in Features | 02 MAR 08
Featured in
Issue 113

Finding the Right Darkness

Zoe Leonard’s photographs and sculptures meditate on wonder and loss

in Features | 02 MAR 08

Frontal View, Geoffrey Beene Fashion Show (1990)

Zoe Leonard’s photograph Dead Beaver in Water (1997–8) is like an encounter between Meret Oppenheim’s famed Surrealist Object (1936) – a fur-covered teacup, saucer and spoon sometimes known as Breakfast in Fur – and the wilds of Alaska, a place where Leonard has spent a lot of time. The photograph reveals the frozen moment of discovery: the ice is both peculiarly incandescent and a trap; the animal is perfected and sculpted by nature, whereas Oppenheim’s pelt was reconstituted into a coveted love object, the contrite morning-after coffee between distant former lovers.

If Dead Beaver in Water is a valentine to the disturbing beauty that no amount of human ingenuity can conjure, it is also a sly homage to the literal: the pornographic beaver shot, the epitome of lowbrow 1970s’ porn. Hustler magazine once had an amateur page charmingly titled ‘Beaver Hunt’, which was devoted to the splayed self-fashioning of your average hometown gal: the hot, busty waitress pre-Hooters, the grocery cashier, the babysitter. Yet, for all its artifice, there was a certain agency to this arrangement – this is the real spread, folks. As is Dead Beaver in Water, a hunted, coveted love object, showing a little tail. Don’t try this at home, kids – or if you do, proceed with caution.

Caution is an apt approach when surveying the last ten years of Leonard’s production, because it seems at first glance disparate: photography, sculpture and then lots more photography. Yet to look closely at the archive is to understand the sculptural nature of the photographic work and its inverse, the instinctive stillness of the sculptures, which, like the singular image, impede rather than promote movement.

Dead Beaver in Water is part of a small, painstaking, untitled series of six photographs of hunting, which in turn is part of a larger untitled body of photographs including images of nests, trees, fences and natural history museums, which was first shown at the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris in 1998 and more recently at the artist’s retrospective at the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland. These photographs indicate the artist’s larger interest in specimens and historical recovery and her persistent need to investigate uses of the natural: what is natural, what is not and what craves recognition as such. The series reads like a chapbook of poetry. Images include: the severed head of a bear, its paw crudely strung up like a rabbit’s foot – a meditation on the irony of luck; a moose rendered into edible sections; vulnerable ground nests with exposed eggs; and a smattering of New York trees with gnarled, stubborn roots, growing up and over, through fences and cracks in the pavement. Leonard’s pairing – the sequence of very much alive trees with dead animals of prey – skinned, flayed, hunted – creates an odd solemnity, tinged with wonder even, in all but the most recalcitrant viewer – to see that living is always and only a fight. Who doesn’t want to live? The knowledge of death isn’t enough. With her blunt imagery Leonard makes us feel a heightened awareness that all creatures, great and small, fight like hell to live.

Taken as metaphors, the intense pathos of the photographs seems intent on reaching an angry equilibrium that simultaneously parallels and mocks the experience of loss. Like so many New York artists who came of age in the 1980s, Leonard was politicized by the ongoing AIDS crisis and credits her commitment to ACT UP and various artist collectives, such as Gang and Fierce Pussy, as a profound influence on the direction of her work – as she also does her friendships with other artists. Leonard’s installation Strange Fruit (1993–8) is dedicated to the memory of David Wojnarowicz. A sculptural work made of 295 unpreserved fruit peels, its guts would make a lovely citrus salad: grapefruit, orange, lemon, accented by banana and avocado. But these are just the peels: the residual effects of consumption. This is a strong theme in Leonard’s work. Forced open, by virtue of a thumb or a knife, the peels are emptied of their fruit, then hand-sewn back together into deflated shapes, embellished with bright yellow, white and red thread, zips, clasps and buttons. As well as its more obvious descriptive meanings, the title plays on the idea of ‘fruit’ as a euphemism for fag (as in sexual orientation, rather than cigarette) and a more general idea of persecution – it is surely no coincidence that ‘Strange Fruit’ is also the name of the anti-lynching ballad that Billie Holiday made so famous in the 1930s.

Just before he died in 1992, Wojnarowicz read from his writing at a benefit for Needle Exchange. His words are powerful, angry and direct:

I wake up every morning in this killing machine called America and I’m carrying this rage like a blood-filled egg and there’s a thin line between the inside and the outside a thin line between thought and action and that line is simply made up of blood and muscle and bone.1

In silent homage Strange Fruit is a metaphorical needle exchange, swapping out the fine line that creates a boundary or a limit, in exchange for the jagged, random line that Leonard sews, a continuation of grief and rage, a solidarity between queers, a bloodline between the lost and the living.

