Zoe Leonard

A tree barren of leaves, ten fairly small photographs, generic motifs, a lot of empty space, and a door opening onto the outside through which the sound of birds and traffic could be heard. What Zoe Leonard disseminated in her recent show consisted largely of “atmosphere.”

Many here, some in the local media, expressed disappointment with Leonard’s exhibition, because it did not fulfill what some expect from “political” artists. Why, then, did the show strike me as important? For exactly the same reason: it did not fulfill expectations, and thus offered an opportunity for reflection. There is a tendency to ascribe rigid roles to artists who have drawn clear positions in their work (in Leonard’s case, this would include her involvement with ACT UP and Fierce Pussy, but also her installation at the 1992. Documenta). One should perhaps consider that those who take particular pleasure in accusing Leonard of a “retreat from the political,” or even “treason” against her own activist past, are those who otherwise maintain a cynical distance from politicized art practices.

No one is completely free of such prejudices, and no doubt I would have dismissed the tree (Tree, 1997)—the exhibition’s centerpiece—as a central metaphor, had I not known that it was Leonard’s. This ten-meter-high oak tree was first cut up in hand-size pieces, and then reassembled as well as possible in the exhibition space. Despite all the screws and splints holding it together, it looked somehow strong and completely intact. Was this a metaphor for what is artificial in our understanding of nature, or for life itself—for psychic wounds, and the attempt to heal them? Or for the dangers of pursuing strength and beauty? There may be other possibilities, but to choose one would be to settle for banality. If one regarded the constructed tree more materially, one saw that the tree was the result of a particular process, one involving the composition of fragments into a far-from-seamless whole that corresponded to the way in which the entire exhibition was laid out. The white walls, the empty space between the images, and the sounds coming from outside played a structuring role similar to that of the screws and splints in the tree. Like punctuation marks, they separated parts of a sentence, sentences and paragraphs within a text. What was this text about? Certainly, individual photographs dealt with love, the everyday, despair, desire, and much else. But the entire “text” dealt with the development of a language more resistant to convention than words or photography.

There were also hints of a statement that was entirely poetic, while harboring a critique of representation. Anonymous messages like “Blow Me,” or “I Love You,” scratched into the rocks beside a road, or into a wall somewhere, suggest situations that may remain inexpressible outside of convention. I can, as I write these lines, observe a bug crawling across my desk, but can I describe this event without producing kitsch? Leonard’s image of a bird’s nest, Nest, 1994–97, suffers from a similar problem. Or Flasher, 1997: one can look to a house across the way and see a naked man at the window, but what does it mean to capture this photographically? It seems that with this image Leonard is not attempting to deproblematize the photographic gaze. Instead, the images’ old-fashioned aesthetic and heightened materiality suggest found images, and thus point to the always-already-seen with which each new glance is infected.

In contrast to Leonard’s photographs of fashion shows and her anatomical-display pieces—which conceptualized the gaze quite clearly in terms of power and desire—the works shown here were difficult to decipher. They were certainly also more “personal,” which was especially evident in the conversation between Leonard and Anna Blume that appeared in the catalogue. In this conversation the artists emphasize the difficulty of transforming individual experience into risky new artistic formulations that neither romanticize nor repress the personal.

Christian Kravagna

Translated from the German by Diana Reese.