“A Thousand Years” of Zoe Leonard

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Zoe Leonard has a gift for seeing similarities. In every gallery of her Survey at the Whitney, this capacity for sensing, finding, and producing similarities is ...

Zoe Leonard has a gift for seeing similarities. In every gallery of her Survey at the Whitney, this capacity for sensing, finding, and producing similarities is evident. It is apparent in the collections of similar objects like the row of blue suitcases, one for each year of her life (1961, 2002–ongoing), the stacks of postcards of Niagara Falls on a table (also titled Survey, like the exhibition), and the pile of copies of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (Tipping Point, 2016). We see here how collecting, as Walter Benjamin once suggested, “entails [not only] the liberation of things from the drudgery of being useful,” but their transfer into a “magic circle” where they can associate with other things that are like them.1

In another register, Leonard’s Analogue series, with its photographs of storefronts, bundles of clothing on the sidewalk, displays of shoes for sale, idiosyncratic store signs, and other forms of commercial culture, reminds us how analogy (like metaphor) involves thinking about how one thing is like another, instead of how they are either the same or different.2 Leonard’s work indicates that this affinity for likenesses is also a way to make a queer world, one where (as in her famous “I want a president” text, from 1992) a dyke, or a person with AIDS, or a black woman, or someone who has been deported, could be president.

 

Perhaps nowhere in the show is similarity more vividly on display than in You see I am here after all (2008), a work comprised of 3,883 postcards depicting different views of Niagara Falls arranged in rectangular clusters on the gallery wall. I was pretty sure that this work would be interesting, but I was a little surprised to find that the experience of seeing it was more aesthetically powerful than my visit to the actual Niagara Falls.

When I first walked into the gallery, I was overwhelmed by the sheer multiplicity of all those postcards together on the wall. Energized by the feeling of being with this multitude, I moved around the gallery to look at the work from different distances, as I saw others doing. Shifting between different scales, coming up close to examine single cards before moving back again, I saw how each section contained cards depicting the falls from a particular vantage point. The cards recognizably marked different historical moments in their styles and printing, and while some postcards were nearly identical, the chief effect is of various versions of the same view.3

Within these clusters depicting a single vantage point, I found myself fascinated by groups of between around 6 and 200 postcards, a scale at which one can perceive the group and its members almost at the same time. In the field of similarity that these groups of cards established, particularities stand out. One notices slight differences in design (some have simple borders or more unusual frames around the image; in others the photo goes right to the edge); the absence or presence of captions; whether or not there are people pictured; the occasional presence of the Canadian coat of arms (with its unicorn); and the rarer appearance of rainbows made from the spray from the falls.

“Survey” shows us how certain practices of becoming alike do not erase difference or specificity but can highlight it.

Examining the framing of the photograph and the quality of the light, the blue or cloudy sky, I thought of each photographer capturing this view at a particular moment in time. When postcards of the same design are together, indexical marks such as scratches, folds, writing, postmarks, and other signs of being handled become especially apparent. There are so many ways of being a postcard of Niagara Falls!

I found this experience of singularity and similarity to be thrilling in a way that recalled—while also distinguishing itself from—the sublime. In Immanuel Kant’s influential account, the sublime involves an initial feeling of being overwhelmed by an unimaginable magnitude (e.g., huge mountains, the Milky Way) or force (such as a sea storm) and a subsequent moment of representation and containment of that very unimaginability, from a safe distance. This is the feeling that one might have in relation to Niagara Falls but that I did not have, mainly because I was tired from sitting in the line of cars waiting to get across the border and distracted by the chopping sound of the helicopters above.

Leonard’s collection of postcards was more moving than that experience (if not quite sublime) not because it confronted me with the infinite majesty of nature, but because it gave me the feeling of being with a large finite number of beings. It reminded me of the feeling I get sometimes in New York when I see all those people walking down the street with their own intentions and urgencies: it sets my nerves humming with the sense of a world impossibly yet palpably filled with a miraculous plurality of singular beings. Here they are, here we are, sharing this common location with each other.4

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In giving me the feeling of a common experience shared with many, many others (one I missed at the actual falls), Leonard’s work made me more interested in Niagara Falls than I had been when I was there. It directed my interest precisely to the vast systems producing the experience as common, namely the tourist industry, the souvenir postcards that are its product, and the postal system through which those cards are sent.

