In the Studio: Leigh Ledare

Portrait of Leigh Ledare by Grant Delin.

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Leigh Ledare’s work is well known but not always understood. When it first appeared, nearly ten years ago, some viewers were alarmed by the artist’s seemingly pornographic photographs of his middle-aged mother, Tina Peterson. But discomfiting though they are, those images are never prurient, a fact underlined by their usual presentation as part of a series (and a book) documenting a family in crisis. That 2000–08 series, whose title, “Pretend You’re Actually Alive,” pinpoints its air of desperation, features a cast of characters that includes not just Peterson but also a number of her boyfriends, her parents, her elder son, Cleon, Ledare’s then wife-to-be, and Ledare himself. The pictures are accompanied by an extensive trove of supporting material: notes, letters, family snapshots, classified ads, and more.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that some people missed the bigger picture. Because once you get past Ledare’s obvious willingness to confront taboos, you discover that his real subject is far messier: the mostly unconscious intersubjective forces that determine our relationships. His work, which is deeply informed by psychological principles, especially group dynamics, is about how we are all—even as viewers—simultaneously subject and object, embedded in webs of projection, transference, and affect.

Ledare was born in Seattle in 1976 and grew up there. For several years his parents—his father was a jack-of-all-trades—operated a thirteen-room communelike bed-and-breakfast, where Ledare and his child-prodigy brother were homeschooled by their retired college professor grandfather. In his early teens, Ledare became a professional skateboarder, shuttling back and forth for months at a time between gigs in Seattle and Southern California, before quitting at seventeen to study literature and creative writing at the University of Washington. At twenty-one, he dropped out, moved to San Diego to keep an eye on his drug-addicted brother, and studied with a commercial photographer he found in the yellow pages. A year later, he was living with famed photographer Larry Clark in New York and working as his assistant. A portfolio of portraits of his friends won him entrance to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where he received a BFA in 2000. He then moved back to New York, earned an MFA from Columbia University in 2008, and has been exhibiting his work internationally ever since—notably in solo shows at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow (2010), WIELS, Brussels (2012), and the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen (2013). Last spring he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.

“Pretend You’re Actually Alive,” which required eight years to complete, launched a career that has taken the artist far from his domestic origins. Ledare’s two ambitious film-and-installation projects, “Large Group (Zurich),” 2016, first exhibited in Zurich as part of Manifesta 11, and “The Plot” (2017), currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, are both based on group psychology conferences. And his near-ethnographic film, Vokzal (2016), which was a highlight of this year’s Whitney Biennial, tracked the passengers and long-term denizens of a Moscow transit hub. Despite these more public mise-en-scènes, Ledare’s camera remains focused on intimate encounters. And these days, it’s zooming in on situations that include a wide social range of people. We met several times last summer at his Williamsburg studio, and then again in September after “The Plot” had opened in Chicago.

STEEL STILLMAN  How did the work with your mother come about?

LEIGH LEDARE  In 1998 I returned to Seattle during the Christmas holidays of my first year at RISD, and, arriving late at night, I agreed to meet my mother the next morning at her apartment. At the appointed hour, I knocked and she opened the door, standing there for a moment, smiling, entirely naked. When she stepped into the hall to give me a hug, I declined. It wasn’t unusual for her to have poor boundaries. When I was twelve, and she and my father were breaking up, she’d call my brother and me into her room, shower in front of us, and then air-dry on the bed, putting us in the awkward position of looking and not looking at the same time. But now in the late ’90s, a decade after losing the dance studio that had once been her livelihood, she was struggling financially and trying, in her early fifties, to use her sexuality to support herself. She’d been working for the past several months at a strip club and placing ads in personals columns. And there was a guy my age half asleep in her bed. My first reactions were anger and frustration. I felt forced to choose between not dealing with those parts of her—which is what my grandparents and brother had done—or finding a way to connect. I had a camera with me and began photographing her that day. By reframing my relationship to the situation, I found a kind of agency, and a working method.

The series title, “Pretend You’re Actually Alive,” typified my mother’s attitude at the time, which was to live her life as fiction; but I’ve never thought of the project as a portrait of her. Instead, it’s a document of our family, centered on the problems she was bringing to the surface. It’s informed by group dynamics principles I was first exposed to by my grandfather, who’d use them to describe relationships within the family. Working on “Pretend,” I discovered that if I could resist judging my mother and treat the images as archetypal information, then viewers would likely be implicated. Whether judging my mother for her behavior or me for my complicity, their projections became central ingredients of the work.

STILLMAN  Beginning in 2010, with the project “Double Bind,” you tackled another relationship situation, a triangle including you, your ex-wife, Meghan, and her new husband, Adam, also a photographer. Here, in Godardian fashion, photography itself becomes central to the story.

LEDARE  Meghan and I had been divorced for five years when I proposed that we spend four days in an upstate New York cabin, where I’d make a series of photographs of her. The idea was that she’d repeat the trip, at my expense, two months later with Adam, who’d make a complementary set of images. Both Adam and I photographed Meghan in black-and-white with a similar camera and lens. The resulting roughly five hundred images from each trip, presented either as framed diptychs or as stacks of loose prints in vitrines, were shown in their entirety, with mine on black backgrounds and Adam’s on white, their similarities and differences easily legible. An archive of six thousand or more tear sheets from outdated lifestyle and pornography magazines and other sources, likewise piled in vitrines, became the third component of this series and set the seemingly private images within a larger context.

