Leafing through the Art Review section of the New York Times, I came upon an image soon to be part of an exhibition by Zoe Leonard at the Whitney Museum in New York City. I stopped turning pages and focused in on the image, a white background with a variety of dead fruit sewn on it. The image was called “Strange Fruit”. My heart dropped a little. This image appeared to be a mockery of Billy Holiday’s rendition of the 1930’s poem/song “Strange Fruit”.
Reading the accompanying article did nothing to elevate my heart. According to the article, the artist, Zoe Leonard, created images through sculptor and photography, which tried to conceptualize the relationship between the present and the past. Looking at several other images, I could see the rationalization for this concept. Personally, I found the work to be at best iconoclastic, at worst, narcissistic. This is the artist who early in her career wrote:
I want a dyke for president.
I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew
Up in a place where the earth is so saturated
With toxic waste that they didn’t have a
Choice about getting leukemia. I want a
President that had an abortion at sixteen
I want a candidate who isn’t the lesser of two
Evils and I want a president who lost
Last love to aids, who still sees that
in their eyes every time ley lay down to
who held their lover in their arms and knew
they were dying.
These words are those of a person who can internalize the pain of others only as that pain relates to her own feeling of isolation and loss. Too bad Leonard never listened to Billy Holiday sing “Strange Fruit”. The experience might have broadened her perspective. It might have lightened my heart.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop