Al Río / To the River
(Hatje Cantz, 2022)
Zoe Leonard’s publication Al río / To the River serves as a companion to the artist’s photographic project of the same name, which charts the Rio Grande as it flows from Ciudad Juárez and El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico, a span of about 1,200 miles that Leonard visited in stops and starts over four years. The publication’s release coincides with Leonard’s 2022 exhibition of the series at Mudam Luxembourg and the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, but it stands alone as a unique, multi-voiced analysis of the US-Mexico border, thanks to its intelligent and thoughtful two-volume format. The first volume contains selections from the photo series, chosen by Leonard and designer Joseph Logan from the over five hundred silver gelatin prints and fifty colored c-prints that comprise the full project, while the second volume, edited by the poet Tim Johnson, features thematically-linked contributions from artists, curators, writers, scholars, poets, and journalists. The images and texts are richly complementary, together forming a complex portrait of the river as both physical and symbolic terrain.
In a recent conversation with Mudam curator Suzanne Cotter, Leonard described how she wanted to process the experience of the 2016 US presidential election through artmaking. “I thought, if I follow this river […] [it] cuts essentially a cross section not only through this 2,000 kilometers of land, but it gives you a cross-section of contemporary society,” she said, citing the river’s imbrication with issues of climate change, law enforcement, immigration, and histories of colonialism. “I wanted to get outside of the narrow, kind of binary thinking of Democrat and Republican, Black and white, us and them, two different countries,” Leonard noted. The project is “a way of examining the border of the country I’ve lived in my whole life was a way of thinking about our relationship to the rest of the world.” Through its visual presentation of varied geography and its textual exploration of layered histories, Al río reveals that the concept of hard borders—between nations or categories of identity—becomes far more nebulous when examined on the ground.
The first volume follows a three-part structure: a prologue with close-ups of the river itself, its water swirling in disorienting gray eddies; documentation of Leonard’s path, with compositions that hearken back to famed landscape photographs of the American West; and a coda comprised of iPhone photographs of border surveillance videos. In rendering the river as abstract, sublime, and bleakly mundane, the three sections demonstrate the way humans have shaped and represented geographic space to divergent ends.
The central section, which tracks Leonard’s journey across the border, makes up the bulk of this volume. Her photographs here are sparse and direct, with the sharp outlines and angles of mountains, fields, and bridges unfolding beneath big skies. They document a highly variated landscape, with the border wall frequently falling away due to the imposition of the natural landscape, in the form of rock peaks and the river itself. The contrast between the spaces in these photographs belies politically-charged notions of the border as a flat line on a map, easily identifiable and therefore subject to either “openness” or fortification. In some images, the river is hemmed in by boundary markers, slatted metal fences, and freeways jammed with trucks; in others, it snakes serenely against low banks, unaccompanied by human infrastructure. The photographs are placed alone or in groups of two or four, making several departures from form all the more striking. In one unusual arrangement, pictures of a border patrol helicopter are arranged in a 6-by-3 grid across two pages, so that the helicopter appears to hover menacingly in multiple. Other changes in the visual rhythm of the book are more playful: about halfway through the section, the flow of black-and-white photographs is interrupted by several color images of squat cacti, bursting with pink flowers, that act as a visual palate cleanser.
The texts in the second volume were mostly commissioned to accompany Leonard’s images, though they rarely cite her photographs specifically. Instead, they consider the wider topic of the river and its meaning “as a source of water and power and as a channel to both connect and divide, where many interests, relationships, and dependencies are currently at work,” as Johnson describes. The essays, poems, and discussions appear in Spanish on the left page and English on the right, with selected texts translated into French at the close of the book. This translated format reflects the cultural divides and doublings described in the texts themselves, and it is cleverly unsettled by “ReVIVER: una conversación por correspondencia/A Conversation by Correspondence” between writer and activist Dolores Dorantes and journalist Aldolfo Guzman-Lopez, which mingles English and Spanish on both sides of the page. This entry is followed by Natalie Diaz’s poetic piece “The First Water is the Body,” a reflection on the limits of translation and language.
Other standout texts abound, adding meaning to one another as the volume goes on. C. J. Alvarez’s “A Brief History of the River” recasts the life of the Rio Grande in geologic time, positioning its current physical and conceptual status as comprising only a brief moment in history. The essay’s concerns are echoed in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s poem later in the volume, “No sabe el río que se llama río,” which positions the river as innocent to human designations. Josh T Franco’s essay begins with a discussion of the 2008 removal of the pedestrian bridge between Candelaria, Texas, and San Antonio del Bravo, Chihuahua and expands into an elegant meditation on art history, transcultural communication, and personal identity, while a conversation between Johnson and the archeologists Carolyn Boyd and Yuri de la Rosa spotlights the effect of border politics on historical study and preservation. Catherine Facerias and Elizabeth Lebovici’s “Borderlangue” draws on Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera to examine the constantly shifting nature of borders, and the weighted political and emotional valences of the terrain in between. In a conversation on borderlands journalism, Cecilia Ballí similarly comments on this symbolic burden: “I feel like we’re at this moment where the metaphorical significance of the border, the political significance, is so heavy that the border is buckling under all that weight.” Leonard’s photographs, and the perceptive texts of her interlocutors, probe this weight with insight and sensitivity, adding multifaceted specificity to often-oversimplified conceptual territory.