Light in a Dark Room

Zoe Leonard’s recent exhibition at Murray Guy, in which she turned one room of the gallery into a large-scale camera obscura, closed on October 27. If it had been open a week later, it would have shown a very different scene, and the show would have been a very different show.

Zoe Leonard, 453 West 17th Street, 2012. Lens and darkened room. Installation view at Murray Guy. Image courtesy the artist and Murray Guy.

For her recent and first exhibition at Murray Guy, Zoe Leonard created a large-scale camera obscura, entitled  453 West 17th Street, in one room of the gallery space. In this centuries-old phenomenon, a pinhole opens up an otherwise darkened room—the translation from Latin of camera obscura—to the outside. As light rays through the hole, they produce an image of the exterior on the interior wall; since the rays travel in a straight line, the image is both inverted and reversed.

As Anne Friedberg describes in her excellent book, The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft, the two-fold fascination of this device has accounted for its dual use historically as both a tool of science and a tool of entertainment. First, although the image is upside-down and flipped, its preserves its color and perspective. For scientists, this accuracy made the camera obscura a useful tool with which to study light as a physical phenomenon. Moreover, for painters as early as the 15th century and particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, this fidelity with the outside world also made the device a helpful perspectival tool that could aid in the accurate representation of space. Second, unlike the fixed and recorded image of a modern photographic camera, the camera obscura produces a moving image that replicates the outside scene in real time. Thus at the same time that it functioned as a scientific instrument, it also thrived as a source of entertainment in the form of “magic lantern” shows, in which a lens and a mirror were added to the camera obscura to produce a correctly-oriented projection of both still and moving images, such as plays and dances.

The critical reaction to Leonard’s piece fell somewhere between these two uses of entertainment and education. The phenomenon of the large projected image, measuring at 23-by-29 feet and further brightened and sharpened by the addition of a lens to the pinhole, was “enticing” for Karen Rosenberg, “immersive” for Corinne Fitzpatrick, and “thoroughly captivating” for Andrew Russeth. For the New Yorker, it was “magical,” even if “the façade may not [have been] exciting”; certainly, Leonard’s similar projects previously executed in London and Cologne, as well as a concurrent camera obscura in Venice’s Palazzo Grassi, might have provided more spectacular views. Nonetheless, the work’s New York instantiation still had something edifying, if not necessarily scientific, to offer its viewers. In Rosenberg’s case, it was a “[contemplation of real estate], as views of recent construction encroach on the gallery’s older building.” Fitzpatrick experienced “an Empire State of mind” as she watched “the city [play] itself.”

Leonard’s exhibition closed on October 27. But if it had been open a week later, it would have projected a very different scene, at least mentally if not literally. The show, I argue, would have been a very different show. As New Yorkers are well aware, Hurricane Sandy struck the city and many surrounding areas only a few days after this closing date. The Chelsea district of New York, where Murray Guy is located, was hit particularly hard by the storm. From this retrospective vantage point, the blue sky projected on the floor of the gallery by the inversion of the camera obscura looks like an eerie premonition of the water that would flood not only the streets of the area, but also the ground-floor exhibition and storage spaces of many of the hundreds of galleries located there. Weeks later, a lot of these galleries have reopened their doors and at least begun the process of accessing damages, although not all: especially for smaller galleries, the costs of the storm may be too big to overcome. But even for those galleries that have recovered, the specter of the storm still remains in the ghosts of ruined artworks past the point of a conservator’s resuscitation.

West 21st Street shortly after the storm. Image courtesy Lindsay Howard via Hyperallergic.

Zoe Leonard, 453 West 17th Street, 2012. Lens and darkened room. Installation view at Murray Guy. Image courtesy the artist and Murray Guy.