Strange Fruit happened to me at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, some time around 2000 or 2001. I say ‘happened’ because I was cranky with my companion, who insisted on sitting through 35 minutes of video art even though we had agreed to leave. Strange Fruit was something I had walked by, on the way out of the contemporary wing. From a distance it looked like detritus. Then I got closer and stopped being annoyed and instead became very sad and felt suddenly very alone – despair hit me like a truck. The sewn fruit was absurdly, inexplicably, intimate. When Leonard says, ‘The fruit is very, very silent’, I believe she means that it both comes from a place of absence and also creates one. It actually turned out I was alone. The museum showed the work without a guard in the room, so as not to detract from its intended private atmosphere.2

Leonard’s ‘For Which It Stands’ (2003), a series of 32 postcards installed on postcard racks at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and offered for sale at 50 cents each, depicts the brashness of weird Americana – a Burger King crown, a toy gun, plastic Indian figurines engaged in battle – offset by bright monochrome backgrounds. The title is taken, of course, from the American Pledge of Allegiance, a collective recitation of which began every American child’s school day (and still does in 37 states, but for a spate of first amendment lawsuits about the line ‘one nation under God’), facing the flag at the front of the classroom with hand over heart. Both in title and its effect, ‘For Which It Stands’ is a blatant irony, a commentary in pictures on American values: religion (a vintage Young People’s Bible Game made by Parker Brothers), the timeworn and cherished tradition of war (a leering ceramic patriot figurine), honour (a vintage Girl Scout uniform) and patriotism (a torn and faded American flag). The symbols are straightforward enough, even banal, but taken collectively they are an effective critique, a contemporary incarnation of 1990s’ Agit-prop, recalling the earlier efforts of artists such as Doug Ashford, Julie Ault and Hans Haacke.

While Leonard continued to pursue sculpture, in 1998 she turned from photographing the trees in her Lower East Side neighbourhood to making pictures of shopfronts, capturing their bizarre and amusing signage, such as ‘Meats Meats Meats Fresh Everyday’, and the copious amounts of stuff they contained – liquid soap, cheap laminated plywood furniture, cheap chairs, cheap clothing – their wares often overflowing onto the pavement. The project expanded into nearby Brooklyn and then took on a life of its own, becoming a nearly decade-long quest that took the artist to Uganda, Mexico, Cuba and Poland, following the global movement of things, the journey of the commodities themselves (clothing in particular) and the futile circularity with which they are born of oppression – made in sweatshops or countries with notoriously poor labour conditions, such as Macau, China and Pakistan – then circulated through the USA, either donated or discarded, and then sold off in bulk for profit. Bill Brown, an anthropologist who developed a theory of material culture known as ‘thing theory’, argued that the thing is less an object than a particular subject–object relation. Leonard’s work bears this out; it asks not what things are, but rather what value they are assigned in the human economy.

That this project begins on the Lower East Side is particularly effective; the turn-of-the-century rag peddler – an Eastern European Jew – is remade into an African immigrant living out in Bedford-Stuyvesant, peddling his wares globally, rather than locally. This is hypothetical, of course. There are no people in the photographs. Only fabric and more fabric, bags of it, interspersed with peeling lotto ads and cigarettes, boarded-up shopfronts, all leading to the disappearance of authentic urban experience, pulling the plug on the melting-pot, so to speak, leaving whole districts cowering before the property mogul’s greedy gaze – again, the residual effects of consumption.

This work, continued over a nine-year period, came to be known as ‘Analogue’. Comprising some 400 images, the project exists in two formats: in book form, culled to a selection of 92 images, and as a museum display, arranged in grids that chart a linear movement through the piece, pairing similar-looking shopfronts from disparate parts of the world, such as an abundance of bright red ramshackle outdoor cafés, with the brazen declarations of Coca-Cola. Other grids embark on a narrative, tracing out the journey of a particular item, such as a television set that travels from frame to frame by wheelbarrow. Neither format is quite satisfying if you have experienced the other – the museum format lacks the remarkable essay by Leonard that is printed in the book, and the book lacks any sense of the project’s scale – both its physicality and its intention.

Since its European début at documenta 12, ‘Analogue’ has been widely praised, cited as one of the highlights in various reviews of the unwieldy exhibition.3 No doubt it is an important work, but does its critique become a kind of visual rhetoric? Is it just another anti-globalization argument by a concerned artist–intellectual, albeit in pictures? As the art historian Svetlana Alpers observes, there is a strong historical precedent for ‘Analogue’, comparing Leonard’s shop windows with those of Eugène Atget’s mid-19th-century photographs of Paris. Alpers assigns Leonard the role of the voyageur solitaire, the lone itinerant, on a grand expedition, documenting change through the chance encounter.4 But there is a more recent lineage. Consider this description, by Eleanor Heartney, of Martha Rosler’s ‘The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems’ (1974–5), a series of 45 gelatin silver prints of text and image, displayed in a grid:

In part an homage to the empty cityscapes of Walker Evans, as Rosler herself acknowledges, the unpeopled photographs provide head-on shots of Bowery storefronts complete with thrift-store and pawnshop window offerings, boarded-up windows and peeling signs. It’s significant that Rosler refuses to provide sentimentalized images of the down-and-out … no single descriptive model can adequately portray the complex dynamics that create pockets of urban privation of the sort represented by the 1960s-era Bowery.5

