Review: Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Origins of the Species at Modern Art Oxford

A preeminent figure of the feminist art movement as well as an early practitioner of interactive art, the work of Lynn Hershman Leeson is being displayed in a solo exhibition at Modern Art Oxford this summer. The American filmmaker, artist and photographer has accompanied a retrospective featuring work produced over the span of a 50 year career with a new site specific installation entitled The Infinity Engine, a successfully unsettling representation of a genetics research laboratory.

The retrospective being held in the Upper Gallery reveals Hershman Leeson’s cross-disciplinary innovation. As well as early drawings, paintings and collages never before seen, the exhibition includes works for which the artist is known. One of the first uses of sound in sculpture, now an art world staple, was produced by the artist between 1966-1968, entitled Self Portrait as Another Person. When first exhibited by the artist at the UC Berkeley Art Museum in California, it was considered both inappropriate and decidedly not art because of its use of sound and her exhibition was closed. Undeterred, the artist reinstalled in a hotel, producing a site-specific installation in a project entitled The Dante Hotel in 1973. Two pieces which combine mixed media and sound; Self Portrait as a Blond, produced in 1967 and Breathing Machine IV of 1968, are included in the show, and feature sensors which play eerie sounds of breathing when triggered.

Born in 1941, Hershman Leeson achieved a transformation, according to her critically acclaimed documentary !Women Art Revolution of 2010, (which plays in the gallery daily) whilst a student at the University of California, Berkeley. The cultural and social upheavals which were being deeply felt in the United States, amongst anti-war and civil rights protests, provided a context for the uprising of women’s liberation to which Hershman Leeson committed. In the film, several female artists working in the 1960s and 1970s are interviewed, such as feminist greats Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, amongst others. Whilst Hershman Leeson’s work is not solely concerned with the exclusion of the ‘Other’ as she herself states in !W.A.R, she has no wish to continue the tradition of omission, and thus her status as a feminist practitioner is relevant and well deserved. Other films by the artist being shown include Technolust of 2002, Conceiving Ada, 1997 and Strange Culture of 2007, all of which feature celebrated actress Tilda Swinton.

The title of the exhibition refers to the topic which the artist has explored most often – the impact, both detrimental and otherwise, of technology on our lives and identities. Through invented persona Roberta Breitmore, also a blonde, Hershman Leeson inhabited a cultural mirror. Living this alternate life, she acquired a driving license, put adverts in newspapers for flatmates and attended sessions with a psychiatrist, in order to demonstrate the temporality of identity in the 20th century. It can be argued this is even more applicable to today’s society, where technology allows for a virtual as well as corporeal reality. An early ‘video game’, a documentary style film and photographs by the artist all explore these themes. Women in fashion model poses are collaged into automatons with cameras and binoculars for heads, suggesting a growing  suspicion that eventually, technological advances will cause us to mutate into machines.

Similarly, The Infinity Engine,  in its inclusion of interviews with geneticists and fun-house mirrors, is a critical indictment of contemporary life and once again poses the question of identity that has been taken over, when, as one research scientist puts it: ‘We are no longer the dominant thinking thing on the planet.’ A staggeringly modern body of work, proving Hershman Leeson to be both a topical and historically significant artist, Origin of the Species is well worth a visit, if only to battle wits with artificial intelligence Agent Ruby installed in the Middle Gallery.

Lynn Hershman Leeson: Origin of the Species (Part 2) at Modern Art Oxford, 30 Pembroke St, Oxford, OX1 1BP, until 9 August.

Laura Catsellis

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1. Lynn Hershman Leeson, Origin of the Species installation view, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.