Moreover, and as many have rightly argued, more importantly, Hurricane Sandy has also produced a much larger crisis. It is a crisis of power and food, and, foremost, of housing. In coastal regions such as the Rockaways, Staten Island, and parts of New Jersey and Long Island, many have been without power and heat for weeks, if they have homes at all. Recovery will be long and extensive, and some areas will never be the same as they once were. Furthermore, in a strange if sad coincidence in regards to Leonard’s work, Venice also experienced devastating weather of its own only a few days after Sandy when the tide has reached its sixth-highest level in more than a century and flooded up to seventy percent of the city. The effects, there and in New York, have often been extreme to the point of appearing surreal, but the destruction is very real indeed. This is damage that cannot be chalked up simply to loss.

In this context, Leonard’s camera obscura would let in a very different light. During its installation, her show might have “[reflected] the immense changes in Chelsea in recent years,” if we are to follow Murray Guy’s press release. Now, it would reflect the immense changes in recent weeks and even days, both in the physical destruction of the city’s streets and in the changed mentality that the storm has engendered. On the one hand, this is a simple—and important—call to remember the space outside the gallery, to not forget the lives Sandy has turned upside down. But on the other hand, it is an opportunity to turn the art world itself upside down and to think creatively about how it can participate in the process of rebuilding.

Flooding in Venice’s Piazza San Marco. Image courtesy The Telegraph.

Certainly, the art world has done a lot to help on the ground. Over at ARTnews, Robin Cembalest offers an encouraging round-up of the many organizations, foundations, and people have who contributed to the effort to get both Chelsea and New York City more broadly back on its feet. Benefits and auctions abound. And for all the temptation to see the work of Klaus Biesenbach (and Madonna) in the Rockaways as a publicity stunt, the fact is that Biesenbach is providing much-appreciated aid and drawing attention to the continued need for help in an area that is still greatly suffering. Through these efforts, the art world starts to look less like an isolated world unto itself and more like a community among many others.

Maybe this is the “climate change in the art world” that Cembalest is looking for—or at least, maybe it can be. Here, Leonard’s camera obscura provides a model for how to think about art in the aftermath of disaster. I want to propose that, for all its damage, the upside-down, turned-around world that Sandy has created can also be a source of inspiration and change. What would it mean for the art world to be an art community, and for contemporary art to be less exclusive and more inclusive? As Jerry Saltz points out, galleries have an inclusive base: they are “places you can go for free, run by strange people with visions who want to help artists by showing and selling their work.” A jaunt around Chelsea—or the Lower East Side, or uptown, for that matter—offers the rare opportunity to see as many of those “strange people’s visions” as one can handle at a time, and through the process, to have one’s view of the world outside fully reoriented.

Viewed through this model, art becomes less like an object, and even less like a buyable and sellable commodity, as it is usually portrayed in the floridly descriptive and/or auction-happy press. Rather, it is more like the lens in Leonard’s installation, which flips and inverts the world around us so that we might see it in a new way. As a historical phenomenon, the camera obscura recalls a period before the reification of art into the object, in which the image becomes a space of experience. Unlike the encounter with an object, which is characteristically static and private, this experience is temporal as well as social: temporal, because it is moving, and in real-time; social, because it is public, shared and, as Saltz reminds us, free to anyone who wants to participate.

Zoe Leonard, 453 West 17th Street, 2012. Lens and darkened room. Installation view at Murray Guy. Image courtesy the artist and Murray Guy.

As recovery proceeds and we get the feeling of having overcome, I also want to ask how we might preserve some of this experience, and how we might make the often astounding coming-together that Sandy has inspired more than a temporary inversion and, instead, a real opportunity for reorientation. One idea comes from a recent post on the blog Modern Art Notes, in which Tyler Green proposed the idea for a digital archive of art and archival material lost to Hurricane Sandy. Drawing on documentation that already exists, such an archive would allow these artworks to continue to exist even as their object forms have been lost. After all, the “dematerialization of the art object” is not an effect only of disaster. For Lucy Lippard in the 1960s, it was the result of changing artistic practices; today, developing technology only increases the speed of the process. In her review of Leonard’s show, Karen Rosenberg cites as part of the artist’s inspiration “the idea photographs no longer take up much physical space.” But viewed through the lens of the camera obscura, this is not necessarily a negative development, for as art comes to rely less on physical matter, it also gains a way to move. Green’s archive, in putting artworks together in one place that might not typically be seen together, would provide a space for artworks to interact and for new dialogues to form between them.