“Double Bind” situates the viewer at the intersection of contradictory viewpoints. For each private image you have to keep in mind two separate relationships, and the fact that each couple is using their photographs to express something to the missing third party. Beyond obvious differences in what Meghan—as model, muse, and individual subjectivity—represents to Adam and me, there are more subtle questions. Where, for instance, does authority—or indeed authorship—reside in the representation of photographic desires? Or, in a question that relates to the work with my mother as well, what does it mean that we appropriate mass-media codes to model private behaviors and their visual representations?

STILLMAN  That tension between a media archetype—pornography, let’s say—and private photographs plays out quite differently in “An Invitation” [2012], a series that again features a triangle. This time, a highly visible, unnamed couple approached you to take erotic pictures of the considerably younger wife. Protecting their identities became as important to the couple, and as integral, as sex.

LEDARE  Exactly. I met them while traveling in Europe, where they live. Two weeks later, the woman reached out, saying that she’d been researching my work and found the pictures with my mother empowering. I explained that I didn’t work on commission, but offered to provide them with a private edition if they’d also allow me to use the images in my own work. After considerable negotiation, codified in a legal contract, we agreed that I’d spend a week with them, at one of their homes, making one photograph of the wife each day, which she would direct. My own versions of the images would appear in photolithographs, montaged over enlarged New York Times front pages from each of the seven days that the photographs were made, with the wife’s face hidden by an over-printed black rectangle.

The contract, and the negotiations that led up to it, expressed an erotics of its own. Those seven pages, displayed in a vitrine with the names and address of the couple redacted, became a crucial element of the piece. The document scripted our performances and spelled out our near-masochistic roles: the wife as an heiress and mother, who is also a well-known writer; the husband as a public figure in the world of politics and the media, who is twenty years older and compliant but distant; and me, as the photographer-for-hire, who is artist, pornographer, confidant, and potential erotic partner. The contract’s preoccupation with protecting the couple’s identity instigated a game of hide-and-seek that continues to carry some risk of exposure. Though in the final works, the photographs of the wife are viewed against backdrops that evoke the Breivik massacre in Norway, the Strauss-Kahn scandal in New York, and the death of Amy Winehouse, there were three or four stories on the front pages of the Times that week that were only one step removed from the couple’s sphere of influence.

STILLMAN  In the last two years, especially in your Moscow film Vokzal and the group psychology works that follow it, your point of view has broadened to examine relationships in large social settings. What’s remarkable about Vokzal, for instance, is its preoccupation with private interactions in a very public environment. It’s a film that could have been made in any number of cities. Why did you shoot it in Russia?

LEDARE  I grew up surrounded by Russian culture. My grandmother was one-quarter Russian, my mother danced with the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine, and Baryshnikov stayed at our house when I was a kid. My grandfather and I read English translations of Russian novels together. When I began going to Moscow regularly in 2004—sometimes for extended periods—I was struck by how differently the world was seen by Soviet and post-Soviet generations. I’d lived for a while near the busy rail hub where the Leningradsky, Yaroslavsky, and Kazansky stations share a public plaza. Fascinated by the activity there, I decided, in 2015, to film the place with a 16mm camera. I’d already begun the research into large-group dynamics that would result in the Zurich project, but, for the time being, I just wanted to observe a complex social situation and record what was happening. I appreciated the irony that vokzal, the Russian word for train station, is derived from London’s historic Vauxhall Gardens, which couldn’t be further from the “junkspace” these stations now embody.

The film, eventually edited into three twenty-minute sections, one for each station, was shot in slow motion. The camera circles the stations’ exteriors, mapping their chaotic and anxious environs. It focuses on interactions between people, from all walks of life and circumstances, who are passing through, maintaining or challenging order, or desperately living there. Making the film, I was reminded of the economically depressed Seattle of the 1980s, where homeless people, the chronically unemployed, and teenage runaways would congregate in pockets of the city to share their hardships. Vokzal is less specifically about Moscow than about the global breakdown of organized social systems and safety nets. And it’s about the relationships and connections between people that persist nonetheless.

STILLMAN  I liked seeing it at the Whitney, where its three sections were projected on separate screens in adjacent rooms. But earlier this year you screened it in more elaborate installations in Brussels and Los Angeles. Is one setup more desirable than another?

LEDARE  Each has distinct qualities. At the Whitney, viewers circulating through the galleries moved in tandem with the subjects in the film, highlighting their different circumstances. In Brussels and LA, I divided the exhibition spaces by building corridors, with windowlike openings on either side, to make interconnected screening rooms. I then projected each section of the film from a room on one side of the corridor, through it, to a screen in the room opposite. As viewers passed through the corridor, their bodies cast shadows on the images beyond. It was as if the viewers themselves were pieces of film, looping through a projector.

