Naomi Leshem’s new body of work marks a departure from her long-time artistic practice, in which her personal biography served as a starting point. Ostensibly, the photographic subjects in the new works are not associated with her or her personal history, but rather drawn from the history of others – figures, objects and places. She taps into them and turns them into a body of work that while visually eclectic, maintains conceptual coherence.
The visual information presented in the photographs entails human stories, only a fraction of which was known to Leshem. The little she did know was the impetus that drove her to take the picture. The photographs capture a moment of observation, creating a disturbance in the timeless continuum of the serene place and forming a new eternal being that becomes a part of their biography.
Alongside places with a known history like German and French WWI trenches in Alsace or a building in Germany that used to house young Polish girls abducted as Aryan “breeding material,” Leshem also photographed anonymous objects like a 1930s Swedish plate or a Belgian pendant from the 1950s. Without knowing any of the thirty thousand soldiers who perished in the photographed trenches, nor any of the young Polish girls who were imprisoned in the building. Without knowing who were the owners of the objects, without being able to guess who ate off the plate, and whose neck the pendant adorned. The unknown will never come to light. The photographic act freezes a moment in the ongoing history of the place or of the object, and at the same time formulates a new biography. With that, the photograph becomes another link in the historical continuum, recounted through the artist’s transitory perspective and shaped by the influence that the content may bear on her impressions and imagination.
Gizela, the owner of a Zurich hotel housed in a fifteenth-century building, is an inseparable part of the hotel – like a living ghost that wanders through the building. The hotel itself hosts people and stories that will become ghosts with the passing time. Two photographs taken at the Swiss-German border, a historically fraught place with an almost pastoral present, also embody contemporary global dilemmas.
Some of the works were created using photographic ready-mades. Leshem collected postcards from the late 19th and early 20th centuries – taken and hand-painted by unknown photographers and exchanged between relatives or lovers. She chose to change their scale and mode of presentation – thereby instilling a new meaning into them, as they shift from an intimate and private representation to collective representation, immortalizing a human bond that breaks away from the local context.
The artist further used ready-made to compose a picture of six different photographs taken by a cell phone in Thingvellir, Iceland – the seat of the parliament founded in the early 10th where laws were legislated and implemented. In the spirit of Leshem’s current practice, the oldest place in the exhibition was treated with the most contemporary technology – in contrast to her usual technique – analogue photography of slides. With these photograms, Leshem wishes to present a history that is not completely known – neither to her nor to the viewer. The fraction of a second that she captures is a moment from the full past, the elusive present, and events that may come to pass in the future.