In some ways, the experience might be similar to that one, well-known to art researchers, of looking through an old issue of Art in America or ArtForum and seeing famous artworks mingling among those of a myriad of other artists who, while working at this time, have long since been forgotten. At a time when once-radical movements like Pop Art and Minimalism are talked about largely in regard to auction prices, this reminder of the specific artistic, cultural, and ultimately historical contexts in which now-canonical works had their roots provides an invaluable alternative perspective. Recent shows like the Bill Bollinger retrospective at SculptureCenter and solo shows of Sven Lukin and Ralph Humphrey at Gary Snyder Gallery offer a comparable opportunity. By resuscitating artists whose work, while well-known in the 1960s and 1970s, has since been lost in the tide of history, the shows illuminate the artistic dialogues that also inspired the artists from these decades with whom we are more familiar.

As a public extension of these experiences of art within its wider context, Green’s proposed archive suggests one way to replicate the temporal and social experience modeled by the camera obscura. If connected to social media, it could become an even more productive forum for dialogue, not only between artworks, but between art and the outside world that, in one way or another, inspired its creation. Such a project is just one example, of which there could be many more. In itself, it encapsulates the potential of the internet as a performative venue: an experimental space where works of art can move and dance, and ideas can be freely tested—a black box theater to the gallery’s white cube.

Exterior view of Murray Guy with the lens for Leonard’s camera obscura. Photo courtesy 16 Miles.

Importantly, it’s a venue into which arts writers need to step in as actors. Certainly, art is undeniably subjective, but if the share-everything mentality of Facebook, Twitter, and social media more broadly suggests anything for more formal journalism—(Sorry I Haven’t Posted)—perhaps it’s that writers shouldn’t be afraid to make tenuous or even projective statements about the connection between an artwork and the non-art world in which it was produced. As the public face of contemporary art, they have a unique opportunity to portray art as more than something that is simply “magical” and “immersive”: they can make it thought-provoking and relevant. In the case of climate change, art might be particularly helpful: as David Remnick has recently pointed out via Bill McKibben, it happens “just slowly enough” that it is hard to visualize, and therefore, easy to ignore. Art, and the arts journalism about it, might aid in what is, at this point, a necessary step of visualization. Yet art journalism doesn’t just have to be political. It can also be enough to simply get people looking at their world in a new way. Such practices exist, but they can be hard to find amongst the slew of auction coverage, market talk, and overly approbatory reviews. If this risk-taking occurred on a wider scale, it would certainly turn this typical art world reportage upside-down and backwards.

Coincidentally, just prior to Sandy, arts journalism got a shake up when Sarah Thornton published her “Top 10 Reasons Not to Write About the Art Market.” Only a few days later, as well as a few days before Sandy, Arts and Labor held a roundtable called “Art Writing as Craft, Labor, and Art,” which William Powhida has recapped on Hyperallergic. Now, in the aftermath, the conversation continues at a symposium at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam entitled “I Am For an Art Criticism That…,” held on November 28th and 29th. These sources, particularly as they involve art writers much more seasoned than myself, raise a number of issues that complicate my admittedly idealist perspective on what arts journalism can be, especially regarding its relationship to the market. But I maintain that insisting on art’s position in a world beyond the art world is a good start, and at least one potential route toward the “climate change” many of these writers recognize as necessary in an discourse written mostly in International Art English. It’s one way to help bring art back to the time of the camera obscura, when images weren’t static objects but had the ability to move, and furthermore, to move people. In doing so, art might help retain and even further the inspiring sense of community that is the silver lining of disaster.

Zoe Leonard’s exhibition at Murray Guy was open from September 15 to October 27, 2012.

Link: Zoe Leonard at Murray Guy

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