DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT WE ARE TRYING TO DO HERE?
by Jarrett Earnest
Lynn Hershman Leeson's Meta-Project
"We were mad as hell and we weren’t going to take it anymore,” laughs Faith Ringgold, about the lack of women or artists of color in Robert Morris and Carl Andre’s Biennale-in-Exile in 1970. That anger led her to form Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation (WSABAL). She continues, “That group was really just me and my daughter Michele Wallace...those were the days when two people could raise a lot of hell!” This spirit permeates Lynn Hershman Leeson’s new documentary, !Women Art Revolution, which opens this month at IFC after a standing-room-only premiere at the Museum of Modern Art last March. In the joyous DIY aesthetic of its subjects, the film intercuts footage from over 40 years of interviews by the artist, with archival footage, self-referential digital effects, and illustrative drawings by legendary cartoonist Spain Rodriguez. !W.A.R. is a major contribution toward an expansive, pluralistic feminist history of women in the late 20th century art world, and the necessary brutal battles that continue to be waged within art history and society at large.
Lynn Hershman Leeson is best known in the film community for works like Strange Culture (2007) and Teknolust (2002), oddball features starring Tilda Swinton that explore politics, cyber-sexuality, and the perverse tangles of “identity in the Internet age.” She is, however, equally well known in the art world as a West Coast conceptual artist who lived as a fictional person named Roberta Breitmore for much of the 1970s, and as a pioneer of that precarious, ever shifting field of “new media.” Her work depends on a strategic intertextuality to subvert the idea of an artwork as a discrete object (even a contained film) or the “individual” as a stable fixed totality. !W.A.R. is a consolidation of Hershman Leeson’s artistic practice, and should be viewed with her larger oeuvre in mind—the culmination of a formal and conceptual project spanning the past 50 years.
Through performance and video, Hershman Leeson has always explored how the self is constructed through images and fantasies, working through an understanding of “identity” as encrypted and enacted in complicated and unstable ways. Her video diaries from the 1980s, First Person Plural, remain some of the most complex explorations of confession, performance, and persona creation in the video era. The key to this interrogation was an almost psychoanalytic procedure of self-examination, which moves outward from the individual, dissecting ever broader social systems. !W.A.R. is the zenith of this investigation, reaching a Dantesque mode where the artist confronts the fabrication of history, using herself as the fulcrum. This history is precarious, something constantly under the threat of disappearing, as when she explains in voiceover before one interview: “I shot this in a bathroom at Hayward State, where I was able to get good sound.” That sense of contingency further extends to !W.A.R.’s visual aesthetics in the multiplicity of media formats: from 8- and 16-milimeter to shifting degrees of grainy video, all heightened by their high-definition projection on a theatrical screen. An excerpt from Howardena Pindell’s Free, White and 21 (1980) looks more luminous than ever against an electric blue background, the artist’s painted white face beneath a stocking reaches the televisual sublime. The entire film is richly overlayed with images, dialogue, and music that it forges a fractured but unified “video piece.” A particularly striking example is a sequence of Yvonne Rainer’s famous Trio A (1966) that repeats a second of her rolling over and over into the position of a dead body in a photograph of the Kent State shooting.
Now-canonical artists like Rainer, Ana Mendieta, Adrian Piper, and the Gorilla Girls orient the major framework of the film. In one interview, the late Nancy Spero describes looking for a gallery to show her work. “A friend said, ‘If anyone could tell you where to show it would be Leo Castelli.’ So, like a fool, I went.” She goes on to explain how Ivan Karp had her lay work at his feet. “Every time I turned the page, it was like I was genuflecting to this guy—I was humiliated.” There is strength and tenderness in her recount—conveying the debasement that these artists endured, but also the power they demanded and attained. The film also introduces many lesser known but equally amazing artists like Shelia de Brettville, Suzanne Lacy, Leslie Labowitz, and Rachel Rosenthal, who enrich and expand the more familiar names.
Hershman Leeson’s strange humor, the unacknowledged underpinning of her work, is in full swing here, framing some of the operatic seriousness of the 1970s Women’s Movement in a fresh way. She even accomplishes what to me seems miraculous, making notorious curmudgeon Judy Chicago likeable—even more, funny. With the editing’s zippy rhythm, by the time we reach footage of Chicago screaming, “The women of America are embedded in staying ignorant, and it pisses me off!” one appreciates her as never before. By highlighting these conflicts Hershman Leeson signals the heterogeneity of feminist practice itself from the beginning, when for instance the remarkable Martha Wilson remembers Judy Chicago yelling at her as a student for calling her peer’s work prescriptive: “DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT WE ARE TRYING TO DO HERE? WE ARE TRYING TO SUPPORT THESE YOUNG WOMEN!”
Peppered with art historians’ commentary, from Arlene Raven to Amelia Jones, !W.A.R. forms a fast historiography of the production and reception of women artists, butting up to the recent watershed of the WACK! Exhibition organized by Connie Butler, which traveled from LA MOCA to MoMA PS1 in 2008, with rave reviews. The wonderful Janine Antoni speaks for the generation that came of age in the 1990s. She recalls trying to find information on Carolee Schneemann and Hannah Wilke at the suggestion of her teacher, Mira Schor: “I went to the library and I couldn’t find a single thing.” If anything, this illustrates how much has been attained since even Antoni’s school days and the vital importance of working from within history. Artists of the present and future cannot continue the formal and aesthetic dialogue of “art” without access to those that have come before—a living language. After Schor brought her copies of these artists’ catalogs, Antoni laughs, “I realized I was making the art of the 1970s.”
The cumulative feeling of the film is celebratory but tempered, as Amelia Jones makes clear: “For complex and perhaps obvious reasons I don’t think feminism managed to substantially change the way art is produced, exhibited, and written about.” In absence of any ultimate conclusion, one of the last shots of the film is a Final-Cut editing screen. This sequence directs the audience to a section of Stanford University’s special collections website (http://lib.stanford.edu/women-art-revolution) where the unedited footage for all the interviews are available, along with a new website rawwar.org where the present and future generation can post their own work and continue to proactively construct this narrative. The film takes up feminism’s pedagogical project, coming equipped with a graphic novel version of the film drawn by Rodriguez, and a curriculum guide ready to be implemented in high school and college classrooms. The project of making art and writing history is an intergenerational pact that cannot be taken for granted or left unquestioned any more than it can be done away with. In a shared world it is our obligation as artists, thinkers, and beings to understand and protect this, as Hershman Leeson laments while surveying the collaged blocks of the final editing screen: “I know how much is left out.”
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.