We are reminded of the postcard’s function by the title of the work, You see I am here after all, which derives from a note written on one of the cards. We send postcards because we are missing someone. Perhaps we put the postcard on our fridge or a bulletin board next to our desk. Like On Kawara’s telegrams that say only “I am still alive,” they are reminders of mortality. And there is no friendship, as Derrida once put it, “without this knowledge of finitude.”5 Figuratively speaking, we are all carrying around inside us little postcards from our loved ones, souvenirs, traces, and images of them, so that we can remember them when they are gone and can recognize them when we see them again.

By collecting all these postcards, Leonard has assembled more “memories” than if she “had lived a thousand years.”6 In considering the time and labor involved in assembling this collection, one remembers that the “I” of the title is also Zoe Leonard, the collector, her collections themselves also a way of being-here, one that deals in the traces of lives offered at estate sales, in used book stores, and on eBay.

Zoe Leonard, Strange Fruit, 1992–97. Orange, banana, grapefruit, lemon, and avocado peels with thread, zippers, buttons, sinew, needles, plastic, wire, stickers, fabric, and trim wax. 297 parts, dimensions variable. Installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2018. Collection Philadelphia Museum of Art; purchased with funds contributed by the Dietrich Foundation and with the partial gift of the artist and the Paula Cooper Gallery. © Zoe Leonard. Photograph by Ron Amstutz

Zoe Leonard, Strange Fruit (detail), 1992–97. Orange, banana, grapefruit, lemon, and avocado peels with thread, zippers, buttons, sinew, needles, plastic, wire, stickers, fabric, and trim wax. 297 parts, dimensions variable. © Zoe Leonard. Courtesy the artist and the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Like the postcard souvenirs, Strange Fruit also represents a collectivity of the dead. The title is borrowed from Billie Holiday’s famous protest song (“Southern trees bear a strange fruit …”) and makes the explicit connection between lynching as a tool of white supremacy and AIDS deaths as a function of the state’s homophobic, murderous indifference to the lives of queer people, including Leonard’s friend David Wojnarowicz, whom the work memorializes. The work collects the desiccated skins of oranges, lemons, grapefruits, and bananas. Now empty, only obscurely resembling the fruit they once covered, they have been roughly repaired with thread, buttons, or zippers. Overtly suggesting corpses strewn about the floor as if on a battlefield, they are what curator Bennett Simpson (in his catalog essay) called “an abstracted analogue of the physical and social death so chillingly lamented” in Holiday’s song.7

The bare fruit skins also recall the image of the friend we are left with after he or she has died. If we have already incorporated an image of the friend who is absent so as to remember them while the friend is still alive, then that internalized image remains after death. But then, there will be no more postcards in the mail, or conversations over coffee, no more kisses, no more arguments, no more need or opportunity for revisions or renewals of that image. The friend is only in us now. In grief, the fact that this internal image is a meager souvenir, just a likeness, and a poor one at that, can be painfully apparent.

Mourning need not be opposed to collectivity or solidarity.

In collecting so many empty likenesses, Strange Fruit registers a crisis in mourning, where there are so many dead to grieve (as if one had lived a thousand years), that one can no longer manage to hold onto the incorporated images, leaving one to fold back on oneself in a terrible solitude. If, in looking at this collectivity of the dead, we find ourselves tempted to join them—there are, after all, so many friends there—Leonard’s work may also remind us there is nothing to join, just something hollow and dry.

In the context of the show as a whole, however, and given its recurrent emphasis on imitation and similarity, I found myself thinking that the mimetic impulse that Sigmund Freud identified as a common response to the death of another person also makes us similar to friends still alive, also mourning. We are all miming what we have lost. Mourning need not be opposed to collectivity or solidarity. “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” as the African American spiritual (or sorrow song) has it, nobody, that is, except the other people singing the song with me in this basically collective form. For a time, the need to find a way to have and to share grief brought together the members of ACT UP, even if it also made it difficult to stay together, as Douglas Crimp explained in his famous essay “Mourning and Militancy.”8

I take one of the important lessons of Leonard’s show to be that it is possible to become similar to others (in ways sometimes painful and other times joyous). One can create points of similarity: by going to the same protest and getting arrested together for civil disobedience, by taking the same drugs to go out dancing all night, by going to Niagara Falls, by caring for a sick friend, or by mourning a dead one. Just as important, and somewhat counterintuitively, Survey shows us how these practices of becoming alike do not erase difference or specificity but can highlight it.

