‘When You’re Isolated, You Hear More’: Watch Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson Describe How a Frightening Illness Transformed Her Art

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Lynn Hershman Leeson: Drawing Breath." © Art21, Inc. 2021.

When artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson was five months into her pregnancy in 1965, she developed breathing problems stemming from cardiomyopathy, and was forced to finish out her nine months confined to the hospital, living inside an oxygen tank. Spending most of her days alone in the hospital, the artist became acutely aware of her fragile state.

When you are experiencing the threat of death, you become so aware of time,” Leeson says in an exclusive interview with Art21 as part of the New York Close Up series, “that’s really a gift, to become so sick early in my life.

In the interview, which premiered as part of the tenth season of Art21’s show Art in the Twenty First Century, Leeson recounts her early work in the 1960s and ’70s, and how it was inspired by her health problems.

During her recovery, Leeson took a night course in wax casting at UCLA, where she began creating casts of her own face. As her breathing improved, she decided to add a sound element to the resulting works. “When you’re so isolated, you hear more,” she tells Art21. Ultimately, the wax sculptures featured both sounds of the artist’s breathing and dialogue.

When the artist was invited to show in a group exhibition at UCLA, she included a selection of the talking wax sculptures, which proved unnerving to observers. “Within two days, the museum closed the show. They said ‘Media isn’t art.’ ‘Sound isn’t art.'”

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Lynn Hershman Leeson: Drawing Breath." © Art21, Inc. 2021.

Production still from the Art21 “Extended Play” film, “Lynn Hershman Leeson: Drawing Breath.” © Art21, Inc. 2021.

But that institutional rejection actually prompted Leeson to keep working. She describes the experience as “the best thing that happened to me,” adding, “the cultural experience of having your voice suppressed has made having a voice really important to what I do.”

In June 2021, the New Museum in Manhattan will present the first solo museum exhibition of the artist’s wide-ranging video and sound work in “Lynn Hershman Leeson: Twisted.”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s New York Close Up series, below. The brand new 10th season of the show is available now at Art21.org. The artist’s solo exhibition, “Lynn Hershman Leeson: Twisted” will be on view at the New Museum from June 2021.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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