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  • Christian Hain

Externalised Artistic Schizophrenia: Profiling Lynn Hershman Leeson at KW at The Shelf

(Berlin.) Berlin Biennale is almost upon us, and most of you will be preparing their summer vacation or counting the days to the World Cup kick-off. Art institutions and the people working at them are not fundamentally different from the rest of us – they take holidays too. KW for instance decided to profit from the weather in Berlin and stay at home. You know how it is: of all places in the world, your city is often the one you know the least. Packing their suitcase with only the necessary, they followed an invitation from Berlin’s biggest independent (and most ruthless if I remember correctly the words of an artist with family ties to a competitor) car rental company, not for dinner or a swim in the lake, but to a nightly meeting in an abandoned garage. You could find that creepy, but the invitation was “plus 200” (or however many showed up for that opening).

They didn’t try (too) much to cover up the traces of the location’s professional past. Some walls are still adorned with posters of sports stars and artful bodies with only the latter self- and society- identifying as female, the air thick with oily man sweat and petrol. So very traditional and so much encrusted in "real" work and "real" life, this seems no place for contemporary art – not at all. But if you accept the challenge, what will you do with a such space, “you” being a progressive art institution with a reputation to loose? Of course: You destroy it. Not literally - you only rented it for the event and rebaptised it The Shelf which seems kind of odd, given that there is not one shelf left among the hydraulic lifts and naked chains hanging from the ceiling, not even a tyre rack -, but its identity and, once you’re at it, everybody else’s too.

It would be hardly possible to show anybody else in the context than a woman (not one of those on the wall, obviously!) or transvestite, sorry: -sexual, aaargh: -gender!, artist. KW much emphasised that “male domain – female artist” thing. Because where there are differences, you need to destroy them and, for marketing’s sake, call this “diversity” (first rule of the contemporary art club). The chosen artist could further not be someone who’s only, or only in the first place, occupied with art, but someone more ideological.

The description fits Lynn Hershman Leeson, and this show unites works from the past forty years of her career (she belongs to the same generation as Lutz Bacher).

Hershman Leeson’s artistic practice is deeply rooted in self-multiplication and -destruction, a shattering of identities. The show's title is First Person Plural (after an eponymous work), and, well, there’s a name for the condition. But why does she hate herself so much, you might feel inclined to ask? There are reasons in her biography, and she’s opening up on them in a film. Like a good artist, she’s externalised her personal troubles, found the habitual scapegoats in “society” and “others”, and turned her experience into a universal rule.

Now, I certainly don’t want to ridicule it. Or actually: Yes, I do. But this comes as a reflex every time I’m faced with phrases that have long become a cliché, à la “What if society ... that you don’t feel?", or “...continuous engagement with identity, gender construction, sexual self-determination”, or “Identity is no longer a body shaped by societal conventions”. Well, you make it that or something else. To touch on only one of the many paradoxes in this contemporary discourse of splattered uniformity: If all identities, attributions, stereotypes, &c are created by society - then why choose one at all, why prefer one societally oppressive image over another? The skin changers never quite explain, why they prefer one if all are equal, exchangeable, nonsensical, futile. If you’re as free as you claim, who, or what, determines your feelings? In the end stands nothing but a huge Nothing, peeling away layer for layer of illusions (and they “really” are), swinging between identities, it’s the Cartesian doubt without reconstruction, Existentialism without the leap. It’s certainly much cooler to say “There’s nothing” than to reassert the world. But better, really? Who defines this “better”, anyway?

Deconstructing the world, there’s no place for the self, and its “feelings” just another construct. Whence this fixation with identity, is it just a consequence of the number, the mass, rational, logical? The triumph of those theories and the advent of questions like the ones posed by Philippe Parreno at MGB, are no coincidence; A”I” is most modern (postmodern), more so than humanity, the next step. To be fair, technological "progress" as humanity's regress is an acknowledged topic for Lynn Hershman Leeson.

Art all but vanishes behind the discourse.

