World turned upside down

Zoe Leonard, Arkwright Road, 2012

Given my recent preoccupation with work that transforms the space its shown in, making us focus on the gallery in a new way, it’s really about time I wrote about Observation Point, Zoe Leonard’s exhibition at Camden Arts Centre. Doubtless I would have written about this sooner, but I kept forgetting to go and see it; I love Camden Arts Centre and it’s really easy to get to for me but somehow those two facts seem to conspire to make me miss show after show there. Thankfully, this is one I didn’t miss.

Pretty much the only thing I knew about the exhibition before hand was that Leonard had turned one of the gallery spaces into a camera obscura. I was slightly worried that making my visit during a late night opening might prove to be a mistake but though the space – and the projected image of the road outside – was dim, it was nonetheless fascinating. Despite the work taking its title from the road the gallery is on, the lens points not at Arkwright Road but at the relentlessly busy Finchley Road to the side of the building. The traffic is constant but the skyline is also arresting with a large crane stretching from the wall onto the floor and across the space.

This isn’t a conventional camera obscura. The image isn’t contained on a screen; rather, it’s allowed to spill through the space, across ceiling walls and floor, merging with the architectural features of the gallery adding to the confusing of the inversion of the familiar chaos of the Finchley Road.

Available Light (installation view), 2012

After the darkness of the camera obscure, the next space was both surprising and fascinating. Available Light is a series of photographs made by pointing the camera straight at the sun, in defiance of the accepted conventions of photography. The pictures – though of the sun – are essentially abstract. They are printed full frame with a thin black border – adhering to a convention that seemed all-pervasive in 35mm documentary photography in particular – which here serves as an important signifier of the photographic – and analogue – nature of the images.

February, 1, frame 26, 2011

Each photograph in the series is titled with the date of its making and the frame number. Again, this seems to emphasise the photographic nature of the work making Available Light an intriguing counterpoint to Arkwright Road. Both are about the process of making an image with light – the essence of photography – but while one predates the photograph by several centuries, the other is both conventionally photographic and defiantly abstract.

As if the dynamic created between these two approaches wasn’t enough, there is something else to note about the installation of Available Light and that’s that it is lit by, well, available light. The gallery has seven skylights, usually shaded to cut down the daylight; Leonard has removed the louvred shades and left the lights off. Though on a bright sunny day it’s possible this wouldn’t be immediately noticeable, at close to 9 o’clock in the evening – even in June – the lack of artificial light was really striking. The space felt cool, despite the ten suns that glow on the walls, and my focus was immediately shifted from art to architecture. The space is a familiar one – for all that I’ve missed a lot of shows here, this is nonetheless a gallery I know well – but I doubt I’ve ever stopped to count the skylights before (seven, in case anyone else is interested).

Survey, 2009

In the final space, piles of old postcards are stacked up on a trestle table. The piles are uneven in height and seem spaced somewhat randomly. Reaching the table it’s apparent that the postcards are all of Niagara Falls, showing the falls from different vantage points. The arrangement of the cards is intriguing but and I study the views and the text quite closely, getting a sense that there is something particular about the way they are set out.

Survey (detail), 2009

It takes the film of Leonard talking about the exhibition – which I watch when back in the foyer, and which can be seen here – for me to fully understand the layout: the stacks of cards are arranged according to the observation point from which the image they bear was made. As with Arkwright Road and Available LightSurvey offers a new way of seeing a place.

In three very different works Leonard has managed to raise questions about the nature of photography, the way in which art relates to the space in which it’s shown and how we define space. In the film Leonard talks about the way photography is seen in terms of the analogue/digital opposition and a desire to open up this debate by including the much older photographic technology of the camera obscure and consider how we see the world. Both this and the exhibition have given me a lot to think about.

Zoe Leonard: Observation Point is at Camden Arts Centre until 24 June 2012

6 thoughts on “World turned upside down

    • It really is. But it’s also a really coherent exhibition as a whole. I’m really struck by how much it’s given me to think about, especially given that there are only three works in the show.

  1. Hi Ann, I just this week used the camera obscura image in my latest post, although I did not write about the exhibition! I went last weekend and the rest of it has only slowly sunk in. I think I found the sun photos just too minimal after seeing the camera obscura image which is so atmospheric. I also enjoyed looking at her other work in the books provided especially the New York work. I had not come across her before. I always admire Camden Arts Centre for sticking to its guns and putting on challenging shows! Always good to read your views, best wishes, Diana

    • I think I would have liked the sun pictures just for their whiteness (I’m pretty much always won over by very white pictures) but I also think seeing them in the cool light of a rather dull evening was oddly fortunate in that there was such a huge discrepancy between the suns on the walls and the light from above.

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