STILLMAN  In the spring of 2016, your research on group psychology emerged explicitly in “The Large Group (Zurich),” for which you organized and filmed a three-day group psychology conference for Manifesta. Using methods developed by the London-based Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, a nonprofit organization that studies social systems, you gathered twenty-one participants and six psychologists for a series of large and small group sessions to reflect on the ways that identity, role, and authority play out in an improvised community. What led you to such an ambitious undertaking?

LEDARE  My grandfather used psychological concepts to explain relationships in our family, because he had worked with the German psychologist Kurt Lewin, a pioneer in understanding group dynamics. In my research, I came across Lewin’s colleague Wilfred Bion, who had developed a method for studying unconscious group behavior while helping veterans recover from war traumas at Tavistock in the 1940s. I became intrigued. A Tavistock conference isn’t therapy but rather an intense feedback process. It functions by gathering a group of people, often unknown to one another, and bringing them together with several psychologists in a controlled environment, where, over the course of three days, they begin to enact a temporary institution or community. At its start, each three-day conference is an empty container that soon fills with everything its participants import: identities, roles, projections. The result is a social organism whose complexity and development can be traced, giving participants the opportunity to study their own and others’ experiences, and the group as a system.

In Zurich and later in Chicago, I recruited participants through social media and word-of-mouth, and by approaching strangers on the street. I was less interested in random diversity than in staging dialectical interactions between people of different ages, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and so on. On day one, the group gathered for the first of what would become four seventy-minute full-group sessions (there were numerous small-group gatherings as well) without an initiating theme or subject. Participants were seated in three concentric circles, a Tavistock stratagem that makes full eye contact between participants impossible. The discussion began when a participant started talking, and it evolved from there, with the psychologists taking up a Brechtian distance, functioning like management to the participant-workers. Their objective was to reflect participants’ unconscious dynamics back to them, but, as representatives of authority, they quickly became entangled in the group’s self-analysis.

Setting an ordinarily closed Tavistock conference inside an art project made each paradigm more porous and vulnerable. Partly, this was the effect of having cameras in the room, shooting from the perimeter, along axes that approximated participants’ sightlines. Though sometimes forgotten in the intensity of discussions, the cameras themselves became quasi-participants and therefore subject to challenge. Their presence charged the room with the awareness that surveillance brings—the consciousness of being watched, recorded, protected, controlled. And especially given the art context, the cameras became harbingers of future playback, creating a platform that members occasionally performed for. But my own ambiguous presence—as observer on the sidelines in Zurich, and as an intervening participant in Chicago—contributed other anxieties. Was I author, critic, Tavistock documentarian, or outside agitator? What were my intentions? These questions, like everything else, got folded into the works.

STILLMAN  Recently you’ve been making several series of wall-mounted montages, gathering found images and other documents, often stained with food, shit, or soap, and laying them out in grids, before sealing the arrangements between two sheets of glass. Like enormous specimen slides, but also like the “Double Bind” vitrines, these works are added to the installations, where they seem to function as thematic counterpoints to the films.

LEDARE  The first group of these, “The Walk” [2016], made in concert with Vokzal, presents paired postcards of Soviet-era actors and dogs alongside pages torn from R.D. Laing’s book Knots, a collection of brief dialogues that describe various psychic binds. Another series, “Stalemate” [2017], whose title refers to cultural impasses, casts the net wider and includes media images from around the world—American race riot photographs from the ’70s, illustrations from ’80s Russian fashion magazines, Mexican handbills, Middle Eastern pornography, and more. The montages present populations of visual and textual material as analogues for human populations. With the addition of the stains they become, in a sense, cultures of culture.

STILLMAN  The two-hour-long Chicago film, The Task, which is the centerpiece of “The Plot,” features thirty participants and ten psychologists. Like its Zurich predecessor, it’s premiering where it was made, and therefore reflects the audience back to itself.

LEDARE  The Task functions as a microcosm of our collective culture. It is screened in a room by itself as a large single-channel projection and is subdivided into titled chapterlike segments, culled from three of the four large-group sessions. These include: a chapter where participants divide themselves up along political, racial, and socioeconomic lines; another in which the women reflect on how they undermine one another’s attempts to assume power within the group; and a final chapter where I enter the group after having been sidelined by Tavistock staff members monitoring the conference. While doing so directly challenged the psychologists’ hierarchy, their anxieties around the camera had already altered their relationship to the participants and destabilized their authority, leaving me little choice but to assert my role as director. In the adjoining room, a new series of glass-encased montage works similar to those in “Stalemate” correspond to the film’s subsections and function as footnotes. Titled “Plots”—as in to diagram positions, or to plot against, but also referencing a plot of land or a narrative subplot—these groupings of images foreground latent dynamics that unfold within the film.

STILLMAN  Even now, as your work takes on more societal themes, you remain a visible presence in it. Why is that?

LEDARE  I’m primarily interested in circumstances where everyone, including myself, is forced to recognize that they have skin in the game. My work, from the series with my mother to the large group films, is an expanding field of related projects, each addressed to the complexity of human relationships and their visual representation. My hope is that viewers will notice that they are implicated in these and similar situations, notice at the very least that they, too, are part of the story.