Observation Point

Zoe Leonard

At Camden Arts Centre, 31 March – 24 June 2012

In Observation Point Leonard gives you just enough to go on with. Each of the works in her current exhibition at Camden Arts Centre appear straightforward and minimal, the experience of which moves between gentle fascination, bemusement and frustration. It was only in hindsight, that this proved to be a thought-provoking show. The barely-there nature of all the works in the huge spaces of the gallery seem an act of bravado by the artist but one that contrarily expresses a sense of uncertainty about fundamental aspects of image making, of art making and the dominant structures of interpretation that are embedded in the process of looking at and understanding the world. In much of her previous work Leonard has not shied away from making powerful and sometimes uncomfortably direct statements, a fact that makes the ambiguity of this exhibition so intriguing. In revisiting the ‘old friends’ of the photographic image – the sun, the Camera Obscura, and the tourist postcard – is there a path here that leads back to the formation of these structures of interpretation? Are we offered an opportunity to reconsider the related histories and discover that such structures evolved to serve a multiplicity of needs beyond pure representation?

The Camera Obscura, so intimately entwined with the progress of intellectual thought and with the production of both images and objects, is here then not as a benign spectacle but as something charged and in possession of perhaps rather too much power. With the windows covered and the room darkened the viewer has only the image; it’s authenticity validated by the genuine sounds of the outside world. More and more often we choose to look at the image rather than the reality, sometimes the only choice is the image. But it’s often easy to forget that the image, no matter how ordinary or banal, is always mediated. To convert a gallery into a Camera Obscura then is quite audacious – to languish there as the world rumbles wonderfully and chaotically on outside, would that be constructive and contemplative? Or would it be passive and misguided? The answer to that must depend on the value of what exactly it is you are being shown.

In the series of sun photographs the analogue camera is presented as an instrument that can achieve a sustained impression of something that our eyes can not. The photographs reiterate that vague visual experience we have of the sun, intense yet flat, inconceivable and familiar. If we hadn’t already gained a certain amount of knowledge about the sun these images would tell us nothing new. In that sense, the photographs encourage a primitive but also abstract consideration of their subject while presenting us with an image of a limit reached. This impossible subject, that every image of it here is a kind of failure, is perhaps quite liberating for Leonard because it pushes the materiality of the photograph to the fore.  Each of the images retain the edge of the negative and specks of dust to operate as disruptions, […] there to keep you aware of it as a photograph, to keep you aware of your own looking[i]as many of her previous photographic works have done. But here they do more than disrupt, splitting irreconcilably the readings of subject and process within the photographs. The subject, the source of light, is here made secondary to the instruments and processes of its representation.  There is something implied here about the mediation of vision itself that is striking, but only when the analogue camera and photographic process take on a wider symbolic role – they no longer just stand for Leonard and her showing you the world as she sees it. The lens flare, the grain and the dust here are random ‘events’ in analogue image production, yet they exist in digital photography as special effects. To continue with analogue photography in an exploration of photographic seeing is risky – Leonard’s photographic methods do not correlate with those through which contemporary society is seeing and looking at images. In ignoring the effect that advances in photographic technology have had and how educated in these advances many people are, Leonard risks both underestimating her audience and struggling to make relevant her concerns about the processes of visual perception.

 

[i] Zoe Leonard, Art Forumhttp://artforum.com/words/id=30700, article dated 05.04.2012, retrieved 27 April 2012.