Too Much and a Notch Confused: A Seasonal Trip to the New Museum

Lynn Hershman Leeson, CyberRoberta, 1996. Custom-made doll, clothing, glasses, webcam, surveillance camera, mirror, original programming, and telerobotic head-rotating system (Courtesy the artist; Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York; and Altman Siegel, San Francisco)

You might want to spare a whole day, or better yet two, to get through the overload of video works currently on view at the New Museum. For the museum’s main event, Lynn Hershman Leeson, pioneer of cybernetic personae, has at long last been dignified with a retrospective, Twisted, which for some may conjure memories of being dazed in biology class and not quite “getting it.” Curator Margot Norton applies a maximalist approach that tracks the forking paths of the artist’s evolving investigations of identity and technology. It’s a lot to take in and not all of it is cohesive, with a tendency to stack ideas rather than to synthesize them. 

Entry to the museum’s second floor presents viewers with an installation titled Infinity Engine (2014–present), featuring testimonials from accredited experts about biogenetic technologies, specifically digital genetic vaccinations, biological computing, and bioprinting. A Harvard professor amiably describes converting digital and analog forms into DNA and back, a process of “sculpting evolution.” He also voices the need for increased surveillance as we enter the open, high-risk era of gene editing CRISPR biotechnology. Such ideas, briskly declared, are left dangling as viewers proceed into the following rooms, one of which features a vast wall covered with a gridded display of cloned animal species, textbook definitions of biomaterials and diagrams, and a Wounded Warrior Poster (2013), promoting regenerative medicine clinical trials. 

“Lynn Hershman Leeson: Twisted,” 2021. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York (Photo: Dario Lasagni)

This expositional biotech propaganda is encapsulated nearby in the small window of a padlocked door with a view of two vials: one containing a conversion of Hershman Leeson’s artistic archive into 300 nanograms of DNA binary data, the other containing amino acids derived from the artist’s molecular “antibody”—a term central to the logic of Hershman Leeson’s multifaceted work. But how, we’re left to ponder, will these vials yield accessible information, and what, for that matter, is the point? Perhaps the artist is self-aggrandizing about the future value of her work, while also bleakly demonstrating how one’s legacy can be whittled down into a tiny plastic conduit and rendered sterile, even futile, in a digitized, institutional setting. Or, spookier still, she is hinting at a broader perception of ourselves through a scientific lens, in that we are to become a transmission device for a certain kind of hereditary code, and our capacities for transcendence stops at that. 

The artist’s interests in countering and subverting identities began as early as her 1972 invention of Roberta Breitmore, an alter ego sustained for six years through various strategies: the wearing of heavy makeup and an ill-fitting blonde wig, the creation of official personal documents, and a psychiatric evaluation detailing Roberta’s constricted demeanor and financial anxiety. A Commercial for Myself (1976) is another early instance of lo-tech self-cloning, a black-and-white tongue-in-cheek infomercial showing a sequence of interchangeable women cheerfully greeting the viewer with a “Hi, I’m Lynn Hershman,” welcoming us to find her/them at a given locale. Test Patterns (1979) presents a man afflicted with mild body dysmorphia and television test signals, an oddly humorous “becoming the medium” message that prevails again in the following room, where Hershman Leeson’s Synthia Stock Ticker (2000) ingeniously riffs on a device Thomas Edison invented in 1871. This version sets a small monitor in the center of a bell jar, beaming a projected character, Synthia, whose actions correspond to fluctuations in stock market indexes, with the petite woman taking a trip to luxury fashion houses on good days, then guzzling down bottles of wine as values drop. The collage works possess a spirited, artifactual charm. Other, more sculptural pieces are installed within boxes and encasements that emit the sound of heavy breathing and the repetitive clicking of a tape recorder; these are placed beside fragmented casts of the artist’s face wearing an assortment of wigs and butterfly wings. Taxonomies and death masks galore!

