On ViewBridget Donahue
January 27 – March 12, 2017
“The patriarchy has no gender,” writes A.L. Steiner in the latest issue of Aperture. Linking that system of society to neoliberal values, stressing ideas put forth by critical theorist Nancy Fraser, she describes mainstream Eurocentric feminism as an inherent adage to capitalism—an economic system that is in and of itself founded on, and sustained through, the oppression of women and minority groups. To be a woman in 2017 is to be constantly affronted by the bellicosity of a world where life-changing decisions are still made by men. It means to be scrutinized, judged, and silenced when choosing to fight back and speak. But the intricate wickedness of capitalism runs even deeper than these basic levels of oppression, for it has expanded its assault through surveillance technology, legitimizing the voyeur as a lurking pervert reigning over the codes of aesthetics and the commodification of beauty.
Operating at the confluence of technology and visual arts, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s practice has been heralded as pioneering. Much of her work is a product of second-wave feminism that came about in the 1960s, at a time where the artist herself was a twenty-year-old in San Francisco. In this small retrospective at Bridget Donahue, Hershman Leeson’s installations strike a depressing chord: forty years later, we’re still fighting against the same shit. The medium’s obsolescence further underscores that message.
Here, and throughout her trajectory, the viewer is both a witness and an enabler. Take Lorna (1979 – 84)—one of the first interactive artworks on video disc—in which we are invited to watch, and control, the world of a “typical” (i.e. white) American woman of the 1980s. Lorna represents all that we’d been told is feminine at the time, taken to tacky extremes. Her living room walls are red and teal, her armchairs leopard print. Inside a drawer of her small IKEA-esque yellow side table is a gun. As viewers sit inside a recreation of Lorna’s living room, they watch, on the small TV set, Lorna in that exact same room, enacting different scenarios all controlled by the viewer via a remote. Throughout the video, several statements are made in defiance of these societal rules: “Mirrors like TV reflect our fears”; “Life’s not what it seems. Be Brave”; “Take the chance. Learn to fight.” Ultimately, despite her best efforts to resist manipulation within that small box, Lorna remains a prey to the viewers’ whims.
The installation Home Front (1993 – 2011) suggests a war, and rightfully so. Within a tiny room of a constructed dollhouse, painted in dull, almost morbid colors, is a screen. On it, we see a (white) heterosexual couple, “playing house,”oso to speak, in the kitchen. The venomous dispute that soon erupts is punctuated by belittling arguments made by a husband who dismisses his wife as an overly emotional person controlled by her “over-analytical graduate school head.” When the fight turns to physical assault, all the man has to say is “look what you made me do,” absolving himself from any responsibility, and verbally forcing his battered wife into submission. Using a dollhouse as a subverted gender-normative prop, Hershman Leeson’s piece registers as a reflection on traditional marriage and the nuclear family. Beyond that, it exposes the viewer as a witness to the scene, who by virtue of not being able to directly interfere, becomes an unwilling participant in the violence.
The artist’s latest work, Venus of the Anthropocene (2017), presents an evolution of a practice driven by the advancements of technology, and its connivance with surveillance. The installation consists of a cyborg-mannequin seated at a vanity station, its mirror equipped with facial recognition software, analyzing the micro-expressions of each viewer’s face as they peer in. The piece is a twist on numerous ideations, from a narcissistic obsession with one’s appearance—further emboldened by selfie culture—to the use of technology to read and categorize a person’s emotions.
Scholars and activists such as Angela Davis, Nancy Fraser, and bell hooks have criticized second-wave feminism, calling it a movement that has been whitewashed and hijacked by women driven by the desire to acquire status and material gain within a capitalist economy, rather than achieve reproductive rights across gender, class, and race categories. While much of this is true given the pay gap between white women and women of color, the poignant relevance of Hershman Leeson’s work at this moment signals that we are at a crossroads that, if not handled carefully, could lead to an impasse. As the war on women continues to seethe, let it be understood that until that war is rightfully won, a woman’s place is in the resistance.