Lynn Hershman Leeson, Image courtesy the artist

Visionary Trajectories:

On Lynn Hershman Leeson’s A Manual for Automatons, Bionic Beings and Cyborgs, 1962-1982

By Tanya Augsburg

To be recognized at the highest levels in any single field during one’s lifetime is quite the extraordinary, rarified feat. So, it is utterly awe-inspiring to consider the fact that within the course of a single calendar year in 2018 Lynn Hershman Leeson was honored within multiple professional realms. In February she received the Distinguished Feminist Artist Award from the College Art Association as well as a Lifetime Achievement award from the national Women’s Caucus for Art for her contributions as an artist. In June Hershman Leeson was notified that she was inducted to the Academy of Motion Pictures for her accomplishments as a filmmaker. In August she was elected as an inaugural member to the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) SIGGRAPH Academy. Hershman Leeson was additionally selected be one of the 12 artists spotlighted during Season 9 of PBS’s acclaimed series Art21, which premiered in September 2018.

Not that Hershman Leeson has been resting on her laurels. Her 2018 solo exhibitions included Lynn Hershman: Anti-Bodies in Basel at the House of Electronic Arts (HeK), for which Hershman Leeson interfaced with the world of cutting-edge scientific research. The show was a notable follow-up to her 2014 installation The Infinity Engine, in which Hershman Leeson created an ersatz yet workable genetics lab in collaboration with scientists. Hershman Leeson conceptualized Infinity Engine around the same time a breakthrough genome editing technology, CRISPR, emerged to revolutionize immunobiology in 2013. Both Infinity Engine and Anti-Bodies aimed to increase public awareness about new hybrid life forms made possible by genetic engineering

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Feline-Jellyfish, 2014, archival digital print, 24 ½ x 20 in., © Lynn Hershman Leeson, Courtesy Anglim Gilbert Gallery

While she was brainstorming about Anti-Bodies Hershman Leeson heard about Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical company that is in the business of creating therapeutic antibodies. In late 2017 Hershman Leeson ingeniously convinced a team of scientists at Norvatis to manufacture an antibody named LYNN HERSHMAN by ordering sequences of specific proteins according to each letter of her name. The same process was applied to produce the antibody of her former alter ego, Roberta Breitmore, whose simulated persona was performed by Hershman Leeson and assorted others on an ongoing basis during an early identify performance project from 1973 to 1978. Preliminary scientific results conducted by Novartis scientists have shown that the LYNN HERSHMAN antibody has yet to bind with any known antigen. In contrast, the ROBERTA BREITMORE antibody has indicated the potential for numerous therapeutic functions. While highlighting the fictional persona’s antibody’s greater functionality may seem a bit tongue in cheek on the artist’s part, it also reflects Hershman Leeson’s serious ongoing interest in making visible the paradoxes of science and technology.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Becoming Roberta, 1974, photograph, 25.5 x 20.2 cm,

© Lynn Hershman Leeson, Courtesy Lynn Hershman Leeson

After a portion of the artist’s first major retrospective, CIVIC RADAR, had its sole American showing at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 2017, Hershman Leeson pulled out of storage 300 early, never before exhibited, drawings, paintings, collages, and multimedia pieces. Seventy-five of these were among the art works exhibited from April 26th to May 26, 2018 at the Anglim Gilbert Gallery in San Francisco as A Manual for Automatons, Bionic Beings and Cyborgs, 1962-1982. Upon entering the gallery I realized that the actual purview of the exhibition was both broader thematically and longer chronologically than what was indicated by its intriguing title. For example, I noted scads of references to Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings. The rather explicit allusions to da Vinci called attention to Hershman Leeson’s own inventive endeavors to see beneath the skin. In her 1961 painting, XRay Woman with Bathing Cap (XRay Woman 2), Hershman Leeson surpassed the representational capabilities of the pervasive non-invasive imaging technology of the 1960s, the X-ray. Organs, fluids, and vertebrae are clearly legible underneath the XRay Woman’s bathing suit lines along with faint yet discernible vectors and directional arrows. While the work is clearly both a depiction of futuristic “x-ray vision” and a portrait of a female cyborg, it could be also a sly critique of the “Visible Woman,” a popular educational toy that debuted in 1959.

