Zoe Leonard’s Al río/To the River is an exhibition that will test local audiences. It’s a deeply serious, critically acclaimed project featuring many hundreds of black-and-white images, that took five years to complete. The show is accompanied by a two-volume Hatje Cantz publication, with parallel texts in English, Spanish and French, in which the artist is treated as only one topic among others.
The big problem is whether this display at the Museum of Contemporary Art is likely to connect with audiences who generally prefer spectacle over substance. On the day I visited, there were only six other people in the galleries, which doesn’t suggest any attendance records will be threatened, even though the exhibition runs until early November.
Leonard (b. 1961) is an American artist who works mainly with photography and installation. There’s a political dimension to all her subjects, but she takes a wilfully oblique approach. Strange Fruit (1992-97) for instance, a memorial for those who died during the AIDS crisis, consisted of old fruit skins that had been sewn together and scattered across the floor.
Al río/to the River looks at that once-mighty river, the Rio Grande – or from the other side, the Río Bravo – that forms 2,000 kms of border between the United States and Mexico. Ever since Donald Trump came down his golden escalator in 2015 and denounced the Mexicans as “drug dealers, criminals, rapists”, that border has been an incendiary topic in American politics, with the influx of Latin American refugees portrayed as an existential threat.
The catalogue of shameful, sadistic acts perpetrated at the border has grown very large over the past eight years, from the inane attempt to build a wall, to the forced separation of parents and children; to Texas governor, Greg Abbott, putting a row of bouys in the Rio Grande, and razor wire on its banks.
There’s no shortage of volatile material to be found on both sides of the Rio Grande, but Leonard has avoided the sensational stuff. Beginning in 2016, the year Trump came to power, she has documented the entire length of the river-as-border, from El Paso and Ciudad Juárez to the Gulf of Mexico. What did she see? I can’t improve on the description given in the book: “a sustained observation of the water, the riparian landscape and structures built into and alongside the river – dams, levees, roads, irrigation canals, bridges, pipelines, fences, and checkpoints – which control the flow of water, the passage of goods, and the movement of people.”
The word “riparian” is a virtual tautology, as it means: “related to or situated on the banks of a river.” The deadpan checklist of subjects is perfectly accurate. Leonard is not interested in producing sublime landscapes in the manner of Ansel Adams or capturing ‘decisive moments’ in the footsteps of Cartier-Bresson.
If Leonard were to be identfied with any photographic tendency, it would the New Topographics, associated with figures such as Robert Adams or Lewis Baltz. These photographers are known for combining images of the natural world with the banal structures of the manmade environment. Studiously neutral, usually devoid of human beings, their photos eschewed all vestiges of the picturesque in favour of a stark, ‘objective’ view of a world degraded by our interventions.
Although she experiments with a range of approaches, the bulk of Leonard’s images would fit neatly into a New Topographics survey. She is not, however, fixated on singular images but on sequences that show actions unfolding over time.
Most of these actions are completely humdrum: cars and trucks passing on a freeway; a queue to a checkpoint seen through a car’s windscreen; a ferry taking passengers from one bank to another; a man on horseback rounding up a cow and a calf; a bridge seen from different angles; cars passing; boats passing; trains passing; empty roads; river in deep perspective; concrete and barbed wire fortifications; people crossing a bridge; goats grazing by the river; carpark by night; a minor security incident seen from a distance; bits of wall; bits of fence; wildflowers (in colour!); birds rising from a field; a helicopter in the sky, viewed in 34 separate shots; water swirling in close-up – 19 shots.
The photographs are modestly sized, presented in long rows on the gallery walls, or as grids. There are no identifying labels alongside individual prints. The dullness of these images prompts one to gaze long and hard, searching for depths that fail to reveal themselves. Leonard is not aiming to entertain the viewer in creating this visual mosaic of small, everyday things that happen on and around the river. These fragments are meant to be assembled in our minds, creating a composite portrait of the Rio Grande/Río Bravo as a living entity, not the political abstraction we call ‘the border’.
The idea, as I understand it from the photographs, and from the lengthy, diverse texts in the publication, is to emphasise all the aspects of the river that testify to its long history, to its use in agriculture, and the way it has shaped the lives of those who dwell on its banks. Without overt editorialising Leonard shows the way the river has been dammed, diverted, hemmed in, and made into a mockery of its natural state. The ugliness is so patent all she has to do is present it as she found it.
One may appreciate what Leonard is doing and sympathise with her willingness to explore her theme from every angle, but the deliberate, strategic banality of so many of these images doesn’t make them any more appealing. Despite their conspicuous objectivity, her photos require an ideal spectator who is prepared to invest subjectively in this project, seeing the whole as greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a challenge set by the artist and the museum, prompting us to take a broader view, not get caught up with the niceties of individual pictures.
I’m not convinced many will make that effort or allow themselves to believe in the sweeping importance of this body of work in the way the curator and MCA director, Suzanne Cotter, obviously does. This was one of the last shows Cotter presented in her previous job as director of MUDAM Luxembourg, and it is the first show she has brought to Sydney since she took up the reins in January last year. Another recent MCA attraction, Adam Lindner’s progressive dance performance, echoes a Luxembourg show of 2019. Coming up fast is Tarek Atoui’s Waters’ Witness, which was shown in Luxembourg from September 2022 – March 2023; and an exhibition by Tacita Dean, who featured at MUDAM from July 2022 – February 2023.
All these exhibitions may be stupendous, but it’s a little strange to see four shows from the director’s previous job repeated in her new job. It argues a tremendous faith in these artists, but also perhaps a lack of imagination. I’m not at all familiar with the art scene in Luxembourg, but I doubt that it is such a precise match for Sydney that we need to see exactly the same shows. I’m all for the MCA putting something new and surprising in front of its audience rather than simply fishing for work with the greatest potential popularity. Nevertheless, it’s disappointing when a new(ish) director can’t stop replaying her own greatest hits. A museum need not pander to the tastes and desires of a local audience, but neither should it be imagined that one size of international contemporary art fits all occasions. When seeking the limits of what paying audiences will accept, I suspect Zoe Leonard’s Al río/To the River takes us right to the border.
Zoe Leonard: Al río/To the River
Museum of Contemporary Art, 11 August – 5 November, 2023
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 23 September, 2023