Leslie Thornton: Begin Again, Again

From left to right, a television set featuring a woman in black and white, a monitor featuring a young girl with lipstick smeared over her lips, and a projector and projection screen with black and white bedsheets.

Left to right: All Right You Guys (1976), Jennifer Where Are You? (1981), and X-TRACTS (1975). Exhibition view: Leslie Thornton: Begin Again, Again at MIT List Center, 2021. Photo Credit: Julie Featheringill

Hayden Gallery
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Leslie Thornton
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In a career spanning nearly five decades, Leslie Thornton has produced an influential body of work in film and video.

Her early encounters with experimental, structuralist, and cinéma vérité traditions as a student in the 1970s fueled her iconoclastic take on the moving image and gave shape to her practice of weaving together her own footage and voice with archival film and audio. In part through her forceful and dynamic use of sound, Thornton exposes the limits of language and vision in her works, while acknowledging the ways that language and vision nevertheless remain central to scientific discourse and narrative in general. 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 relationship between technology, power, and violence is an enduring concern for Thornton. In early works, such as X-TRACTS (1975), All Right You Guys (1976) and Jennifer, Where Are You? (1981), Thornton contends with the basic conditions of representation in film and how the camera itself wields power. In Let Me Count the Ways (2004–ongoing) and Cut From Liquid to Snake (2018), Thornton takes up the United States’ history of nuclear warfare—a subject fraught with personal resonance for her, as both her father and grandfather were involved in the Manhattan Project, the top-secret effort that produced the atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Japan in the final days of World War II. A touchstone of experimental film, Peggy and Fred in Hell is a multi-chapter work that surfaces the Cold War-era anxieties that shaped Thornton’s formative years and plumbs the psychological impact of technology in postwar America.

Thornton’s recent film Ground (2020) embeds the voice of a physicist discussing particle decay within elegant yet foreboding technological landscapes. The exhibition’s title, Begin Again, Again—borrowed from a line in Peggy and Fred in Hell—alludes to human-made cycles of destruction and renewal as well the hallmarks of Thornton’s practice: an accumulation and repetition of images and language and a radically open-ended approach to observing, processing, and understanding.

The exhibition is complemented by Hemlock (2021), a new two-channel video work commissioned by the List Center.

Thornton’s exhibition is organized by Natalie Bell, Curator, MIT List Visual Arts Center.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the List Center is co-publishing the artist’s first monograph with Sternberg Press. Scheduled for release in Spring 2022, the book will feature contributions by Bell, Erika Balsom, Rosalyn Deutsche, Su Friedrich, Chrissie Iles, Dan Kidner, Chris Kraus, Mason Leaver-Yap, James Richards, Milan Ther, and Thomas Zummer.

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 Fotene & Tom Coté, Audrey & James Foster, Idee German Schoenheimer, Joyce Linde, Cynthia & John Reed, and Sara-Ann & Robert Sanders. This exhibition is also supported by generous donors to the 2020 McDermott Award Gala, hosted by the Council for the Arts at MIT.

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.