Let’s assume to start off with that it is we, as viewers, who are doing the observing in Zoe Leonard’s exhibition called Observation Point. Let us imagine that we are here to watch.
A group of very pale, indistinct black-and-white photographs occupy one large room. It is white and bright. In each of the photographs there is a disc of light: a small sun. They are cloudy photographs without being of clouds. The effect is more like the cloudiness in an old person’s eye — a film over the eye that casts not a shadow but a blur. There is a brightness still there, but it is weakened.
The series of photographs was taken directly into the sun and in each the title simply records the precise day and month and year when it was taken, as if it is an entry in a log of some kind. It is hard to imagine a more imprecise image or one more compromised by our own incapacity to see it.
So what are we watching? In each the sun is in a slightly different part of the picture and more or less visible, usually less. Across the series, perhaps a path of the sun’s movements is tracked, almost like an astronomical diagram, but one which is serial and blurry. If this is all the light available, it is pallid and bleached. It dwindles rather than dazzles.
Of course taking a photograph directly into the sun is the first rule of how not to take a photograph. Flouting the rule blinds you — and makes photographs that are also blind in the sense that they render their subject almost, but not quite, invisible. It makes them images of disturbances in vision. Too much light obscures as much as too little.
Photography is an optical medium. Made out of light, these are photographs of the medium of light itself. They seem to capture the coming-into-being of an image. As if the circle of pale light is just emerging out of nothing — an image of its own origin story. In the dark room, after all, the image slowly emerges out of liquid in the developing process.
What we are watching is the way the image makes itself. The small framing edge of black only makes the evanescence of the image that it contains even more insistent. Each photograph is different, the area of brightness larger or smaller, the accidents of the process subtle but various. But it is the thinnest of frames that allows us to see not black and white but grey light. Otherwise ‘grey light’ does not exist.
It is hard to think of an image more fleeting and immaterial than the images of the sun called Available Light. These are meta-images that reflect on the conditions of photography, just as she had done in the vast archive of photographs that she titled Analogue, picturing shop fronts in New York and elsewhere which were going out of business and closing up. Obsolescence is another kind of disappearing act.
The sun images reflect on the processes by which analogue photographs are shot and developed. Nowadays they can seem as handmade as an Agnes Martin painting or an Eva Hesse sculpture. That is, they can be seen in the context of painting and sculpture that also have light — first and foremost — as their medium. However washed away the image, the photographs are still palpably a granular surface or ground.
Reminding us even more insistently that photographs are things as well as images that permeate our lives, Zoe Leonard has made a large table stacked with postcards in piles according to their vantage point and placed in relation to other piles, with other vantage points. Piles and piles of postcards, as if they are waiting to be catalogued perhaps. Zoe Leonard has said the table becomes ‘almost a topography’. They are old photographs, that look sometimes badly printed so the colour is beautifully out of sync, almost as if they are hand coloured.
All the postcards are of Niagara Falls, of water falling, millions of tons of water cascading down, reduced to miniature picture postcards. Postcards are like souvenirs, a little piece of something, in this case an extraordinary natural wonder and tourist site. It has been looked at millions of times. It’s even a cliché — where too much looking, over too much time, has eroded it into a cultural, rather than a natural, site now.
As if to focus our attention on that touristic point of view, two identical postcards of an observation point onto a canyon in North Dakota have been placed at eye-height on the wall. Each structure contains two openings or apertures, like two pairs of stone-built binoculars: and you look straight at the wall. Throughout Zoe Leonard’s work, these contradictions of our looking are laid out as if an array of cultural artefacts.
The whole gallery becomes a vast optical apparatus — a medium in itself — in which different models of vision coexist. We are nothing if not acrobats in our remarkably elastic ability to switch modes and deal with a multitude of different ways of looking. Part of what we are allowed to observe is our own patterns of observation. Looking becomes something to look at, something to watch.
In stark contrast to everything else, there is a room where we are plunged into the dark. Instead of being washed out by light, this is the thick black of a camera obscura. But gradually, things emerge from the first feint and inchoate patterns of light. And as your eyes adjust to the all-enveloping dark, you find yourself not just surrounded but immersed in the image of outside.
