Zoe Leonard, "Derrotero"
Photos and old maps chart a conceptual voyage.
Wed Nov 19 2008
Photograph: ©the artist, courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
From 1987 to 2004, the Dia Art Foundation distinguished itself with a series of ambitious single-artist projects mounted in a now defunct space on West 22nd Street. Anti-blockbusters, these focused and long-running shows fostered a new and wide-ranging understanding of many well-known careers. Among the standouts were exhibitions of Gerhard Richter’s photo archive—the source material for much of his work—and a site-specific installation by Robert Gober in which he ramped up the thematic complexity of his sculptures. Zoe Leonard’s “Derrotero,” the second collaboration between Dia and the Hispanic Society of America, follows in the same vein.
At the show’s core is “Analogue,” a series of approximately 400 photographs Leonard shot between 1998 and 2007 and originally planned as a way of documenting the gentrification of the Lower East Side, where she maintained a studio for over 20 years. While exploring the neighborhood, she became intrigued with clothing resellers who purchased garments from thrift stores, sorted them by type and quality, and then packed them in large bales for export to Asia and Africa. In 2004, she traveled to Uganda to see how these items were distributed to their end users. Leonard also visited markets in Poland and Cuba, constructing a meandering travelogue that links images of mom-and-pop shops in New York with shots of jackets, pants and Nike T-shirts in African market stalls. A visual diary illustrating the flows of international commerce, the images also explore how objects are reassessed and reused in different contexts, raising questions of relative worth and the affluence and poverty that influence it.
Reflecting Leonard’s artistic sensitivity, “Analogue” doesn’t include images of people, an absence which prevents the photographs from becoming anecdotal. Instead, displays of secondhand shoes and shirts eloquently stand in for “the human.” Our old clothes go on to have new, independent identities in ways we cannot, yet those identities are defined by common experiences: The difference between being shod or barefoot; the act of slipping one’s arm into a sleeve; and the sensations of sight and touch, want and need which underlie both experiences.
Smaller versions of “Analogue” were exhibited in 2007 at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, and at Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany. At the Hispanic Society, Leonard complements this work with a group of derroteros (printed guides used by sailors to navigate coastal waters) and portolans (large parchment maps that were generally intended as presentation pieces for wealthy aristocrats, but were also used as functional navigational charts), which she selected from the museum’s extensive library. Dating primarily from the Age of Exploration, the derroteros indicate how information was once codified and standardized for use. Shorelines, for example, were both described in detailed texts and drawn as elevations to indicate the sounding or depths of the water, along with the location of sandbars and shoals. The portolans, enhanced with images of kings and sea monsters, aestheticize this information into items for luxury consumption.
Together, these objects indicate not only how visual information was shaped, but also how that shaping became the way the foreign was understood. For the Europeans who consumed them, these documents were the New World. Yet today, these once-vital tools are valued as artifacts, their content long outmoded. Such shifts in function and understanding underscore how relative, subjective and transient information and its value are.
Photography is, of course, today’s way of recording the world, and in naming her exhibition, Leonard suggests that hers is a travelogue as subjective as a derrotero or portolan. Indeed, she constantly reminds her viewers that her photographs result from personal artistic choices. She leaves a black line around each image as evidence of the enlarger, and uses both color and black-and-white film.
Leonard installed “Analogue” in thematically organized grids—grouping together images of closed shops or of televisions, for instance—much the way items are displayed in the markets she photographed. The grids give the installation an abstract visual rhythm but make the work seem slightly didactic, like the outline of a lecture. Moreover, the historical documents are exhibited in separate galleries, so the different parts of the show read as discrete entities, weakening the connections Leonard establishes between past and present.
Still, it’s the presence of her own images that carries the show. By displaying the derroteros and portolans as beautiful objects expressive of human curiosity and creativity, she underscores photography’s role as an art form, inexact and subjective. These qualities transform a mechanical process into a means of communicating complex and deeply human meaning, distinguishing Leonard’s from the glut of work devoted to the medium’s deconstruction.