New York

Zoe Leonard

In a recent interview about her AIDS activism in Texte zur Kunst, Zoe Leonard was asked whether she really thought it was possible, given the contradictions of capitalism, to bring about change in society. “I don’t know,” she replied, “if we can change ‘the immanent antagonistic character’ of society. Am I cynical? Yes. Am I simultaneously hopeful? Yes.” This ambivalence about the effectiveness of activism provides a conceptual framework for her most recent work.

In most of these black and white photographs, Leonard strives for critical effect, often in the form of an institutional critique à la Foucault, as in Mirror #1—Metropolitan Museum, 1990, a photograph of an ornately framed mirror hanging in the Met. Reflecting nothing, the mirror itself becomes the object of the viewer’s gaze. Through such simple means Leonard attempts to make us conscious of the act of viewing within the institutional framework of the museum, a point she presses in other works, such as Untitled, 1990-92. In this photograph, part of a series of images of the taxidermic displays in a Venetian museum, an animal holds a rodent in its sharp fangs. Presumably, Leonard intends to comment on the way museums commodify even death and our most animal, instinctual drives.

This critical strategy is given a feminist edge in Leonard’s several pictures of female anatomical models. Wax Anatomical Model with Pearls, 1990, a female figure lying in a display case, its chest cut away to reveal its inner organs, is more victimized than scientific. This mutilation is heightened by contrasting details that have little to do with the workings of the model’s cardiovascular system: a blond hairdo, a tuft of pubic hair, and a pearl necklace (the meaning of “pearl necklace” in porn lingo further suggests how the figure is at once objectified and sexualized).

However, if the intent of these photographs really is consciousness raising, then isn’t Leonard merely preaching to the converted? This sort of institutional and feminist critique has become so familiar that you have to wonder just how many consciousnesses haven’t already been raised. Even Spy, at the time of Leonard’s show, featured an article about the grotesque exhibits at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. Leonard’s photos of the head of a bearded woman, preserved in the Musée Orfila in France, would have fit right in amongst the article’s illustrations. It is no state secret that we flock to the grotesque; Leonard’s photographs may be no more critically successful than Spy’s satire. When Leonard presents five different shots of the bearded woman, each of which comes in an edition of five, it is hard to tell whether she wants to satisfy the market-driven art world’s desire for the commodifiable object or to jam it altogether. Is this subversion by infiltration? Site-specific deconstruction? It looks more like self-delusion. The work sends out confusingly mixed signals—as if to say, Since you and I agree that what they do to “freaks” is appalling, then why don’t you buy me; I’ll ease your guilt-ridden-liberal conscience and surreptitiously sate your lust for disgust at the same time. In recent years, Leonard has been exemplary in her commitment to activism; in this show, however, it seems she fails her own philosophy as she hawks critical intervention like any other capitalist product.

Keith Seward