Zoe Leonard, “I want a president …” (1992)

These days, it seems that nothing could be further from such “like feelings” (as Walt Whitman once put it9), this impulse to be with and feel somehow similar to others, than the practices and policies of my government. Instead of “speaking for” me and other citizens, my representatives in the government seem at best indifferent and at worse actually murderous.

Such a fundamental political alienation is the topic of Leonard’s text “I want a president,” typewritten on an 8 1/2 x 14 piece of paper on the occasion of poet and activist Eileen Myles’s run for president in 1992. It is one of Leonard’s most well-known works, having received a burst of attention during the 2016 election season, when it was placed billboard-size on the High Line in New York City. The intense feelings of estrangement from electoral politics in the US that it performs and the reparative actions it proposes remain strikingly relevant to our present political situation.

Leonard’s text is a list. In bringing distinct things together, the list, like the collection, invites us to think analogically. “I want a dyke for president. I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukemia.” This is a list of people who are not only disqualified in advance from being viable political candidates, but who are not even represented by the government unless it is in order to stigmatize, police, or injure them.

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In calling for the president to be drawn from the ranks of the unrepresented, Leonard questions the logic of political representation at work in electoral politics. In her vision, it is only those who have been excluded from the people in whose name the president governs who should represent the people. She names a “we” of those who have been excluded, imagining a “federation of the shamed, the alienated, the destitute, the illegitimate, and the hated,” a phrase Heather Love uses to describes the dream of queer studies at its most expansive.10

Indeed, in its open “wanting” of a dyke and a fag, in its focus on the multiple ways the government fails to protect the health of its citizens, in its promiscuous effort to connect different forms of stigma and oppression, Leonard’s text conjures the queer world of 1992 as I remember it. I was a graduate student studying what would soon be (but was not yet) called queer theory with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Michael Moon in Durham, North Carolina, where we had also started a local chapter of ACT UP.

Leonard’s expansive, antinormative challenge to politics as usual seemed to me and my friends to be the very paradigm of the queer way of thinking and feeling we were trying to imagine and practice.11 It was a moment of active cross-identification (one, as Sedgwick noted of the 1992 gay pride parade, when gay men were wearing T-shirts that said “Dyke” or “Keep Your Laws Off My Uterus” and women sported shirts with “Faggot” and “Big Fag” on them12). These assertions of similarity sought not to negate specific identities, so much as connect them in open, even joyous, expressions of solidarity.

Political solidarity does not require sameness; it can be built on “similar positions.”

In this spirit, Leonard’s list holds onto specific identities—dyke, fag, black woman—and references particular experiences, such as civil disobedience, sexual harassment, deportation, jail, rape, cross-burnings. In bringing these particularities together into this list of presidents she wants, a list whose logic suggests a common experience of stigma and exclusion, Leonard invites us to imagine a politics where, as Cathy Cohen put it, “one’s relation to power, and not some homogenized identity, is privileged in determining one’s political comrades.”13

This approach would politicize specific identities and experiences by connecting them to other, similar ones. As a concrete example, Cohen describes ACT UP’s needle share program and prison projects: “No particular identity exclusively determined the shared political commitments of these activists; instead their similar positions, as marginalized subjects relative to the state—made clear through the government’s lack of response to AIDS—formed the basis of this political unity” (emphasis mine). Political solidarity does not require sameness; it can be built on “similar positions.” This is a politics that requires a capacity to perceive similarities across differences without erasing them.

Such a capacity is on display throughout Survey. Do not forget, Leonard’s show says to us, that the pleasures of resemblance attract us to the city, and they are at work in consumer culture and mass tourism. Our ability to perceive and produce likenesses is a way to appreciate (not ignore) singularity; it is essential to the ways we make friends, and mourn them. Thus, Leonard reminds us that the skills we need to practice such a politics are already in powerful use in everyday life, even if we too often forget or ignore them, distracted as we may be by the logics of equivalence, identity, and difference that dominate our economic and political institutions.

