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Zoe Leonard at Murray Guy

Mazen Atlantic
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Walking up the steep stairs that lead up to the new expanded Murry Guy’s gallery space in Chelsea, one becomes immersed in a brightly lit, glaring white room. The blinding feeling is emphasized by the prints hanging on the walls, featuring black and white photographs taken by focusing the camera directly at the sun. At first, despite the discrete elegance of the gelatin prints, the work appears overburdened by the naiveté of the gesture. Yet, like in much of Leonard’s work, the series’ meaning is constructed through association with the rest of the project rather than as a result of viewing separate objects.

To get to that deeper understanding, one must follow a narrow corridor that leads to the next room, in which darkness suddenly takes the place of light. Here, the viewer finds himself captured within an oversized camera obscura that projects the ever-changing streetscape of West 17th Street. The images come into view from a lens the size of a hand inserted within a wall and – just like in a camera obscura – the representations are inverted; taxis, bikers and gallery hoppers passing along the street appear upside down, while the surrounding buildings intersect creating new urban geometries across the gallery space.

Instead of simply looking, Leonard asks the viewers to immerse themselves in the moment and experience it. As the artist explains in the booklet edited for the show by Elisabeth Lebovici, “you can walk around, sit down, lie on the floor: the image falls on all the surface of the room, so you are surrounded by the image.” It is a spatial experience that potentially inscribes the show in a recent trend within contemporary art that relies on the observer more strongly than on the exhibit (think of Tino Seghal at the Tate Modern, Anthony McCall’s show at the Hamburger Bahnhof or Hayward Gallery’s “Art about the Unseen”, just to name a few examples).

The word contemplation crops up very often (and as a matter of fact, Lebovici’s main essay on the show is titled “The Politics of Contemplation”). But the pivotal point actually occurs when the viewer breaks the moment of meditation and leaves the darkness to go back to the first room, suddenly appearing even brighter, almost annoyingly so, and above all the more crucial for the entire show. Like in a pocket-sized Copernican revolution, it’s the pictured sun rather than the portion of earth captured by the camera obscura that becomes the center of the solar system of the viewer’s perception.

In this heliocentric twist, Leonard also does something very critical; she turns the sun – scientifically our primary source of life – into a ghost of pain, torture, even death, as echoed by the references to Goethe’s last words and of the tragic end of Regulus featured in the press release. The action of coming out of the darkness to reach the light, commonly perceived as a prelude to salvation, is turned into an allegory of grief. Perhaps Leonard has given us a metaphor for the implications of coming out, often investigated by the artist as part of her feminist and LGBT rights activism. Or, more subtlety, the work might stand as a critique of the gallery itself and of a system that prescribes the way we look at art, forcing our eyes to quickly adapt to a constant flux of stimuli.

What is certain is that this contrast shifts the focus away from the camera obscura and leaves the viewer with broader questions than the age-old inquiry “what is photography?” – the gallery’s insistent and almost pointless proposal in the reading of the show.

From: Mazen Atlantic, February 2013