Zoe Leonard Talks about Her Recent Work

Artforum International, January 1999 | Go to article overview
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Zoe Leonard Talks about Her Recent Work


I see this tree from my back window. I've had the same apartment for eighteen years, and I've watched this tree grow up and around the fence. I'm amazed at how, over time, it has absorbed the fence into its body.

In 1994, I started spending time in Alaska. The first time, I stayed six months. I returned in 1995 and lived up there alone for a year and a half in Eagle, a small village on the Yukon River. I got interested in the idea of subsistence - of living more directly from my own labor. I heated with wood, hauled my own water, and gathered and grew some of my food. Gradually, my experiences there seeped into my work.

At first, I had no intention of taking any pictures while in Alaska, but eventually I began dealing with the new imagery that surrounded me. The pictures that resulted were different from anything I had dealt with before, such as the wax anatomical models or the fashion-show pictures. But I realized that my perspective had accompanied me. I had shifted from examining historical images of women to looking at the land around me, but I retained my concern with analyzing and understanding our culture, our society.

Contrary to my expectations, Alaska both expanded and clarified my politics. I began to grasp the connections between social issues in New York and land-use issues in Alaska. For instance, the economic link between the Alaska oil pipeline and the urban consumer. It became possible at a private level for me to think differently about what I consume.

I was afraid at first that I would have a hard time making art in Alaska. What I found was the opposite. I was surrounded by the complexity of nature, and I began thinking about our "progress" as a people, about the choices we have made. I thought a lot about hunting, about our predatory nature. No one wants to admit they're a predator, but it's impossible to find someone who doesn't sanction killing on some level - for food, or for political or moral reasons. Somehow we no longer really view ourselves as part of the food chain. What we eat is prepackaged and delivered to us. Our shit disappears when we flush the toilet.

While in Eagle, I got a rifle and began to hunt a little - small game, birds, and ducks. I also helped friends deal with their moose and bear. After a while, I began the series of "hunting" pictures.

What I've always liked about photography is that it's such a direct way of showing what's on my mind. I see something. I show it to you. When I returned to New York, the tree outside my window attracted my attention in a whole new way. Once I had photographed it, I began to notice similar trees throughout the city. I was going running every day and noticed trees that had grown through fences and gates, pushing the metal aside, or others that had warped and bent to the pressure of the steel. In some, the barrier had been almost swallowed by wood and bark. I was amazed by the way these trees grew in spite of their enclosures - bursting out of them or absorbing them. The pictures in the tree series synthesize my thoughts about struggle. People can't help but anthropomorphize. I immediately identify with the tree.

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