But for Leonard’s global impulse, this description seems perfectly applicable to ‘Analogue’. Both projects question the nature of public space, ownership and change. Rosler went on to produce an even larger project, titled If You Lived Here: The City in Art, Theory, and Social Activism (1989). The theme of that project was urbanism and homelessness, and it took the format of three distinct exhibitions, public forums on housing and urban planning, and an eventual book-length publication. Granted, Rosler’s works are much more overtly activist: assertive intrusions injected into the blind spots of the art world, blistering declarations that set out to expose the dimensions and complexities of large-scale urban poverty through the intricacies of localized blight. But there seems to me a clear and distinct post-Pop lineage that can be traced, beginning with Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) – also a documentary project, a small, potent fold-out book made of photographs put through an offset printing press. Deadly ironic, Every Building … offers the most banal daytime views of the shopfronts along the strip, renowned for its glamour and nightlife, showcasing regular apartment and office buildings as well as shops that have seen better days. There are also no people in his photographs: no tanned, healthy Californian bodies, no celebrities utterly deflating the myth of Hollywood grandeur. Re-inscribing photography as a tool of the amateur, Ruscha pokes fun at the viewer’s expectation of the tourist snapshot, Hollywood as a lights-and-action, palm-tree-fringed paradise rather than a place that ordinary citizens inhabit.

From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s feminist artists reacted swiftly and negatively to the role of carefree macho Pop artist, transforming the role of the artist from a trickster adept at unmasking artifice into a fully fledged activist who could dissect social and sexual inequities with devastating clarity. In ‘The Bowery’ Rosler’s use of photography to point out underlying social pressures and mounting neighbourhood upheaval can be seen as an improvement on Ruscha’s mere irony. Some critics found this earnestness deadly: more Lewis Hine than Walker Evans. But in its visual humour, its documentation of not just tragedy but also strangeness, ‘Analogue’ can been seen as an improvement on ‘The Bowery’, an updated version that puts globalization – the issue of our day – as not just a primary concern but as a conceit, an aesthetic all its own, requiring a shift in connoisseurship.

Clearly Leonard borrows heavily from photography’s own post-1960s’ canon – combining the prosaic grids of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the blaring colour of William Eggleston and the junk heaps in the desert of Richard Misrach – to reach a new apex, creating a network of like-images full of individual disparities, such as the odds of getting a Rapid Divorce and finding Maid Service in the same location (as it happens, on Ludlow Street, New York, around 1999). Over the course of 400 images Leonard accrues these disparities, evidencing the force of destruction that happily sacrifices the local and the cultural in favour of the false prosperity offered by the global, corporate conglomerate – Coca-Cola’s water purification projects in India only to mix the water with Coke syrup, or even the hubris of a double Starbucks at Astor Place in Manhattan, gateway to the once countercultural East Village.

At the same time, though, ‘Analogue’ is perhaps the most formal body of work that Leonard has completed: for all its individual images, it charts monotony purposefully, tracing out the recurrent patterns, colours and formulas frame by frame, to record the encroaching threat of sameness – which is a metaphor for loss. Her engagement with absence has spanned the duration of her career, but what began with the individual body, the body as a site of loss and mourning, became larger and larger, a meditation on the everyday losses, sustained locally, that cause deprivation and suffering elsewhere. In this way ‘Analogue’ evokes chaos theory, or at least the layperson’s understanding of it, where a butterfly flapping its wings causes a hurricane in another part of a world.

As mentioned earlier, one of the most stunning parts of the project is actually its accompanying essay, a brash mixture of quotes, observations, a Postmodern collage, a chorus of interpreters and soothsayers distilled down to a single Everyman’s voice that jumps between two distinct registers, personal manifesto and Cassandra-esque warning: ‘In my opinion, you cannot say you have thoroughly seen anything until you have a photograph of it [Emile Zola] … the thing I came for: the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth [Adrienne Rich].’6

Leonard’s position reaffirms what Edward Weston often stated in his Daybooks (1962): ‘This is an important negative.’ I am twisting the usage, of course, where the photographer becomes the visual instigator of a sustained critique for which there is not one important negative but many; a multitude of images that confront images that came before, and images that co-exist and in some ways compete. Does a hand-painted sign hold our attention longer than the photograph, or does the photograph change the way the sign is perceived? Leonard is an artist who regards image-making as a conversation with history.

1 David Wojnarowicz, ‘Fevers’ (1992)
2 Ann Temkin, ‘Strange Fruit’, Mortality/Immortality? The Legacy of 20th-Century Art, Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, 1999, p. 50
3 Holland Cotter, ‘Asking Serious Questions in a Very Quiet Voice’, The New York Times, 22 June 2007; Lynne Cooke, ‘Best of 2007’, Artforum, December 2007, p. 310
4 Svetlana Alpers, ‘Zoe Leonard – Analogue’, Zoe Leonard, exh. cat., ed. Urs Stahel, Fotomuseum, Winterthur, 2007, p. 221
5 Eleanor Heartney, ‘Documents of Dissent’, Art in America, March 2001, p. 110
6 Zoe Leonard, ‘A Continuous Signal: An Essay of Excerpts and Quotations’, Analogue, Columbus, OH and Cambridge, MA: Wexner Center for the Arts and The MIT Press, 2007, p. 169