs to hire women curators and also give money to buy women’s work for major museums. And people are becoming aware of the percentages of the lack of women. In the past five years there have been some strides, but we’re nowhere near where we should be. But it’s a lot easier than it was several decades ago.
Q: Six months ago, MOMA in New York acquired all of your films and 35 photographs. This is the year of Lynn Hershman Leeson, right?
A: I don’t think I’ve begun to peak yet. I’ve got a lot more better work that I’m going to do. But I think it’s astounding that the work that I did 40 years ago, like many of the pieces that the Tate Gallery [in London] just bought or MOMA acquired weren’t seen until now. They existed but they were relatively invisible. They were never taken seriously until just very, very recently. So I’m just thrilled that they weren’t sold earlier and that I have had this great opportunity now.
Q: So you were ignored then, during a period when women artists in general had it very difficult.
A: Absolutely. There’s no question about it.
Q: In 1976, you arranged mannequins in the store windows of a then-major department store in New York, Bonwit Teller. The displays were full of drama. In one display, you had a male mannequin pointing a gun at another male mannequin, who has fallen to the ground. Standing next to the shooter is a sharply dressed woman mannequin. The window was called “Crime of Passion.” That exhibit was one of the first department-store displays where an artist had full reign. You weren’t selling clothing. You were making an artistic statement.
A: There were 25 windows that went down Fifth Avenue and 56th and 57th street. At the time I was doing work in hotel rooms, which I started to do with [filmmaker] Eleanor Coppola. We both set up exhibitions in hotel rooms because we couldn’t show in galleries and museums at the time. And we also wanted to use existing spaces and to recycle them and to find a way to have a different kind of audience come into contact with the work. So the Bonwit Teller windows were another way of using available space and creating windows that people could just walk down the street and see. Art has a responsibility to be political and to change people’s perceptions about the community and climate and culture that they live in, and point out things that are difficult to see, whether it’s inequities or ways of more enlightened survival. Being in Berkeley in the ’60s changed a lot of my political views. And sharpened my strategies for the kind of work I wanted to do.
Q: From 1974 to 1978, you created a new persona, an alter ego, named Roberta Breitmore, and you wore wigs and different makeup and lived as a woman who advertised for a roommate, got a driver’s license, a credit card. You were identity-bending. You also hired three other women to play Ms. Breitmore.
A: The Tate has five pieces from the Roberta Breitmore series. When I did these works, people thought I was crazy. For decades, I was kind of ostracized. And so it’s gratifying that as time went on, people understood the work. The work was speaking to that particular time but it was too close to that time for people to be able to see that. So I’m grateful to have the opportunity to show it all together. At the Tate Modern [where her work is part of the current exhibit “A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance,”] my work is right next to Jackson Pollock. In between Jackson Pollock and David Hockney. It’s so much fun. I love it.
Q: In 2015, a big institution in Germany, the ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, is having a major retrospective of your work. In many ways, you’re better-known in Germany and elsewhere in Europe than the United States. Why is that?
A: The show is being mounted both in Germany and in Vienna simultaneously. It may go to London and hopefully to New York and maybe even here. Most of the work has never been seen. It’s true that I’m much better-known outside the United States than here. I don’t know how that happened. I just started winning a lot of prizes in France and especially in Germany. German museums collect my work.
Q: Did you stumble into art in your 20s or did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
A: Well, I could never do anything else. (Laughs). I can’t do anything functional in the world. (Laughs). Since I could ever remember, that’s what I did.