Zoe Leonard, along the Rio Bravo / Rio Grande, between Mexico and the United States, at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris

The Rio Bravo / Rio Grande defines the border between Mexico and the United States, and is politically and historically charged. The Museum of Modern Art in Paris invites us to explore Al Rio / Chaya, A work dedicated to him by American photographer Zoe between 2016 and 2021.

Born in New York State in 1961, Zoe Leonard is self-taught and combines a documentary and conceptual approach. In the late 1980s, he campaigned for the rights of AIDS patients in New York and also campaigned for the rights of women and homosexuals. Although rarely shown in France, it has been shown in major institutions around the world, from the United States through Switzerland, Germany and Spain to Australia.

He exhibited his last work in Paris: leaving El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, he headed down the Rio Bravo (Mexican name) / Rio Grande (American name) to its outlet in the Gulf of Mexico. Two countries over 2000 km. It paints a portrait of a mythical river, as well as a portrait of the population that crosses it or crossed it.

Zoe Leonard Al rio / To the River, 2016–2022, Gelatin silver prints, C-prints, inkjet prints, Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Gisela Capitain and Hauser & Wirth (© Zoe Leonard)

There is nothing monumental about Zoe Leonard’s photographs. More than 300 prints, approximately 30×50 centimeters, almost all in black and white, flow like a river throughout the entire exhibition space on the first floor of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. He works with 35mm, an old hand-held movie camera, assuming a physical connection to the landscape. A way of resisting and clinging to the materiality of the image as digital photography became widespread.

Gray colors predominate, sometimes giving the landscapes a sad, even tragic side. These are rarely spectacular, even when the artist summons the imagination of the west in time with a man on horseback disappearing into the head of a river. It can be vast and majestic, or it can be reduced to a state of flux. The artist demonstrates his power in a series of close-ups of swirling murky water at the center of the exhibition. They are colorful but almost monochrome. The only other colorful pictures would be some pink cactus flowers.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Rio Bravo / Rio Grande has been profoundly modified and domesticated due to the political function attributed to it. Landscapes are concreted and fences dominate. The famous wall built along part of the border by the United States to prevent illegal immigration is ubiquitous.

Zoe Leonard, Al rio / To the River, 2016–2022, Gelatin silver prints, C-prints, inkjet prints, Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Gisela Capitain and Hauser & Wirth (© Zoe Leonard)

Migration is a topic of particular interest to the artist from a Polish family who took refuge in the United States during the Second World War. At the same time, he wants to break the stereotypical media image of borders and migrants. You can see children bathing in the river, small farms built on the edge of the water.

Zoë Léonard drove on both sides of the border, from the small dusty road to the highway along the water, from the bridge to the congested border crossing taken from inside the car.

The images are most often presented in a sequence of four to seven photographs, where the artist slightly changes the angle of view. A way to question the way we see the world. He approaches the patrol of the border guards in their pick-up truck, staying at a distance. Because if there are men in her images, they are never very close, we never see their faces.

Zoe Leonard Al rio / To the River, 2016–2022, Gelatin silver prints, C-prints, inkjet prints, Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Gisela Capitain and Hauser & Wirth (© Zoe Leonard)

On the bridge, on the other hand, Zoe Leonard remains in the same place, her image is passing cars and pedestrians. Or we see a small ferry crossing the water’s edge from one bank to the other. A few lights pierce the night. In the final shot of the sequence, the sun begins to rise and the river appears.

On one side, a flock of birds flies over the field. Ahead, a ballet of helicopters enlivens the sky. Because many elements of the landscape remind us that we are in a militarized and controlled zone, from barbed wire along the bridges to patrols. Animals graze quietly under the watchful eye of a police car. A palm tree wedged between the wall and the water looks out of place. In the form of an epilogue, the “coda” of the exhibition consists of photos taken from the surveillance cameras of the El Paso border post. But in the meantime, the Rio Bravo / Rio Grande freed itself from the obstacles by reaching the sea.

Zoe Leonard, Al Rio / Chaya
Paris Museum of Modern Art
11 avenue du President Wilson, 75016 Paris
Tuesday – Sunday, 10:00 to 18:00, Thursday, to 21:30, closed on Monday
€11 / €9
From October 15, 2022 to January 29, 2023

Posted in Art

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *