I wouldn’t normally expect an object that’s meant to defy the inquisitive gaze to be as large as this. But most of Simone Leigh’s structures here, at the Guggenheim Museum, are large enough that I cannot come close to being able to wrap my hands around them. The work “Panoptica” (2019), a large mound covered in raffia (the fiber from the leaves of a palm tree native to Madagascar) is about ten feet high as well. It’s topped by a bivalve terracotta chimney that suggests a woman’s shoulders and following this line of thought, the knoll becomes a skirt in my mind’s eye. The other works here — “Jug,” “Sentinel,” and “Loophole of Retreat I” (all 2019) — are also hybrid fabrications, comprised of a body, sometimes a head, which is topped by an almost perfectly spherical afro, and the faces feature obsidian skin, thick lips, wide noses, but no eyes.
These objects, installed at the Guggenheim in celebration of Leigh’s recent Hugo Boss prize are creolized, as the gallery’s wall text suggests, but that doesn’t quite capture their immunity to definition. They have a certain hauteur that reads as silently commanding. “Sentinel” features a Black, female figure with raffia leaves covering her from the neck down, attached to a structure that’s reminiscent of a silo, on top of what looks like a platform made of wood (but it’s all made of bronze). The lack of eyes is key. Eye contact is how we humans establish recognition and thereby — at least potentially — reciprocity, which is the basis of genial, or at least benign, human interaction. We see each other and recognize that we are human and thus begin to recognize our responsibilities to each other given this fact. But if the object does not see you, despite your curiosity and attempts to understand it and your relation to it, only silence washes back at whatever you throw at the “Sentinel.” It doesn’t care what I do. Its purpose is not surveillance or even warning, but rather it serves to mark this place as unique.
The gaze is much discussed these days, particularly as a political weapon, a tool of cultural and social dominance. But it’s not the gaze that is the essential offender here. The inquisitive, categorizing, taxonomic gaze works with language to pull in objects and people (who essentially become objects within this dual alchemy) into formulations that limit and belie our sometimes lovely, frequently unruly, beings. Leigh’s work is not actually about evading the (likely White and dominant) gaze; it’s about denying it a catalyst by which to act. These pieces of art cancel out the gaze because they don’t yet exist in a collective lexicon by which they can be defined. In their hybridity they are incalculable, and in their incalculability they shush the room they occupy.
When seeing them the first time and then again, I was surprised at how inert they felt to me. There is something here, assertive but blank. Now after seeing her installation on the High Line, “Brick House” (2019) and recalling her work both at Luhring Augustine last year and the work in the current Whitney Biennial I realize that the work is an inhibitor in a particularly palpable way: it doesn’t seduce; it doesn’t explain, it doesn’t rely on interpretation, it doesn’t care what I think. A dwelling place made of straw and steel and a chimney, a totem placed on a pedestal, a guardian that does not see with eyes — they make me silent. If a contingent of aliens landed here several years into the future and saw Leigh’s work, I imagine that they would be puzzled by its implacable and unrelenting nature, and they would marvel at the historical circumstances that would have made this such a striking gesture.
What this work means within our culture that valorizes and privileges speedy recognition, rapid-fire responses, and individual willful action (here I think of Facebook’s former motto of “Move fast and break things”) is that I don’t have a language to describe what they are, nor a codified ritual by which to understand what they do. The curated, cumulative effect of the objects placed together within a room is that they create a zone of reserve. Loophole of Retreat tells me to check my impulses to seek out reciprocal recognition, and to not turn my reservation into awe, or fear, or an attitude of worship. This is the work that I have to do, and this is the work that needs to be done.
Loophole of Retreat, the exhibition of Simone Leigh’s work for the Hugo Boss Prize, continues at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 27. The exhibition was curated by by Katherine Brinson, Daskalopoulos Curator, Contemporary Art, and Susan Thompson, Associate Curator, with Amara Antilla, Assistant Curator.