How Lynn Hershman Leeson’s works saw the future

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Internationally acclaimed media artist Lynn Hershman Leeson has a knack for predicting the cultural direction of the future through her art.

On Saturday, March 5, Leeson sat down with feminist scholar Peggy Phelan and SFMOMA curator Corey Keller at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts to discuss the relationship between technology and the female body. This round table, entitled “Person. Woman. Camera. TV. was curated by Keller in conjunction with the MFA’s current exhibition, “Image Gardeners,” on view through April 30.

Curated by MFA Curator of Exhibitions and Public Programs Sara Wessen Chang, “Image Gardeners” is a captivating exhibition of experimental portraits drawn from the McEvoy family collection. Diane Arbus and Vivian Maier are among the women and non-binary photographers featured in the collection, curated with the goal of “reflecting, reframing and resisting dominant conventions of representation.”

Leeson’s work is a fitting addition to this collection.


In the early 1960s, Leeson’s imagination was captured by the growing intimacy between humanity and its technological advances.

She remembers the day she tried to create a copy of a drawing using a Xerox machine and the drawing got stuck:

“Finally, when [my drawing] came through, it was torn and bent, and there was ink on it,” she said. “I realized it was much better than what I had done. So I realized in that moment that the future was here, that there was really going to be a fusion between humans, technology and machines.”

This revelation – the art of the cyborg – will continue to influence his work for years to come.

In 1973, Leeson designed a fictional character named Roberta Breitmore, which predated fictional Instagram influencer Lil Miquela by more than four decades.

“I started thinking, ‘What if you created a fictional person who could exist in your own life and come out in real life?'” Leeson explained. “It was the birth of Roberta Breitmore.”

Breitmore will then obtain a driver’s license and a bank account, rent an apartment and consult a psychiatrist. His personal style and mannerisms were entirely his own, and his activities were documented in over a hundred sketches and surveillance photographs.

Breitmore’s performance ended in 1978 with an exorcism ritual that took place at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, Italy.

“[She became] kind of a mirror portrait of what it was like to live in those years,” Leeson said.

Leeson’s work with Breitmore inspired her “Phantom Limb Series”, a collection of collaged photographs that pair women’s bodies with technological artifacts such as cameras, wall sockets and clocks.

The work is both visually arresting and loaded in its cultural commentary.

Leeson said of the camera, “In a sense they were weaponizing women, especially women in this seduction to be seen, but then exploited again in how they are seen.”

It’s a familiar premise. In the era of social networks, we all know such seduction. And yet, the same platforms that enable our visibility have been shown to exploit us by harvesting our data.

Leeson’s work also realizes this reality. In a recent self-portrait, Leeson overlaid an image of her face with a QR code. In the top left corner of the photo collage, there’s a conscious nod to the ultimate engine of data collection, not quite explained in full: “-apitalism.”

“We all become victims of consumerism and the loss of our identity because of it, thanks to the QR codes we need as a survival mechanism during the pandemic,” Leeson said.

Despite his sobering portrayals of a technologically engineered society, Leeson leads with hope.

“I think art is about hope because you only start it if you hope you can finish it,” she said.

“I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen yet, but that’s what I’m going to work on.”

The “Image Gardeners” exhibit of experimental portrait photography runs through April 30 at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, 1150 25th St., Building B, San Francisco. Free entry. For times and more information, visit https://www.mcevoyarts.org/ or call (415) 580-7605.

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Copyright © 2022 by Bay City News, Inc. Republication, redistribution, or other reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.

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