• Leslie Thornton, Ground, 2020. Video, color, sound, 13 min. Courtesy the artist and Rodeo, London / Piraeus.
Hayden Gallery

Leslie Thornton

ShowingMarch 19, 2021 - July 25, 2021

Hayden Gallery

In a career spanning nearly five decades, Leslie Thornton has produced a distinctive body of work in film and video that exposes the limits of language and vision while centering the ways that they remain fundamental to historical narratives, cultural assumptions, and scientific discourse. Thornton’s early encounters with experimental, structuralist, and cinéma vérité film traditions as a student in the 1970s fueled her iconoclastic take on the moving image, grounding the artist’s practice of weaving together her own footage and voice with found and archival footage and sound. In lush and unruly montages, Thornton’s works revel in the accumulation of images and data that technology has yielded, probe the liminal space between thought and language, and embody the fraught process of knowledge production and knowledge acquisition.

The relationship between technology, power, and violence is an enduring concern for Thornton. Her work consistently interrogates modes of representation and the violence of looking, pushing beyond critiques of the gaze to consider biases in perception, or the way voice and sound can undermine an otherwise dominant visual narrative. Thornton also takes up the United States’ history of nuclear warfare—a subject with personal resonance, as the artist’s father and grandfather were both involved in the Manhattan Project, and several of her works play upon a tension between personal and collective histories and the entanglement of science and ethics.

Engaging these themes within a focused survey, Thornton’s List Center exhibition will mark the artist’s first US solo museum exhibition and most comprehensive presentation to date. The show will include Thornton’s decades-long magnum opus, Peggy and Fred in Hell (1984–2016), as well as works that engage her family’s relationship to military technologies (Let Me Count the Ways [2004–2006] and Cut From Liquid to Snake [2018]). The exhibition will also debut a new film commissioned by the List Center that will complement the artist’s recent video, Ground (2020). Both films mark a new departure in the artist’s work and follow from her residencies at CERN and at Caltech. Using footage she shot in these centers, Thornton grounds the human voice within elegant yet foreboding technological landscapes and marvels at the ethos of experimentation and speculation inherent to scientific as well as artistic practices.

Thornton’s exhibition is organized by Natalie Bell, Curator, MIT List Visual Arts Center. Accompanying the exhibition, the List Center will publish the artist’s first monograph, including newly commissioned essays by film scholar and critic Erika Balsom as well as curator and writer Dan Kidner.

Leslie Thornton (b. 1951, Knoxville, TN) lives and works in New York. Her work has been exhibited and widely screened internationally at: documenta 12, Kassel; The Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA PS1, and Artists Space in New York; Tate Modern and Raven Row in London; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève; and at the Rotterdam, Berlin, Buenos Aires, and New York Film Festivals, among many others. Recent solo and two-person exhibitions have taken place at Kunstverein Nürnberg (2020); Malmö Konsthall (2019); Secession, Vienna (2018); Künstlerhaus Stuttgart (2018); as well as Brooklyn Academy of Music (2016). Thornton is the recipient of two Rockefeller Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Maya Deren Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the first Alpert Award in the Arts.

Exhibitions at the List Center are made possible with the support of Karen & Gregory Arenson, Fotene & Tom Coté, Audrey & James Foster, Idee German Schoenheimer, Joyce Linde, Cynthia & John Reed, and Sara-Ann & Robert Sanders. 

General operating support is provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the Council for the Arts at MIT; Philip S. Khoury, Associate Provost at MIT; the MIT School of Architecture + Planning; the Mass Cultural Council; and many generous individual donors. In-kind media sponsorship provided by 90.9 WBUR. The Advisory Committee Members of the List Visual Arts Center are gratefully acknowledged.


  • Leslie Thornton, Ground, 2020. Video, color, sound, 13 min. Courtesy the artist and Rodeo, London / Piraeus.

XCOVID-19In response to COVID-19, the List Visual Arts Center closed March 13, and will remain so until further notice. For more information and updates clickhere.