VertiGhost, a newly commissioned work by Lynn Hershman Leeson (American, b. 1941) for the Fine Arts Museums, draws the viewer into a meditation about notions of authenticity and the construction of identity. Inspired by the Legion of Honor’s role as a location for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Hershman Leeson explores the tension at the core of Vertigo between the difficulty or lack of desire to distinguish between reality and fiction versus the pursuit of truth. The eponymous ghost of Hershman Leeson’s project is the elusive nature of a singular identity that haunts the characters in the 1958 film, its most enigmatic representation being the painting of a supposed distant relative of the film’s protagonist Madeleine, around which her character and fate is imagined.
Portrait of Carlotta, as such a pivotal prop in the film, is one of two paintings around which VertiGhost is structured. The other is Amedeo Modigliani’s Pierre-Edouard Baranowski (ca. 1918), a portrait in the Museums’ collection that for many years remained unseen, as it was enshrouded by questions of authenticity that even an underlying portrait revealed by X-radiography—a ghostly image itself—could not dispel until recent macro X-ray fluorescence analysis.
The film at the core of Hershman Leeson’s VertiGhost project combines footage re-creating select scenes from Vertigo using an extant copy of Portrait of Carlotta, combined with installation views of the Modigliani in its current setting at the de Young. In addition, the Legion of Honor and the de Young serve as backdrops for interviews about the construction of realities in life and art with an independent art historian, the Museums’ head paintings conservator, and a renowned psychologist. The resulting film offers a critical foil to a cultural climate increasingly defined by fake news.
In addition to the film, the project consists of an installation at each building and a live web component. For the installation at the Legion of Honor, Hershman Leeson re-envisions Portrait of Carlotta as a blurred photographic image that defies any clear attribution or identification of image or maker. The work is equipped with a motion-triggered GoPro camera hidden behind cutouts of Carlotta’s eyes that captures the viewer’s movements, which are edited into select scenes of Hershman Leeson’s film and projected as a hologram into the galleries at the Legion and the de Young. Displayed on a pedestal in what is called a “real fiction box,” the hologram implicating the viewer into the narrative is shown alongside the actual film and related props and photographs. Both the hologram and the film will also be on display near the Modigliani at the de Young and on the VertiGhost webpage.
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