The spinal column emerged as a recurrent visual motif in Hershman Leeson’s early work. In one untitled work from the mid-1960s, an adhered zipper partially uncovers an actual X-ray of Hershman Leeson’s upper torso, exposing cervical and thoracic vertebrae. In numerous additional early works Hershman Leeson’s renderings of vertebrae, whether they were drawn carefully in detail or merely adumbrated, recall da Vinci’s anatomical drawings of the human spine. For example, the robot’s shadow in her 1963 collage, Robot and Her Shadow was depicted with vertebrae, implying its partial integration with the human. Even so, Robot and Her Shadow straddles between past and futuristic images about the body. On the one hand, futuristic depiction of the “shadow” (X-ray?) unveils the inner workings of the robot, while on the other, both the robot and shadow sport classic profiles similar to da Vinci’s notebook drawing of a young woman in profile.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, XRay Woman in Bathing Cap (Xray Woman 2), 1961, Acrylic, graphite, and spray paint on plywood, 29 x 23 in., © Lynn Hershman Leeson, Courtesy Anglim Gilbert Gallery

Hearts also made regular appearances as important visual and symbolic motifs. Hershman Leeson has drawn many valentine hearts over five decades—sometimes two or three in a single body, as in the case of her mixed media work, Dress Ray (1966). The works with hearts created after 1966 undoubtedly reflected Hershman Leeson’s own personal concerns. Hershman Leeson developed serious heart problems during a difficult pregnancy in 1966, which necessitated a month spent bedridden in an oxygen tent. The possible meanings behind the visible hearts under garments in works created prior to Hershman Leeson’s illness remain a bit more obscure—although they too seem to refer obliquely to Da Vinci’s notebook portraits.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Untitled (LH 1824/NFW 32), Detail, c. mid-1960s, mixed media collage, X-ray, 8 ½ x 8 ½ in., © Lynn Hershman Leeson, Courtesy Anglim Gilbert Gallery

Hershman Leeson’s own practice of recording her ideas was duly noted at Anglim Gilbert. Several sketchpad pages were displayed, such as her 1977 ink and watercolor Notes for Rehearsal and her 1981 Study for Wannemaker Window 2 in which Hershman Leeson jotted down ideas for future performances and installations. She inked fanciful inventions, such as an X-ray suit for a dancing pregnant woman that included a mechanism for enabling the fetus to be viewed inside the womb. In an earlier drawing from 1965, Mother Child Duet, Hershman Leeson configured a clear dome over a nude woman’s abdomen, enabling the proud display of her spawn in vivo. In both works Hershman Leeson anticipated computer imaging and virtual reality vision technologies as well as their possible applications while avoiding deploying traditional male universals in science and technology. From a feminist perspective the drawings can be regarded as Hershman Leeson’s artistic triumph over da Vinci, as she envisioned a way for observing unborn children while still inside their living mothers, whereas da Vinci resorted to animal carcass dissection and his imagination to create his iconic image of a fetus in a capsular womb.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Robot and Her Shadow, 1963, Collage, 14 x 10 ¾ in., FR. 18 X 15 x 1 ¾ in; 35.6 x 27.3 cm

© Lynn Hershman Leeson, Courtesty Anglim Gilbert Gallery

Another provocative untitled drawing replaces da Vinci’s perfectly proportioned and symmetrical Vetruvian man with an asymmetrical and overweight nude mature woman standing underneath a set of globes (or are they thought bubbles?) containing men’s heads. Wow. Hershman Leeson’s Vetruvian Woman exposed the challenges of not only visually representing women, but of women themselves to free themselves of male influence in their lives.

The plentiful portraits of women of all shapes, sizes, and ages from the 1960s to early 1980s illustrate Hershman Leeson’s longstanding feminist activism, as well as her concerns regarding women’s emotional well-being. Two portraits drawn on paper bags literalized the derogatory and sexist term “bag lady” that is used to insult older, often destitute women. In Woman with Floating Heart (1964), Hershman Leeson portrayed an older woman in three adjacent perspectives, as if to explore what cubist and futurist male painters largely missed—that is, the links between physical and psychological movements. The faintly penciled third woman’s head faces downwards, apparently in emotional and physical collapse as a mechanical valentine heart drifts above. By depicting multiple perspectives of despair Hershman Leeson unveiled what could not be otherwise seen—the woman’s inner psychological state. Hershman Leeson refrained from telling the exact story of what happened to her subject, indubitably because there are countless cruel acts that prompt hearts to flee every day. Instead, Hershman Leeson was evidently more interested in showing the aftermath, as if the display of the emotional affects and their devastating effects on one individual woman could serve as a cautionary universal allegory for all women’s losses.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Mother Child Duet, 1965, Ink, 17 x 13 ¼ in.; 43.2 x 33.7 cm

© Lynn Hershman Leeson, Courtesy Anglim Gilbert Gallery

Collectively, the selected works in the exhibition underscore Hershman Leeson’s efforts to make visible not only discarded women whom society refuses to “see,” but also the unintended consequences of their efforts to become visible. For example, one ink and watercolor illustration exposed a woman’s “ugly feeling” of envy.[1]

Another drawing from 1965 illustrated how men, through their consumption of woman as visual objects, commit violence. A woman stares morosely at the viewer as a balding man behind her cuts her hair, another man grins rather maniacally as he holds her severed forearm, and a third man chomps down on her leg.

 

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Woman with Floating Heart, 1964, watercolor pen and pencil on paper bag, 4 3/4  x 9 in.

