The feminist movement was a potent element in the unstable social and political climate that defined American culture during the 1960s and 1970s. Under the slogan “the personal is political,” women challenged the many assumptions about gender roles and sexuality that had limited their options at nearly every turn. Control over their lives was at stake, and the female body became the battleground for the struggle. For artists like Lynn Hershman, the body also was fertile territory for new artistic practices that explored voyeurism, role-playing, identity, and social interaction. Her performances, films, videos, and installations address these issues through an exploration of narrative structure and the politics of viewing. Together her works offer one woman’s view of what it means to be female in contemporary American society.
Since the early 1970s, Hershman has been based in San Francisco, where her first fully realized projects took place. In The Dante Hotel (1972–1973), she rented a room—Number 47—in a cheap, run-down North Beach establishment. There she installed a vignette around life-size wax sculptures of two women locked in an embrace—an imagined re-creation of what might have happened in the room, which had been home to a lesbian couple.1 Hershman emphasized the overlap of art and life (and made viewers into voyeurs) by requiring her audience to visit the hotel, sign in at the desk, and obtain a room key in order to see the work.
The artist has said that the connection between The Dante Hotel and her next major work, Roberta Breitmore (1974–1978), was an organic one. “It seemed important to liberate the essence of the person who might have lived in room 47 … to flesh out experience through real life.”2 So she created Roberta, a fictional character whose life she lived/performed intermittently over a period of several years. Roberta had an apartment, a checking account, and a driver’s license; she attended Weight Watchers, saw a psychiatrist, had sexual adventures (and misadventures), and kept a diary. Roberta was both real and artificial; she was and was not Hershman. In her utter ordinariness, she also represented Everywoman, who “witnessed, reflected, and documented the resonant nuances of her culture’s alienation.”3
In 1994, Hershman issued a work containing an assortment of sixty-four objects and documents related to Roberta Breitmore. She organized the material in thematic sections that elucidate the project’s evolution and structure. For example, Roberta’s External Transformations includes seven items (her purse, coat, driver’s license, dental X-ray, etc.) with the following explanatory note: “Roberta faced the world with a defined image which was distinguished by her makeup and dress.” Other sections are titled Adventures, The Double Is One, Anonymous Social Identities, and so on. In Hershman’s words, the work “reflects the simulation of a persona in a way the original does not.”4 It also, of course, allows the project to have a life beyond its original real-time context.
For details on this and other projects, see Lynn Hershman (Herimoncourt, France: Centre International de Création Vidéo, 1992) and Rod Slemmons, ed., Paranoid Mirror: Lynn Hershman, exh. cat. (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1995). ↩
Lynn Hershman, “Reflections and Preliminary Notes,” in Paranoid Mirror, 13. ↩
Lynn Hershman, correspondence with Walker curator Elizabeth Armstrong, 1994 (Walker Art Center Archives). ↩