Lynn Hershman Leeson: Origins of the Species (Part 2)

This Is Tomorrow, July 2015. 

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 16.05.09Lynn Hershman Leeson: Origins of the Species (Part 2)
Modern Art Oxford, 2015

What is technology, but another tool for shaping our identities? Lynn Hershman Leeson has been exploring the relationship between humans and technology for over 50 years, starting in a time before technology looked anything like it does today. Her multi-disciplinary approach remains pioneering, and if Hershman Leeson is a so-called digital artist, it’s is done with much subtlety. That’s also why it works: the digital element is here to enhance the idea, not an end in itself.

The retrospective at Modern Art Oxford shows a distinct thread running through Hershman Leeson’s work, from today’s interactive pieces all the way back to the earliest drawings. The show runs chronologically, easing you in with paintings of wired figures and their shadows, the first dated to 1962. The Breathing Machine makes subtle noises in response to people passing, a mechanism which was groundbreaking at the time and eerie still today. It feels like there’s someone here with me, and it’s possible that this someone is my own shadow: I’m the one who’s creating this presence.

The Roberta Breitmore archives stretch from 1974 to 1978, when Hershman Leeson created this fascinating alter ego, going great lengths to give this artificial character a complex inner life. From the photos, Roberta seems somewhat put on, with exaggerated make-up and what is obviously a wig – she’s a shadow that’s not quite right. “I saw her as a mirror of culture,” Hershman Leeson has said, but Roberta arguably became her own person. There are letters confirming her rental agreement, and Roberta’s notes to friends. Roberta left traces like a real person, but in retrospect, how can we tell what was real and what’s just a shadow?

All the while, the nearby Breathing Machine continues to make sounds. The idea of surveillance and monitoring takes on a more obvious shape in the Dante Hotel project, although the photographs from 1973 makes you wonder why we’re so muted in our outrage about surveillance today. We know we’re being monitored to a greater extent than ever before, in the street as well as in electronic communication. But for better or worse, it’s possible that privacy as a value in and of itself is fading.

Hershman Leeson’s early works take on new meaning as the visitor encounters Agent Ruby. Just like Hershman Leeson created Roberta Breitmore, we each have the opportunity to construct a digital persona in the manner of our choosing. Agent Ruby is a creature of artificial intelligence, and she invites you to talk to her via a keyboard. “Is the internet real life?” I ask, and she answers: “If it is, I’d be surprised.” We chat a little – she’s clever, and intriguingly philosophical. Sometimes she turns the question back at you, and I’m surprised how quickly I start to feel that Ruby is interested in me.

The third section of the show contains a film curated by Modern Art Oxford, where Hershman Leeson has interviewed Oxford-based scientists and researchers about genetic technology. The Infinity Engine is presented in an immersive space with photographs and paperwork pertaining to genetic discoveries. The scientifically grown ear in the picture – is it more or less real than Agent Ruby or Roberta? The microbiologist in the film is talking about evolution: “Biology can be very scary,” he says, explaining how we must take responsibility for what we create.

The Infinity Engine is ambitious in its attempt to explore a complex issues such as genetics, but it’s less approachable than the rest of the show and it takes a minute for a link to the previous works to suggest itself. But maybe anything can be a mirror of ourselves, from synthetic biology and Agent Ruby, all the way back to Roberta and the wired shadows in the earliest paintings. We create these representations and they can be whatever we make them, good or ugly. I get up from my seat after the film, and for a moment I can’t find the exit from the laboratory-like room. All I can see are the slightly warped walls, mirroring back to me numerous versions of my own twisted image.

Bouvard and Pécuchet’s Compendious Quest for Beauty

This Is Tomorrow, 2012. Original article

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 11.51.46Bouvard and Pécuchet’s Compendious Quest for Beauty

David Roberts Art Foundation, London

It is a good thing the word “compendium” features so prominently even before you enter the gallery, as it makes a helpful prelude of what is to come. “Where is the rule?” is what Bouvard and Pécuchet used to say, the characters from Gustave Flaubert’s unfinished novel whose name has been given to this exhibition. The two Parisian gentlemen would meet to fuel each other’s curiosity about the world, studying a myriad of subject ranging from agriculture to medicine. After spending an hour at the David Roberts Art Foundation I am not sure if I am any the wiser about this elusive rule, but I do believe this show is not about a hunt for the red thread – but an exploration of that thing they call beauty. At least that is what followed my initial confusion about the volume of such diverse pieces, once I gave in and just focused on how good most of these works ultimately are.

34 artworks from as many artists make up this exhibition, including several famous names. Sometimes it feels like an education, while in other moments it is just luxurious to wander in a space where pieces were chosen because the curators liked them; the search for beauty has overwhelmed all other concerns. Still, says Pécuchet: “Beauty must be sought within a rule,” so the exhibition is divided into nine categories. But then Bouvard says: “Everybody knows that rules are not sufficient. Something else is needed: genius. And genius comes from sentiment, manifesting in expression.”

