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For the 2014 Biennial, Zoe Leonard has transformed a section of the Museum’s fourth floor gallery, with its signature Marcel Breuer–designed window, into an enormous camera obscura, drawing attention to both the Museum’s building and the city outside.
The camera obscura is a naturally occurring phenomenon recorded since ancient times, in which a small hole in one side of a dark chamber projects an inverted image of the outside view onto the surfaces of the room. Leonard takes up this principle in order to investigate vision as not only an optical process but also a temporal and social experience; she places us directly inside the camera, engaging with the apparatus of sight itself.
In a series of related camera obscura installations begun in 2011, the artist has sited works in a range of locations, each calling to mind a different set of associations and references. On the occasion of the Biennial, Leonard looked to notes that Breuer made as he designed the Museum’s building in 1965. Of the building, he wrote, “It should be an independent and self-relying unit, exposed to history, and at the same time it should have visual connection to the street”; and, “Windows have lost their justification of existence in this building; only a very few remain, and only to establish a contact with the outside.”
Leonard’s Biennial installation invites visitors to slow down. On entering, the viewer may barely perceive the image; the room might appear to be completely dark. But as one’s eyes adjust, the picture becomes increasingly apparent, growing brighter and revealing color and detail. Simultaneously, the image evolves: the light shifts, blinds open and close, cars drive up Madison Avenue—all projected onto the building’s gridded cement ceiling. The viewer is immersed in a continuous present, watching and listening, as much a part of the installation as is the view outside.
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