If the photographs of suns ‘over-exposed’ us to their bleached light, this experience of camera obscura reverses the process. It is the thickness of the dark that is almost palpable as you enter the room and out of it emerges an image which is not hallucinatory yet seems to have no ground whatever. On the walls and floor and ceiling the image in 360 degrees surrounds you.
A camera obscura is an optical apparatus for making images which has been in use since ancient times. It consists of a simple lens opening onto the outside in an otherwise lightless room allowing an image to gradually flood in as it becomes available to perception. Normally it would be projected onto a horizontal screen so that the image concentrates and accommodates loosely to a circular shape of a ‘picture’.
What Zoe Leonard has made is not a conventional camera obscura in this sense because there is no screen to keep the image tight and contain it pictorially. Instead through a simple lens the image is spread over almost all surfaces. The gallery has become a vast camera.
Because of the way rays of light pass through the lens, the image appears upside down. So the image of sky falls on the floor and the houses and skyline of the Finchley Road appear on the wall and ceiling. We do not look at the image: we are inside it, but it is made strange in the process of apperception.
Although we experience it in real time, able to hear the traffic as we see a car pass on the walls, it sometimes feels as if there is a very slight delay. There is something dream-like in the complicated space that is produced — warping slightly our normal perception.
Of course, as an archaic camera, it invokes the ‘dark room’ where photographic images emerge from the dark in the developing process. But it has other connotations too. We should not forget that camera obscuras are usually tourist sites today which offer panoramic views of cities — just like Niagara, made in culture rather than nature.
Even more striking, at the level of affect, it is as if you are standing inside an eye, an eye in the very act of making the retinal image which the brain will ‘correct’. If camera obscuras were traditionally deployed by artists in the past to demonstrate perspectival vision, this one distorts the image so that it becomes almost anamorphic in parts.
Rather than demonstrate and clarify the processes of perception, this work seems to explore its mysteries. And it does so by allowing the work to be absolutely porous to the outside world. Clouds move, traffic roars. On a dull day, there is less to see; on a bright day the image that engulfs you becomes intensely hallucinatory and vivid. The image is entirely sensitive to everything that is outside and most of all
it is sensitive to time.
What are we watching now? We are watching time pass. It is like a visual clock, but one which doesn’t measure time so much as calibrate it differently — in accordance with a vivid bodily experience of moving inside the image. But also the uncanny feeling that time is lagging very slightly, moving beyond actual perceptual adjustments to a more oneiric space.
The light rooms and dark rooms that Zoe Leonard makes lay bare complex processes of perception and perceptual adjustment. But they also give way to stranger phantasmatic spaces. And strangest of all are the uncanny movements of time as well as space that she presents us with — whether it is the movements of the sun or a tree swaying over the traffic on a main road.
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‘I can focus my attention wherever I wish. It helps me to blur the distinction between art and life and produces a kind of silence in the work itself. There is nothing in it that requires me to look in one place or another or, in fact, requires me to look at all. I can look through it to the world beyond.’ John Cage
Zoe Leonard (b. 1961, USA) is a New York based artist working with photography, sculpture, and installation. A retrospective of her work originating at the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland (2007) subsequently travelled to Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (2008); the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich (2008); and Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna (2009). Other solo exhibitions include ‘You see I am here after all’, Dia:Beacon, New York (2008); ‘Derrotero’, Dia at the Hispanic Society, New York (2008); ‘Analogue’, Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio and Villa Arson, Nice, France (both 2007); Vienna Secession (1997); and Kunsthalle Basel (1997). Leonard participated in the Whitney Biennial in 1993 and again in 1997 as well as Documenta 9 (1992) and Documenta 12 (2007). Recent publications include You see I am here after all (2010 Dia); Analogue (2007 MIT press); Zoe Leonard: Photographs (2008 Steidl). Zoe Leonard is represented by Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne and Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milan.
Briony Fer is Professor of History of Art at University College London.