 © Lynn Hershman Leeson, Courtesy Anglim Gilbert Gallery

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Veiled Butterfly Woman II (Breathing Machine), 1967-2018,

wax cast, wig, fabric, butterflies, sensors, sound, 16 ½ x 16 ½ x 4 in,

© Lynn Hershman Leeson, Courtesy Anglim Gilbert Gallery

Arguably, the most eye-opening moments in A Manual for Automatons, Bionic Beings and Cyborgs, 1962-1982 were the show’s revelations of Hershman Leeson’s early inquiries regarding the political dynamics of vision. Already during the mid-1960s Hershman Leeson was examining the differences between men and women in looking at least half a decade before Berger and Laura Mulvey theorized about the links between gender and seeing in the early 70s. In one remarkable untitled work the optics of a man’s gaze are mapped out with directional arrows. In another, a sphinx with a blond woman’s head in profile directly returns the gaze of a man wearing green goggles (I find it interesting that the blond hair is merely outlined in yellow ink, leaving much of the space “inside the head” empty). The blond female sphinx’s gaze is constructed not only with directional arrows pointing to the man but with drawn vector lines reminiscent of those da Vinci used in some of his optical drawings. Once again, Hershman Leeson referenced da Vinci only to completely rework (and subvert) his investigations for her own aims. Completed in the mid-1960s, this analysis of the gender politics of looking is a mind-blowing precursor to existing feminist scholarship on the gaze.

The selections shown at Anglim Gilbert drive home the point that how we understand the body at any point in time is contingent upon how we visualize it by means of science and technology. Little wonder then that the gallery’s offerings were supplemented with several works from the 2018 HeK show, such as an X-ray diffraction pattern of an actual protein crystal from the LYNN HERSHMAN antibody as well as a computer imaging of the complete antibody. Another extra bonus to the show was a blown up photograph of the small plastic bottle containing the film component of the Infinite Engine installation—which was archived as DNA code by means of CRISPR technology. Complementing these displays of novel art mediums were two of Hershman Leeson’s early breathing machines from the late 1960s. In these works Hershman Leeson assembled together wax masks, motion detectors, and audiocassettes of her breathing and/or asking questions as phantasmagoric fragmented stand-ins for whole individuals. Back in 1972 the works were removed from an exhibition under a curator’s premise that sound as a medium did not belong in an art museum. Also displayed were two fingerprint collages from 1971, highlighting an additional visual method through which individuals are identified. Anglim Gilbert Gallery visitors thus had the unique opportunity to see selections from Hershman Leeson’s earliest and most recent experiments in self-portraiture by representing the self and documenting identity with innovative artistic mediums.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, DNA, 2018, Archival Digital Print of Synthetic DNA of The Infinity Engine and The Electronic Diaries,

© Lynn Hershman Leeson, Courtesy of Anglim Gilbert Gallery

Overall, the selected works in the exhibition bestowed ample opportunities to contemplate the major frameworks in which the human has been largely understood.  Scientific and artistic attitudes about human universals for centuries relied on anatomical drawings such as Leonardo da Vinci’s. Performance art experiments such as Hershman Leeson’s Roberta Breitmore in the late twentieth century offered insights to the links between personal identity and the body. Hershman Leeson’s paradigm-shifting contribution to identity performances was to emphasize the importance of what she termed in her 1993 essay, “Romancing the Anti-Body” Lust and Longing in (Cyber)space,”[2] as the “anti-body” since proof of Roberta’s existence was verified primarily through personal effects such as her driver’s license. Currently during the second decade of the 21st century Hershman Leeson is calling attention to biotechnologies that are changing our notions of life itself. Her early interest in depicting intersections of the body and technology paved the way for her visions of feminist cyborg futures more than two decades before theorist Donna Haraway published her influential posthumanist essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto” in 1984.[3] The recent exhibition Manual for Automatons, Bionic Beings and Cyborgs, 1962-1982 unearthed quite a few buried trajectories of Hershman Leeson’s ongoing investigations.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Proof Positive, Except for Skin Grafts, 1971, Mixed Media, 12 x 12 in; 30/5 x 30/5 cm,

© Lynn Hershman Leeson, Courtesy of Anglim Gilbert Gallery

[1] For more on “ugly feelings,” see Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[2] Lynn Hershman Leeson, “Romancing the Anti-Body: Lust and Longing in (Cyber)space,” in Clicking In: Hot Links to a Digital Culture, ed. Lynn Hershman Leeson (Seattle: Bay Press, 1996), 325-337.

[3] Donna Jeanne Haraway, “Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” Socialist Review 80 (1985), 65–108.

Lynn Hershman Leeson

A Manual for Automatons, Bionic Beings and Cyborgs, 1962-1982
April 26 - May 26, 2018

Anglim Gilbert Gallery 

http://anglimgilbertgallery.com

Tanya Augsburg is a performance scholar, critic, and curator who can be occasionally persuaded to perform. She teaches at San Francisco State University, where she is currently Professor of Humanities and Liberal Studies.