This is one of a series of black and white photographs of medical curiosities that Leonard took in European museums in the early 1990s. It shows a model of a woman lying in a glass case viewed, as the title indicates, from above, at an angle that distorts. Leonard’s camera has cropped the edge of the woman’s body and her left arm, to include a partial view of the neighbouring glass display cases, mounted on decorative tables standing on a well-polished parquet floor, in the picture frame. The odd angle increases the sense of discomfort already aroused by the model’s splayed position (her right leg is bent to part her thighs and her arms lie away from her body) and her exposed viscera: her entire torso is skinless, revealing a detailed wax model of her internal organs. A double row of pearls circles her arched neck, separating her head and neck from the cut-away flesh of her shoulders, chest and stomach. Realistically open eyes and a wig of luxuriant hair sweeping back over the white cloth under her body and over her right arm render the scene even more macabre. Leonard has explained:
I first saw a picture of the anatomical wax model of a woman with pearls in a guidebook on Vienna. She struck a chord in me. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. She seemed to contain all I wanted to say at that moment, about feeling gutted, displayed. Caught as an object of desire and horror at the same time. She also seemed relevant to me in terms of medical history, a gaping example of sexism in medicine. The perversity of those pearls, that long blond hair.
(Quoted in Cottingham, p.68.)
Leonard has been working with black and white photography since the late 1970s, always printing her pictures herself, full frame, without retouching or any other form of amendment or correction. She has distinguished her photographic approach from that of fine art, saying that she is interested in, ‘ photographs as documents ... journalism ... aerial reconnaissance photography, science and medical photography, family snapshots. All the ways in which human beings have documented the world in an attempt to order it, in an attempt to consume it or rule it or hang on to it in some sense.’ (Quoted in Cottingham, p.64.)
A committed political activist, in the 1980s and 1990s she was involved in several New York political groups and artists’ collectives, most notably ACT UP, WAC, Gang and Fierce Pussy, who were working to end the AIDS crisis, protect black and gay identity, women’s rights and universal freedom of choice. In 1992 she was instrumental in producing the poster, Read My Lips, featuring a photograph of a vagina under the title words, that called for a reversal of the US Supreme Court’s ban on abortion information. In the same year at Documenta IX, she juxtaposed nineteen photographs of vaginas with eighteenth-century paintings belonging to the permanent collection of the Neue Galerie, Kassel, thus making visible what she felt was the hidden subject of the apparently neutral portraits of wealthy women.
The relationship between culture and nature is a central theme in Leonard’s work; photographing objects like the anatomical model in the Viennese medical history museum shown in P79209 and the animal pelts in Carnivores 1992, printed 1997 (P79210) is a means for her to reframe elements that have already been framed for the purposes of teaching and learning. Her photographs question assumptions about the role of these kinds of museum displays, which for Leonard are not about anatomy or natural history, but ‘about a need to own and control. And so, by implication ...[they are] about us.’ (Quoted in Cottingham, p.68.) Leonard’s earliest museum images, a group of untitled photographs taken in 1984, but not printed until 1991 (reproduced in Secession: Zoe Leonard, exhibition catalogue, Wiener Secession, Vienna 1997, pp.30–1), feature two little girls in front of a display of the evolution of man. One is preoccupied by what she is looking at and oblivious to the artist’s camera; the other appears more self-conscious. Leonard has referred to her photographic technique in these images where she captures her subjects in movement or, as in P79209, views them from distorting angles, as having a ‘subversive quality [that] showed that this kind of picture wasn’t allowed’ (quoted in Zoe Leonard, exhibition catalogue, Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle 1999, p.12). In addition to challenging their purpose, Leonard’s photographs question who the museum presentations are for – asking how a little girl’s developing subjectivity relates to a display about the evolution of ‘man’, and, in her photograph of the wax anatomical model, how a female viewer relates to an eviscerated female object of (male) desire created and exhibited under the auspices of science.
Leonard printed Wax Anatomical Model (Shot Crooked from Above) in an edition of six with two artist’s proofs, of which Tate’s copy is the second.
Laura Cottingham, ‘Zoe Leonard’, Journal of Contemporary Art, vol.6, no.1, 1993, pp.64–77, http://www.jca-online.com/leonard.html
, accessed 9 October 2008.