“Lynn Hershman Leeson: Twisted,” 2021. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York (Photo: Dario Lasagni)

The finale of the work displayed on this level is Hershman Leeson’s Water Woman series, begun in 1976, which doubles as a current collaborative water purification project titled Twisted Gravity (2021). Semi-translucent female silhouettes are imprinted on layers of plexiglass, composed of glowing particles as if beamed up from Star Trek’s teleportation tubes. They are set atop plinths fitted with the cables and tubes of Aqua Pulse portable purification systems that process contaminated water into drinkable liquid at the rate of one liter per minute. It’s not entirely clear how these contraptions actually function; the texts include mention of waxworms that provide self-sustaining, plastic-eating bacteria. (Hershman Leeson has proclaimed that the corporeal body is becoming “obsolete,” though it seems some bodies, albeit nonhuman, are still operable.) The revival of a conventional female figure motif within this pursuit of solutions to large-scale ecological problems seems like a tenuous aesthetic connection. Why not, for example, go all out on an androgynous cyborgian silhouette, or better yet, explore the imagery of these wondrous waxworms?Viewers looking for a side of Hershman Leeson that is more directly personal, confessional, and compelling should head for the museum’s ground floor. Mounted in a succession of monitors in a darkened gallery, The Electronic Diaries (1994–2019), includes the artist facing the camera in close-up, speaking about the abuse she experienced as a child. Her memories, she says, are “there in your head like tapes”—and she can’t stop reviewing them. Witnesses to these confessions are invited to assume the role of psychoanalyst, as it falls upon us to sift through Hershman Leeson’s words (despite the competing noise of neighboring screens). While captions do not suggest this is a confabulated account, Hershman Leeson’s hold on strict biographic truth is ambiguous, as she’s plainly performing a version of herself in excerpts from Confessions of a Chameleon (1984-85) when she declares, “The personas kept fluctuating”—as though there is too much of her to be contained. Like the self-promotional parodies on the upper level, these diaristic disclosures reflect the disparate demands of an artist seeking awareness, validation, and recognition, with uneven measures of candor and complexity. The artist herself declares in one video: “Now I don’t believe anything is true unless it’s been mediated.” 

This room also features all too fleeting excerpts from Hershman Leeson’s eccentric narrative feature films that represent a significant layer in her thematic trajectory. Strange Culture (2007), Teknolust (2002), and Conceiving Ada (1997) each starred madame eternal Tilda Swinton, a singular presence embodying the seriousness and camp that signals Hershman Leeson at her best: a mix of proto-feminist probity and playfulness. Instead, the culmination of these diaries chooses to show a rather fawning interview between documentary filmmaker Eleanor Coppola and Hershman Leeson that I found myself slowly withdrawing from. I wanted to see the artist’s work more than hear the artist talking about the work, but then again, talking heads are the most connective threads of all in Hershman Leeson’s work, and she is not alone in this.

Ed Atkins, The Worm, 2021 (production still), Video projection with sound, 12:40 min (Courtesy the artist; commissioned and produced by the New Museum and Nokia Bell Labs / Experiments in Art and Technologies)

The term “psychological congestion” applies to the effect of Hershman Leeson’s crowded, clamoring video monitors, though the term comes from Ed Atkins, whose work occupies the museum’s spacious fourth floor. While Hershman Leeson devised Roberta as a bewigged, flesh-and-blood alter ego, Atkins has created an uncannily digitized double in his central video projection, The Worm (2021). Inspired by the British TV writer Dennis Potter’s last televised interview, in which Potter forthrightly confronted his oncoming death, Atkins’s avatar, wearing a suit and spectacles and accessorized with a packet of Silk Cut cigarettes, occupies the role of both talk show host and guest. He listens and responds to his off-screen mother on a phone call, Rosemary, as she recounts micro-traumas of her upbringing. She tells him, for instance, about the time her unstable mother threw eggs from a box to the floor, one by one, and admits her own ongoing experiences of depression—a baseline sadness and bodily dysmorphia that she and her son (and Hershman Leeson) share. The most palpable aspects are in the way Atkins and Rosemary describe the relentless and unbearable quality of familial burdens, of it being too much—of frankly having had enough. This 12:40 minute encounter conveys the anxiety of communication and intimacy, obstructed by the logistical equipment the artist wears: the head rig giving them a headache, the bodysuit and sensors tracking every twitch of discomfort and every momentary smile, replete with off-white teeth and stubble. This mother-son conversation is tender yet interrupted. We don’t hear the phone call in its entirety; it is fragmented by starts and stops to a point of abstraction. Often what cuts through is an inflection of empathy or dismay, and one might be reminded of Potter’s confessed desire to let his working-class father “into the room.” It is the third party in Atkins’s room, the digitized interface and the crew filming behind the scenes, that a sensation of estrangement seeps through.

