My first encounter with Zoe Leonard’s work was, paradoxically, with her writing. I say paradoxically because Leonard is mostly known for her photographs and not for her writings. However, I met her work reading her 1992 piece, published for the first time in LTTR No. 5, 2006, “I want a president…”, a passionate, thoughtful and direct claim for civil disobedience and political responsibility. A commitment to humans and cities and our right over our political existence.
When I arrived to Murray Guy I could not stop my reserves towards gallery spaces. Thinking about institutional frameworks and display methodologies, I find commercial gallery spaces a hard surface on which to work or perceive, saturated with connotations that, for me, perform an intense de-activation on the criticality and density of the exhibited work. A white-black hole that sucks in all but the aesthetic epidermis in its alleged neutrality. Nevertheless Leonard turns on the space proposing a dark counterpart that reverberates with this white echo, the camera obscura.
Reading the booklet done for the exhibition it seems that for Leonard, to create a camera obscura was some sort of imperative, a variable that needed to be explored in her use of photography. This gesture moves towards the analog photographic apparatus; the way in which it reproduces visual perception and its use as a metaphor for subjectivity. But it’s also a part of a learning process that goes from the use of the camera to the implications that its use entails, from capturing fragments to the recreation of the mechanical space where this capture takes place. And that is part of the content that Leonard proposes in her camera obscura, to walk into the camera, to walk into ones organ of perception and observe vision itself. A camera obscura is not an innovation but, as Elizabeth Lebovici points out, an anachronism, a gesture that is not used exclusively for its own technological sake but as a means for interpretations. Those interpretations that Leonard slips or perhaps forces inside the gallery space are the ones where I find the link with her writing; motivations and stories that precede and exceed the frame, that can only be partially apprehended by our vision since they demand narration, storytelling and the time that goes with it.
For the camera obscura is also a device that takes time. In a city of speedy rhythm, Leonard’s installation requires time, your time. It requires from the gallery goer to sit down and wait until her or his eyes get used to the darkness, until they start to see. It demands a temporality from a subject that tends to pan and pass. In order to view, to perceive the proposition, one has to take the decision to come in, to sit down and refurbish their patience. And as the lines start to materialize over floors and walls, a hierarchy of the urban space gradually happens before one’s eyes; a hierarchy in which the skyscrapers and the hard lines of apartment buildings against the sky set the spatial coordinates where the small moving blurs of pedestrian and cars find their place. The space that is projected into the gallery walls, that breaks in through a pinhole, is different every time and in every city. Every time this device has been put in motion it transplants a different landscape onto the often hermetic space of the art gallery, it brings in a collection of particular complexities and urban histories that tends to remain outside the threshold or inside the picture’s frame. New York has been and still is a preeminent element in Leonard’s work, perhaps now, as a breathing creature, more than ever.
Clara T. López is a curator and writer based in Berlin and New York. She is a master’s candidate at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.
Images via Murray Guy
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