This is a poem by Zoe Leonard from 1992 on display along The High Line due to the recent Presidential Election.
When asked, Leonard said she would not write this poem today, but that its important to ask the question “what is different today, and what remains the same?”
The High Line is a very charged place for me. It is an assemblage of what New York has become. It was an old, abandoned train track used as a blank canvas for street artists, tall grasses grew, the metal rusting. It was still a space that was not monitored. But the High Line has turned into capital, changed into a tourist attraction rather than a place to make or hang without being bothered. Street art was replaced with art that has been deemed as more important. I do find it beautiful to walk on, but it’s hard for me not to think about the symbol it and I carry while tall above the city grounds. What I and it hold is a signifier of the “new” New York, a place in which art is now a sign for coming demolition of an old community. Taking Gowanus, SoHo, the Lower East Side, Williamsburg, Bushwick, and countless others to turn them into expensive neighborhoods where artists and its original community members can no longer reside. While going to bed in my East Village apartment around 10PM I realized I should’ve be hearing more noise, more ruckus- it made me uneasy how easy it was to fall asleep. For Leonard’s poem to be on the High Line in this “new space” in itself is interesting, because of what she is asking for in conversation with a space that asked for nothing but forcefully received a very modern makeover.
I’m thinking about this having recently seen her In the Wake exhibition. Taking photographs of photographs, revisiting the archives- what in those family snapshots still remains precious to us? What of the old provokes a desire for the new, and what of the old provokes nostalgia? What is different in looking at these as objects today and what about them remain the same?
I was most taken by the set of photographs in which the woman’s head/upper body is obscured behind the glare cast from an overhead light hitting the photographic print. The hazy, white, uncertainty of the physical glare visualizes loss of memory, of trauma, and makes it more tangible. It creates a physical barrier allowing us to hold onto only certain aspects of the past- never again getting the full picture. What in capturing these moments are we making more visible?
She starts with photographs from her family after WWII, the snapshot after experiencing trauma. These photographs, family portraits and moments give the survivor agency and also hope. Looking back on them, reminds us of the good after the bad, but also how the bad can never fully leave us. With capsuling them we are creating a marker, a signifier for a time in our lives, and by looking back, looking back at what we chose to capture, we can feel a sense of power. By capturing these moments we are making agency more visible or at least feel a bit more tangible. Susan Sontag brings up another point, in which she discusses the working father on vacation, taking photographs to create a job for himself- actively participating but also creating a distance. Therefore these photographs while giving us something to be enlightened by are also giving us a chance to hide. We as art makers and viewers can detach from the ever changing present by focusing on what we are being shown of the past.
Walking along the High Line, the recent election, being in Hauser & Wirth, I too am thinking of the past, more than that, I’m longing for the past. I look at these buildings and structures as the archive object, as the old photograph, the glare on the paper, the glare on their windows, and no matter how hard I look or try they will always remain the same. But then I question, what do I even want from the past? The past is so attractive because we know exactly what we’ll get from it- there aren’t any surprises from what has already happened- there is a sense of security. We are the ones with power- remembering and forgetting memories and dreams from a time that is no longer. We get to choose where the glare hits the paper.
I’m wishing for the time Eileen Myles ran for President.