No Time For Silence

by Sid Feddema

In San Francisco for Lynn Hershman Leeson’s exhibit Civic Radar

Stepping into the Yerba Buena Arts Center for Lyn Hershman Leeson’s Civic Radar feels equivalent to stepping into an anthropological museum showcasing five decades worth of research into the relationship between human beings, identity and technology.

Hershman Leeson is a pioneering feminist artist living in San Francisco and although she has been creating drawings, sculptures, videos, feature films and Internet based work for the last 50 years, most of the pieces showcased in Civic Radar are being shown for the very first time. The collection includes over 230 pieces including Hershman Leeson’s famous Phantom Limb Series, the Roberta Breitmore Series and my personal favorite, Breathing Machines.  

When Hershman Leeson first tried showcasing “Breathing Machines” in 1965 (a series of —wax casts of her face accompanied by cassette decks that play sounds of heaving breaths, giggles, and recorded dialogue) the museum shut the entire exhibition down claiming the pieces were not art.

“I showed outside of galleries, I rented hotel rooms and I didn’t work with institutions at all,” Herhman Lesson said, “It’s a lot like the silencing of Elizabeth Warren,” she told me. “You have to ask yourself, do you accept [the silencing] or do you turn it into something that can be used against the silencers, those are the choices and I got a lot of ideas from the black panthers and how they dealt with things.”

The majority of Herhman Leeson works deals with the theme of questioning not only her own identity but also the identity of human beings in general. In particular, her work illustrates the mutation and mutilation of the female body. The series that best demonstrates this theme is that of Roberta Breitmore. Through Roberta, Hershamn Leeson created an alter image of herself and lived as this woman’s fictional character for the span of four years.

“She was both a political reflection and a refraction,” Hershman Leeson has said of Roberta in the past. She gave Roberta an apartment, a credit line and a psychiatrist. Herhman Leeson ended her performance as Roberta on the Golden Gate Bridge where Roberta’s character contemplated suicide.

The Lynn Herhman Leeson: Civic Radar exhibition is on display at the Yerban Buena Center For Arts in San Francisco until May 21st. 

Written by Eva Barragan