“Where you look from is always half the picture,” Zoe Leonard points out. In the more than 550 photographs that make up her landmark project Al Rio/To the River (2016–21)—charting the 1,200-mile section of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo that is used to demarcate the boundary between Mexico and the United States—the artist uses that “half picture” vantage point to document a divided world. The photographs follow the course of the river from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on one side and El Paso, Texas, on the other, down the stream to the Gulf of Mexico, where it joins the Atlantic Ocean. The current position of the US–Mexico border can be traced back to the 19th century imperialist belief in “manifest destiny” that led to the Mexican–American War (or Intervención Estadounidense en México) and the eventual expansion of US territory south to the river and west to the Pacific Ocean.
Leonard’s selections for this Artist Project deliver a tactile grasp of the terrain and the dynamics of border wall construction, so that, as Leonard puts it, “a natural feature is used to perform a political task.” In this sequence, we are positioned in relation to a recently built section of wall and the surrounding density of infrastructure: boundary markers, an international dam, border patrol, and multiple mechanisms of surveillance.
In a previous project, Analogue (1998–2009), which consists of 412 photographs organized into 25 chapters, Leonard takes on another aspect of US politics. The work documents the texture of 20th-century urban life as seen in the juxtaposition of vanishing mom-and-pop stores and the simultaneous emergence of the global rag trade led by multinational corporations. The artist followed the circulation of recycled merchandise—used clothing, discarded advertisements, and the old technology of Kodak camera shops—from her Lower East Side New York City neighborhood to markets in Africa, Eastern Europe, Cuba, Mexico, and the Middle East. Analogue, like Al Rio/To the River, offers an urgent message about the circulation of ideas and goods, and America’s global influence.
Like much of Leonard’s work, Al Rio/To the River questions ideas of ownership, public space, and the role photography plays in delineating territory and defining social perceptions. In the context of the border, new dimensions are added regarding mobility, surveillance, and social identity. At the same time, it probes what constitutes knowledge, or, in the artist’s words, “why things are ordered a certain way, what is accepted as fact, or truth, and how that categorization is connected to power, and to our lives.” President Donald Trump’s nativist campaign to build a wall on the US southern border was intended to cast Mexican immigrants, refugees, US DREAMers, and undocumented people coming from south of the US border as social burdens. Under the current administration, border construction is a patchwork of ad-hoc, official, and quasi-official projects. While the official government building projects are funded by US taxpayer dollars, the section of wall photographed here was built on private land and paid for by a viral crowdfunding campaign titled “We Build the Wall.” Shoddily constructed, unstable, and likely to collapse into the river during flooding, the privately funded sections of the border wall (touted as the “Lamborghini of fences”) point to the fallacious efforts involved in its making, which concluded with a scam scheme: In August 2020, the Justice Department claimed that hundreds of thousands of donors were deceived in connection with the fundraising operation, charging former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and three associates with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. The construction firm behind the project nonetheless continues to receive lucrative contracts to build sections of the “official” wall.
Leonard’s first committed activist projects were in the late 1980s and early 1990s, an era marked by heightened political awareness of the overwhelming losses to the AIDS pandemic, when she became affiliated with advocacy groups such as ACT UP and the queer feminist collectives GANG and fierce pussy. Her commitments led the artist to conceive the text-piece I Want a President (1992). Written in the same year as poet Eileen Myles’s presidential bid alongside George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, the piece famously begins with the words, “I want a dyke for president, I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukemia.” Revisiting this poem on the eve of the 2020 presidential election—an event marred by the COVID-19 crisis, economic disruption, and nationwide demonstrations against institutional racism and police brutality—its message could not be more urgent. Leonard said, “I am interested in the space this text opens up for us to imagine and voice what we want in our leaders, and even beyond that, what we can envision for the future of our society. I still think that speaking up is itself a vital and powerful political act.” Two decades apart, I Want a President and Al Rio/To the River invite us to look closely, and from myriad perspectives, at the social and political landscape of our times, so that we might imagine an ethics of a shared world, and of a common humanity.
–Roxana Marcoci, Senior Curator, Department of Photography
All images: Zoe Leonard. Al Rio/To the River. 2016–21. Approximately 500 gelatin silver prints and 50 chromogenic color prints, dimensions variable, work in progress. Images courtesy the Artist, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne and Hauser & Wirth, New York. The project received support from the Graham Foundation and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. The completed project will be exhibited at Mudam, Luxembourg and Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2021.