Over the last three decades Zoe Leonard (b. 1961, Liberty, New York) has gained critical acclaim for her work that is characterised by conceptual rigour and a distinctly personal perspective, questioning conditions of image-making, representation and observation. Her exhibition at Mudam Luxembourg – Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean presents a major new artwork, Al río / To the River, that elaborates upon her engagement with landscape and the role played by photography in defining territory and constructing ideas of nationality and identity.
This exhibition premieres an epic photographic work begun in 2016 which takes the Rio Grande (as it is named in the United States) or Río Bravo (as it is named in Mexico) as its subject, along the 2,000 kilometres, where the river is used to demarcate the international boundary between the United States and Mexico. Following the river from the border cities of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, to the Gulf of Mexico, where it flows out into the Atlantic Ocean, Al río / To the River approaches the river as a multifaceted leitmotif, in which geographical, cultural, historical, social, political, economic and ecological concerns intersect. Leonard has spoken of her approach as ‘looking closely at the river in order to observe the multiple and complex pressures that bear down on this thin line of moving water; this work is a way of thinking about a larger social and political landscape’.
Comprising over five hundred photographs arranged in varying sequences and rhythms, Al río / To the River results from a close and engaged observation of the built and natural environment, from both banks of the Rio Grande/Río Bravo. Emphasising the act of looking and the presence of the body, the photographs depict the river flowing through contrasting landscapes in which infrastructures designed to control the water, the passage of goods and the movement of people – such as dams, bridges, irrigation canals, pipelines, fences, walls, checkpoints and detention centres – collide with the natural topography. ‘The shifting nature of a river – which floods periodically, changes course and carves new channels – is at odds with the political task it is asked to perform,’ says Leonard.
In Al río / To the River, several temporalities coexist and intertwine with one another, from the geological time evident in the landscape to human histories of the region and current events. For the last few years, as the border between the US and Mexico has been at the centre of intense political debates and controversies, military presence and the construction of border control infrastructures have increased dramatically while the conditions imposed on migrants and asylum seekers have worsened considerably. Documenting this process and its impact on the landscapes, Al río / To the River is a meditation on the notions of border and nation in contemporary societies. Resonating with similar situations that exist in other geographical contexts, it approaches the river, in the words of the artist, as a ‘metaphor of our time’: ‘How can we get out of this binary thinking? Can we think of the borderlands as a third kind of place, where the river connects rather than divides?’, asks Leonard.
Zoe Leonard (b. 1961, Liberty, New York) has held solo exhibitions at MOCA – Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2018); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2018); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2015); Camden Arts Centre, London (2012); Dia:Beacon, New York (2008); Wexner Center for the Arts, Colombus (2007); Fotomuseum Winterthur, (2007) and Vienna Secession (1997). Her work has been presented within significant surveys including the Whitney Biennial, New York (2014, 1997, 1993), and documenta 12 (2007) and documenta IX (1992), Kassel. Her work can be found in major public collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Guggenheim Museum, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; and Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. She has received numerous honours, including the Guggenheim Fellowship (2020), the Graham Foundation Grant (2020) and the Bucksbaum Award of the Whitney Museum of American Art (2014). She lives and works in New York and Marfa, Texas.