Atkins’s video is projected on the exterior of a large, unpainted wooden structure with an empty interior big enough for a parked car. Another exterior wall displays an aloof lament about love poems and their sentiments “dying on a Hallmark card” and bodies “splayed and leaking on bad fabric.” Like Hershman Leeson, Atkins collages archival footage and absorbs anachronistic moods. In a small nook in the museum’s narrow stairwell, you can find How it’s made (2015), an old television set cuts between images of manufactured goods and processed foods shuttling through factory conveyor belts while a pompous British narrator reads droningly from a melodramatic story. Here, Atkins’s interest in abjection is shown to have a comic dimension, as industrial machines churn and excrete mustard and other inexplicable goo from one vessel to another. 

How it’s made is a fitting prelude to the next level down, which presents Wong Ping, a generation younger than Atkins, yet no less celebratory of sticky corporeality. A survey titled Your Silent Neighbor, three rooms are filled with screens, featuring short films almost exclusively in brightly colored flat animations that look like a surreal mashup of preschool children’s books, crude porn comics, and some of the more diverting stuff you may have caught late at night on MTV’s Liquid Television. An ostentatious plaque in Ping’s show, written with raised lettering that I initially mistook for braille in the dim lighting, provides a kind of manifesto of the perverted self: “I am the last drop of period blood before menopause…” And: “I am the last answer the fortune teller randomly gets right.” In his 2015 two-channel piece The Other Side, a monitor is paired with a larger flatscreen projection set up directly behind it. The visual information flowing across the two screens sometimes runs parallel but just as often diverges, with imagery competing for attention like unmanageable siblings—an appropriate approach for the tale of two brothers with conflicting relationships to their mother. The narrator extracts a box of his mother’s “womb air,” filling balloons that he places in a suitcase that he then uses as a paddleboard to cross an expanse of water. Expressing his need to escape from the taunts of his kid brother, the labia-obsessed narrator soon discovers that escape is impossible, finding himself wedged headfirst in an elaborate vaginal trap. 

Wong Ping, Who’s the Daddy, 2017 (still). Single-channel video, sound, color; 9:15 min (Courtesy the artist; Edouard Malingue Gallery, Hong Kong / Shanghai; and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles)

In an earlier video, Who’s the Daddy (2017), Ping presents us with another narrator with separation anxiety and a desire to be submissive, recounting a deranged relationship with a woman he met on an app, who shares his life philosophy:  “Fisting is the bottom line of our beliefs.” As if in dialogue with Hershman Leeson, the narrator proclaims: “I wished to give birth to my own body… I refused to get my genes messed up by others.” Like many of Ping’s meandering stories, Sorry for the Late Reply (2021) begins with a narrator fishing for the G-spot in the sea, then to a varicose vein fetish, to a chameleon pet dying from the exhaustion of verbal racial abuse.

The undercurrents of angst in Ping’s characters are shared below the museum’s ground level, adjoining the restrooms—where Anastasia Sosunova’s moving-image pieces play from wall-mounted screens, lulling the viewer with effectively low-key melancholy. Demikhov Dog (2017) begins with glimpses of a near-empty dance floor occupied by a solitary slow dancer in disco lights, as a male narrator tells the story of Soviet scientist Vladimir Petrovich Demikhov, who performed transplant experiments in the 1940s and 1950s. One of these experiments resulted in two-headed dogs that become an animated mascot in this film—an indirect nod to Hershman Leeson’s cloned animals upstairs. Sosunova refers to Lithuanian national identity as a form of artificial modification and alienation. “There is a fruitful confusion going on between the two heads,” the male narrator says, as he goes on to describe national myths as a kind of engrafted transplant. 

Anastasia Sosunova , Demikhov Dog, 2017 (still) (Courtesy of the artist and the New Museum)

Sosunova’s more recent work, Agents (2020), brings a wood carving of a benign golem to life through animation, as it traverses The Hill of Witches, an outdoor sculpture gallery that depicts characters from Lithuanian folklore and pagan traditions. The role of folk art in national identity is discussed conspiratorially through a whispered dialogue between two faceless people sitting in a parked car. The final scenes reveal a sad and ravaged forest of tree stumps with garbage bags that look like makeshift fortresses that the narrator tells us are “filled with various spontaneous human creations… something between a violent invasion and an irresistible urge to create and produce the new cultural context” —and thus, new myths. The golem passes by their windshield before finding a home among the other carved creatures. It’s a simple point to reiterate, the link between myth and nationalism, but there’s something alluring about Sosunova’s musings and the raw observational directness of the photography, offering a slightly more grounded experience before being deposited back out into the humid wilderness of the Bowery, in which I felt in need of a bifurcated head to converse with to fruitfully recount all that we just encountered, half-heard and, admittedly, only partially understood.

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