The most famous of these was 1973–4, a room-size environment that stayed open around the clock for nine months at a San Francisco flophouse.
Always in flux, the work comprised imaginary composites of the hotel’s inhabitants, taking the form of two life-size figures whose only exposed parts were their wax heads and hands (fig.3).6 When the police shut down the installation, Hershman Leeson’s effigy took a new form in the alter-ego 1974–8.
Somewhat selectively this article considers the early sculptures and installations of Thek, which are an acknowledged part of the anti-formalist narrative, together with the early work of San Francisco-based artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson (born 1941), who is perhaps better known for her pioneering work in new media.5 From 1963 Hershman Leeson also cast parts of her own face and hands in wax, integrating these pieces into installations situated outside the gallery.
Augmenting them with make-up, wigs, glass eyes, as well as interactive sensors and audio components to simulate bodily processes and reactions, Hershman Leeson, like Thek, also encased her modular body parts in materials like Plexiglas or recycled them into site-specific installations, plugging the figures into larger cultural narratives about power, technology and gender.
Although nearly everything was painted a uniform pink, colour photographs taken in Thek’s studio by the artist’s lover Peter Hujar reveal that the figure’s tongue was blue (fig.2).
While some commentators have described the anomalous detail of the blue tongue as ‘poison-blackened’, it may also be read as a sign of putrefaction and volatility, at odds with the sanitised notion of a wax effigy.2 Lying in state yet allowed to rot, this corruptible effigy became a complex and contradictory requiem for the American counterculture, reflected in its alternative, unauthorised title .3 This article thus takes its cue from various readings of the work, including the artist Mike Kelley’s influential 1992 claim that it signalled the ‘pretty decay’ of a decade whose dirtiness became sanitised in historical memory.4 In the twentieth century many artists cast body parts using wax or other materials, including Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, Tetsumi Kudo, Robert Gober, Duane Hanson, Gavin Turk, Alina Szapocznikow, Kiki Smith and Ron Mueck.
While Hanson’s figures at least indulge in a more diverse fantasy of American normativity, de Andrea’s homogeneous nudes needed no props to inhabit the abstracting void of the white cube; their poses alone made them objects of the male gaze.
As the critic Kim Levin wrote in 1974, these figures gave the impression of being ‘tranquil, and vacant, with no private thoughts – bodies for sale’.20Far closer to Thek’s installation in this respect were the works of George Segal and Edward Kienholz, both of whom also placed their casts inside built environments.
Both stage the effigy at a point of putrefaction – the blue tongue of Thek’s figure, the duration of (1957) German historian Ernst Kantorowicz explained how the royal corpse threatened the symbolic continuity of power, thus prompting the production of a more durable substitute for public display upon death.7 What Kantorowicz identified in his book on the prehistory of modern ‘political theology’ was elaborated on by the philosopher Michel Foucault in a 1975–6 series of lectures at the Collège de France, in which he defined the concept of biopower.8 Foucault modified earlier theories, which understood sovereignty as the divinely ordained right to ‘take life or let live’, to argue that the state now had the authority ‘to make live and to let die’.9 Where individual bodies were subject to disciplinary techniques under medieval regimes, modern political regimes inaugurated in the later eighteenth century applied these techniques to entire populations.10 Individuals only mattered in terms of what data they could yield about the masses; in extreme cases this data could be used to strip citizens of their rights and place them under a ‘state of exception’, a term coined by juridical theorist Carl Schmitt to refer to a sovereign’s ability to transcend the rule of law.11 The political philosopher Giorgio Agamben has followed Schmitt by reviving the obscure Roman legal term at the bottom are thus oddly aligned.13The productive intermingling of death and vitality in these two bodies of work made them an ideal vehicle to challenge the constellation of technologies, institutions and discourses that Foucault named ‘biopower’.
Thek’s entombed hippie, which bore his likeness, and Hershman Leeson’s equally entombed yet perversely vital effigies of marginal women can both be understood as confronting biopower through the perspective of the counterculture and other movements that flowered (and declined) in 1960s and 1970s America.