Zoe Leonard, Tree + Fence, Out My Back Window (1998). Gelatin Silver print. 18 ½ x 13 1/8 in. © Zoe Leonard. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne

Zoe Leonard, Detail (Tree + Fence) (1998/1999). Gelatin silver print. 11 3/4 x 8 3/8 in. © Zoe Leonard. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne

In the same gallery as the “I want a president” text, there are several portraits of trees that have grown into, around, or through fences that were blocking their growth. Because they do not fit into the space where they have been planted they must make space. In so doing, they have been variously and singularly deformed by their efforts, which have bent or broken the fences. They did not choose where they were planted and took root. They are each misfits. Collected together into the space of the gallery by way of Leonard’s photographs, they are “misfitting together.”14

 

This article was commissioned by Heather Love. icon

  1. Walter Benjamin, “The Collector,” in The Arcades Project, translated from the German by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 211.
  2. “An analogy brings two or more things together on the basis of their lesser or greater resemblance,” Kaja Silverman writes. Flesh of My Flesh (Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 173.
  3. No one of these views gives a complete picture of Niagara Falls as a whole. They are all similar in their partiality. Postcards with that overall view are used in a separate work, Untitled, 2012, examples of which are reproduced in the catalogue for the show, Zoe Leonard: Survey, organized by Bennett Simpson, with Rebecca Matalon (The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2018), pp. 300–301. I also learned a lot from Ann Reynolds’s excellent “Curving into a Straight Line,” So you see I am here after all: Zoe Leonard (Dia Art Foundation and Yale University Press, 2010), pp. 154–174.
  4. In this, the experience is a version of what Sianne Ngai has called the “stuplime,” a confrontation with a large finite number that references the vast systems organizing everyday life. See Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2005), pp. 248–297.
  5. Jacques Derrida, Memoires for Paul de Man (Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 29.
  6. I am thinking of Baudelaire’s “Spleen (II)” poem here: “J’ai plus de souvenirs que si j’avais mille ans” (“More memories than if I’d lived a thousand years,” in the rendering of James McGowan). The Flowers of Evil (Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 146–147.
  7. Bennett Simpson, “Zoe Leonard: The Interior Outside,” in Zoe Leonard: Survey, p. 48.
  8. Crimp argued that for ACT-UP’s militancy to be sustainable, it had to be able to recognize a range of feelings: not only “our rage,” but also “our terror, our guilt and our profound sadness.” The essay concludes: “Militancy, of course, then, but mourning too: mourning and militancy.” October, vol. 51 (Winter 1989). See also Deborah Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS (University of Chicago Press, 2009).
  9. “Live Oak with Moss” (1860), in The Portable Walt Whitman, edited by Michael Warner (Penguin Classics, 2004), p. 208.
  10. Heather Love, “Queers ____ This,” in After Sex? On Writing since Queer Theory, edited by Janet Halley and Andrew Parker (Duke University Press, 2011), p. 183.
  11. The queer feeling of this moment was well described in “Foreword: T Times” and “Queer and Now,” both in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Tendencies (Duke University Press, 1993). See also Michael Warner’s “Queer and Then?,” a consideration of where queer theory was and where it had been on the occasion of the ending of Duke University Press’s Series Q, which had been cofounded by Sedgwick. Warner notes the work’s “movement across overlapping but widely disparate structures of violence and power in order to conjure a series of margins that have no identity core” and its “oddly melancholy utopianism.” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 1, 2012.
  12. Sedgwick, “Foreword: T Times,” p. xi.
  13. Cathy Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” GLQ, vol. 3, no. 4 (1997), p. 438.
  14. I am borrowing from Andy Warhol here: “I was reflecting that most people thought the Factory was a place where everybody had the same attitudes about everything; the truth was, we were all odds-and-ends misfits, somehow misfitting together” (Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), p. 219. See Douglas Crimp’s brilliant reading of the double-screen Chelsea Girls as an allegory and instantiation of what this might mean: “Misfitting Together,” in “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol (MIT Press, 2012), pp. 96–109.
Featured image: Zoe Leonard, Survey (2009–2012). Postcards and table. 6,273 parts, 60 x 80 x approximately 39 in. Installation view, Camden Arts Centre, London, 2012. Photograph by Andy Keate. © Zoe Leonard. Photograph courtesy Camden Arts Center, London