Zoe Leonard: Observation Point / Reviewed by Camilla Brown / 30.05.12
Zoe Leonard has placed her first solo exhibition in London intelligently at the Camden Arts Centre. The show comprises three site specific installations. Leonard demonstrates here a resolute commitment to analogue processes, which is rooted in her clear belief that photography is still very much at the heart of contemporary art.
In Gallery 3 of this exhibition Leonard has constructed a Camera Obscura looking out onto the Arkwright Road. This speaks across time to the very earliest form of projecting an image before it was even possible to chemically fix and print it. There is no romantic nostalgia in her approach, but instead a sense of the contemporary relevance and resonance of this older process. Beautifully realised, the image spreads across the wall, inserting itself onto the internal fabric of the building. The inversion of the image creates an uncanny effect, and the colours of traffic lights and blinking indicators make the simple everyday scene intriguing and beguiling.
In Gallery 1 ten gelatin silver prints are simply pinned onto the wall. The photographs are taken into the sun, breaking with traditional convention and logic of how to take a photograph. The bleached out spheres have a strange blurriness to them; these glowing orbs are neither subject nor object but hover in between. This work seems an experiment in part to test out the limits of what it is possible to photograph. The gallery space itself is transformed with only natural light coming through the revealed skylights, which suddenly become part of the work. This reinforces a theme that flows into the final space, in which Leonard revisits an ongoing work using an archive of found photographs here titled Survey. In this space the traces of a previous installation, with pencil marks and small holes, are knowingly left visible on the wall immediately indicating how nothing with Leonard is accidental. Her exacting attention to detail in installing her work is very much part of her practice, combined with, as the title of the show Observation Point suggests, the centrality of the viewer. It is a lesson that other photographers would do well to take note from, as photography is increasingly shown in contemporary art spaces and exhibitions. In these new contexts it is as much about how the artist mediates the viewer’s encounter with the work, as it is about the image actually presented.
Survey is a collection of postcards of the Niagara Falls. On the wall Leonard places two shots of one of the official observation points. The work speaks of how such natural landscapes are mediated and understood through vernacular photography. In this incarnation of this ongoing series of work, she has chosen to bring in her work table from her studio and place the postcards in piles upon it. Similar images are stacked together, so the taller piles suggest the most popular photographic vantage points. Views showing the falls to the right, are on the right; shown head on are in the middle etc so that there is a geographic mapping of the falls on the table.
Perhaps one barrier for Leonard’s work is its inaccessibility. In this realisation of Survey you could not see the postcards placed in the centre of the table, and you certainly could not touch or pick them up. You are being encouraged to look and think about looking, but not to interact, as the artist sets out clear rules and regulations for your viewing experience. Although this sits with the show’s title and theme, it contrasts to how we are now used to participating in the viewing experience in many contemporary art spaces. In such a context the ‘look but don’t touch’ approach, however intentional, can seem overly restrictive.
Camden Arts Centre, Arkwright Road, London NW3 6DG
+44 (0)20 7472 5500
Tue-Sun 10-6, Wed 10-9