An urn by Grayson Perry is the first item comes first, representing the “Classic v expression” category. Photographed faces are contrasted against classical drawings around the pot, perfectly illustrating in a single work the points made by both Pécuchet and Bouvard about rules and their counterweight. “Memento mori” has Gerald Byrne’s large black and white photo of a newsstand, where an extra layer of meaning is derived from the juxtaposition of David Shrigley’s taxidermy kitten carrying a sign reading: “I’m dead”. The “Realism” segment has Thomas Demand’s large photograph of an empty office next to a perfectly crafted bin bag by Gavin Turk and a broom by Susan Collis, both easily mistakable for something left by the cleaners. Notes Bouvard: “The most banal things are liable to reveal new facets about the world. Modern life conceals within itself so much richness.”

‘Female beauty’ is the biggest single category in the show, with Valie Export’s “Body Sign Action 2” from 1970 being a standout piece. A big black and white image shows us a close-up of a woman’s hips; she has an intriguing tattoo on her thigh and her shadow plays up against the wall behind. Only then do you realise she is naked, a fact less subtle in the other images from this segment. One is a classic topless pose, another is a comical sex painting, the third is a man surveying a woman presented to him. Another excellent piece is Mario Pascual’s “Untitled” from 2010, where the photograph is gently folded in the middle so most of the woman disappears. Her head and shin sticks out, and somehow this is the most titillating of all.

Down the stairs, to “Abstraction”, we encounter Roy Lichtenstein’s six images of a cow. Each reworking looks less and less like an animal, illustrating Pécuchet’s point about abstraction being the final stand against art needing to represent anything at all: “One must reduce, purify.” Less obvious in its message but possibly even more intriguing is Bram Bogart’s “Blanc tombant”, where piled-on layers of paint are now hidden under a coat of white. Next, in the “Outsider beauty” category, is Douglas White’s “Mop print 1”: a large tea stain on a piece of paper, buckled from the moisture long since evaporated.

At the end of the exhibition we find “The sublime”: consisting of only one piece of art, by Graham Hudson. By this point, Bouvard and Pécuchet have run out of words to try and determine the difference between the beautiful and the sublime, and how to measure taste, because the rules have proved useless. Hudson’s rectangular box lined with lights spin slowly, and there is only one thing to say: how wonderful.


Matthew Day Jackson

Published in This Is Tomorrow, 2011. Original article here.

JACKSONMatthew Day Jackson: Everything leads to another
Hauser & Wirth, London

Just as Monet’s paintings of waterlilies were originally presented in a long line, Matthew Day Jackson’s impressions of the surface of the moon stretch out across an entire wall of the Hauser & Wirth gallery. One panel follows another to cumulative effect, but as you stand in front of ‘Reflections of the Sky’, the enormity of the symbolism actually makes the piece feel almost on the small side. The subtle pattern is compelling to look at, to the degree that even as you are standing in front of it, you somehow want more.

Matthew Day Jackson has a knack for drawing in his audience. With ‘Everything Leads to Another’, the artist is interested in beauty that carries a counterpart, ‘so closely that it is difficult to delineate one from the other’. Works by the Brooklyn artist fill both galleries at the Savile Row space, with the North gallery dominated by large-scale pieces such as the moonscape and ‘Axis Mundi’, a manipulation of the cockpit of a B29 aircraft bomber. Positioned next to the moonscape, the polished cockpit segment evokes thoughts of space travel, an impression strengthened by an interior filled with strange, neon-coloured anthropological artefacts, as a nod to the undiscovered.

If the North gallery looks for the big picture through humanity’s push outwards, the South gallery takes the opposite approach and searches for answers by looking inward. With the notion of mortality running as a central theme, the artist has used his own body to examine what it is we are made from. Especially here is it tempting to touch Jackson’s sculptures, which are rich in texture and you suspect you may be missing out on a layer of the experience by being restrained to simply looking.

The central figure is a life-sized body, carved like a topographical map. The main body is made from a concoction of materials, including wood, wax and plastic, with carefully crafted internal organs sitting heavy in the middle. Four images surround the central figure, each presenting the body in different manners. The body made from meat set in jelly is the most uncomfortable to look at, to the extent that the depiction of the burning corpse is a relief. There is a discomfort that comes with being confronted with the messiness and the vulnerability of the body mechanism, but in Jackson’s world also this is a counterpart indistinguishable from the related beauty.

The exhibition concludes with a video piece, presented in a retro-style living room set. A documentary-style film, ‘In Search of … Ghosts’, plays surrounded by artwork, including Jackson’s ‘Life’ magazine covers with patches of embroidery. From the sofa in the artist’s fake living room, you are surrounded by references to space exploration and theories about the unknown; ‘who are we, and where do we come from,’ asks the video narrator, ‘what lies waiting in our future?’ But as the video continues to ponder the paranormal, it seems that whether we look into space or within our own bodies, the answers may well be the same. As Jackson points out, everything leads to another, and we can see our own reflection on every surface.