Zoe Leonard: “In the Wake” at Hauser and Wirth
By Lev Feigin
A bone-white gallery room at Hauser and Wirth. An old, black-and-white snapshot of a young woman against the map of Europe. A stack of identical vintage books titled “This is photography” in the middle of the floor.
This is how Zoe Leonard’s three-floor show “In the Wake” begins. There are no labels next to the prints. No explanations – unless you’ve read the gallery’s press release. Leonard challenges us to grapple with multiple, complex meanings behind the quiet allure of her show, to decipher why we are so viscerally impacted by her work.
On view are Leonard’s photographs of old family snapshots – double exposures of her immigrant mother and grandmother: Polish refugees who had escaped Warsaw after the war and lived in Displaced Persons camps for more than a decade until they came to New York City in the 50s.
The images possess extraordinary weight. They show her mother and grandmother in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, as the two appear across the streets and landscapes of Europe – Leonard’s mother a young girl with ponytails holding her mother’s hand. The pair sits by the shores of Montenegro’s Black Lake, rowboats on the Mediterranean, crosses the equator on a steamship, and takes pictures on the Staten Island ferry. The images speak of private family moments but through Leonard’s doubling transform into deeper reflections on statelessness and displacement, on time’s transience, on the meta-level signification of a photograph becoming the subject of photography.
Like nostalgia itself, Leonard’s show is about the repetition of the unrepeatable: moments purloined from photographic memory, from the tyranny of the lens that speaks of the dead in the present tense.
“When a man dies, his portraits change,” writes Anna Akhmatova in one of her poems. But what happens when such portraits are re-photographed, when the portraits are products of double shutter releases, each half a century apart from the other?
Leonard incessantly draws our attention to the materiality of the snapshots. They cast shadows; some have curled edges, others are ripped, a few are deliberately rendered illegible through gleams reflecting off their surface. The same snapshots are often reproduced twice – as if eliciting the help of mechanical and digital reproduction in the struggle against the irreversibility of time, against the permanent temporal gulf that we feel between the two women and us, between the ur-moment in the source pictures and our “now,” the present to which photography presents itself.
Disrupting the standard relationships between the image, the artist and the viewer, Leonard articulates a new language of re-photography where meaning fragments and multiplies like an image between two mirrors. It is exhilarating to follow her project – which constantly ups the ante on itself – from picture to picture, forcing us to keep up, to not just look, but re-look and re-think each one.