In one of her latest works, Hershman Leeson hid a computer in an installation with dressing table, camera, and screen. Get in place and it will capture you face, then "tell" something about you. The arbitrary results on preview day were rather not intended, but an unfortunate malfunction (I’d never have guessed that Italian exchange student who somehow got herself an invitation - thankfully they’re not picky, otherwise this could be an own goal - was in her eighties already, and a guy). More of the collected and interpreted data comprise “Glasses”, “Happiness”, “Surprise”, “Sadness”, “Anger” “Disgust”, each expressed in digital terms: yes ∨ no. (Will Apple be using the same technology – and is this what you call an algorithm – for their new “memojis”?)

Another installation resembles a lived-in apartment room, with magazines and books lying about, a telephone, a TV set, clues to reconstruct the identity of a fictional inhabitant. Here waits also the first of several “interactive” films, a historic video game genre that would demand you to choose among multiple choice options to continue the story. Hershman Leeson holds a special love for them and they were definitely a thing in the early nineties. This points to a fundamental problem with some of her art: It didn’t age well. As an artist, Lynn Hershman Leeson often put herself in the vanguard of the technological advance, and that’s a problem. She’s been relying too much on the state of the art of the day, that today seems plain out-dated. Take the videos of Ana Mendieta for comparison, they make use of the technology but don’t trust in it alone (or maybe I only liked the ideology my mind created for better). Hershman Leeson stays on the surface, another example for her lack of identity (and personality).

Much better because much simpler: Films on historic tube TVs (no: not YouTube, you millenial, go google it) that hang suspended by cables from the ceiling. Random people - for once not the artist herself – keep telling us: “Hi, I’m Lynn Hershman. Meet me at...” (a hotel, gallery, whatever). Next to it, a self-commercial that seems prophetic now (or she just sensed the opportunity before almost everyone else), and more. In the same hall, formerly the principal work space, free floating flat screens feature the face of the artist in close-up, but the sound is not loud enough to follow her words (that’s the mentioned work of self-exposure).

The show continues in the Novalis Hotel in central Berlin. It’s a small, cheap, hotel only occupying two upper floors of a residential building, but it has survived here for decades. Hershman did a like project in San Francisco 1972/72, where the title Dante Hotel added an extra touch of menace (“Ye who enter here...”), but at least Novalis, aka G.P.F. v. Hardenberg, was a poet too. Both works are linked to her Roberta Breitmore persona who indulges in a rather uncommon hobby: Forensics. She might also be a covert stalker.

At the reception desk, you can have your DNA sample collected by drinking from a glass, it will later be included in a statistical evaluation (anonymised, they assure! ... yet, I would never exclude the possibility of an ad popping up on your timeline soon: “The ten most stylish long drink glasses for brown-haired men in Berlin – Number five will surprise you!”, or: “The most probable genetic defects your grandchildren will suffer – you’d never guess what happens next!” Zuckerberg is watching you.)

Upstairs, you invade the private sphere of a woman (no, that’s an assumption: of "Roberta"), who’s left only minutes ago. Her perfume still lingers in the air and you're encouraged to use the bottle in the bathroom yourself, to rummage through her clothes, or lie down on the bed and read in a book, “Roberta”’s left on the night table (Anaïs Nin). Or have a look at “her” laptop instead, lots of open tabs in the browser – mostly dating sites and information on A”I”. “Roberta”’s spam folder is empty except of one mail, sent from a KW account. Just don’t steal the iPhone; “don”t worry, it’s an old model”, they told me. - Ha, if they knew what I’m using... All of this might serve you to collect clues and evidence, trying to (re)construct (your construct of) that “person”. I’ve never participated in an escape room game, but this is about how I imagine it. Only that here, the door was not locked.

LHL’s works ultimately lack character, personality – identity. Note: if you have something to tell, and not only to your therapist (or confessor), but don’t know how to put it into visually appealing – or, better: visually interesting – form, maybe you should stay away from contemporary art. Ever thought about writing a book? Or doing one of those dreary auteur movies that will allow you to drag along your weltschmerz for hours, and people would watch it in arthouse cinemas, at the Berlinale, or not at all.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, First Person Plural, -17 June 2018, KW

World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism



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