The nearer I get to it, the more upsetting it becomes. It is capped, contained, deflated behind a plexiglass cube. Elevated just below eye level so that you have to lean over it in order to decipher the mess of platinum blonde spilling out of the frame of a wooden shadow box, the stiff wax skin glistens as it peeks out from amidst the spill and shine of ratted wig hair.
Behind the stiff skin, the eyes are locked shut as if they had been forced so by an embalmer’s hand. The lips are parted slightly but expressionless. Coral lipstick picks up the undertones of rouge on the cheek. Half of the face is obscured by the platinum wig, it parts like a curtain to reveal the sallow, waxy skin. As I leer over it, for it is displayed prone, a troubling and disembodied giggle cuts the silence.
A giggle is entirely feminine. It is the remainder of a laugh, either forced or repressed. It is flirtacious, perhaps, a reaction in concert with eyelash-batting to a john’s bad joke. It is also the laughter that follows stinging gossip about that john with the other girls later on. It is a laugh with a hand covering the mouth, squeezing the sounds down like a choked cough.
But this stifled laugh is mechanical. It is the musing of a skinned cyborg paired with a maniacal repeated laugh track, triggered by a surveilling eye as bodies near. It is as if this creature had disobeyed the laws of Asimov, and its remains are kept under a plexiglass prison.
The giggle repels me. Any reflection of identity, any simper I read into the lipstick, any flush I spotted in the cheek, I suddenly recognize as duplicitous. The giggle is scripted, forced and run through audio tape. This giggle has been translated and traversed mediums like a nomad– from human lips to microphones, recorded on audio tapes, sent through mixers, play-back mediums, perhaps first on tape or vinyl (she was made in 1968) then later through Beta, audio cassette, CD, MP3 now, perhaps… who knows. Her mechanisms are hidden in the shadow box.
“In the traditions of ‘Western’ science and politics — the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture; the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other — the relation between organism and machine has been a border war.” — Donna Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto1
Though Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto was written in the late 1980s, Hershman Leeson’s work seems to battle both sides of the border war. In an interview with curator Hou Hanru, Hershman Leeson says, “…I made objects as far back as 1957 that resembled cyborgs. The word wasn’t even coined until 1960, by the biologists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Klein, but I was making robotic figures with organic features nonetheless.”2
Upon connecting to Haraway’s figuring of the cyborg as an ironic analog to feminine identities, the threads of the exhibition, Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar, seemed to appear. The Giggling Machine: Self-Portrait as Blonde is a perfect cipher. The identity is overtly feminine– the giggle, the makeup, the platinum wig– but contained as a “machine”, a cyborg, programmable yet adaptable, and always one step ahead of her human onlookers. Perhaps that’s why she giggles.
And it is a self-portrait. But what self can we determine through this portrait? It mirrors back its nothingness to us, its collapsed face rendered hollow, its giggle mechanical and forced. Later in the exhibition, as we explore the artifacts of the life of Roberta Breitmore (perhaps Hershman’s most famed project, a construction of a life lived as another), the Phantom Limb series, wherein women and representation-machines merge bodies, the Artificial Intelligence of DiNA and Agent Ruby, we are reminded of the themes of Giggling Machine: Self-Portrait as Blonde. It is a constant re-engendering of identity, less a reflection than a refraction.
As Haraway reminds us in Cyborg Manifesto, “The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.”
1Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. 1991. Routledge.
2 Hanru, Hou and Lynn Hershman Leeson. “Hou Hanru: Interview with Lynn Hershman Leeson.” Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar. 2014.