In her 2004 series ‘Statistical Landscape (In the Eye of the Worker)’, Emmanuelle Léonard collaborated with Toronto’s Mercer Union gallery and some 20 individuals representing different sectors of Toronto’s workforce, asking them to take photographs of their empty workplaces. The maverick Montreal-based photographer chose one image by each participant and arranged the photos together in a kind of volumetric, vaguely ovoid, photomontage-like installation.
Her show, part of ‘The Spaces of the Image’, the most recent instalment of Montreal’s acclaimed annual photographic extravaganza ‘Le Mois de la Photo’ (Photo Month), addressed (along with the other invited artists, according to guest curator Gaëlle Morel) ‘questions of mechanisms and staging’ in art photography. Léonard’s work certainly stood out in the halls of Les Ateliers Jean Brillant, a huge warehouse space in the Saint-Henri neighbourhood. The images were scaled according to Statistics Canada’s employment-sector data for Toronto (for instance, the largest employer, the manufacturing sector, is granted the largest picture, and the smallest – mining, oil and gas extraction – the smallest).
Léonard has been pursuing this project of workplace portraiture for almost ten years. Her practice, of which this is just one of several ongoing threads, was here limited to choosing and exhibiting the images in a photographic installation (and publishing them in posters, newspapers and so forth). In ‘Statistical Landscape (In the Eye of the Worker)’, she set out the parameters in advance: ‘Twenty workers are invited to produce their own images following two parameters: that they do it in their workplace and that this place be deserted (in order to privilege a relation to the space rather than to inter-personal relations).’ In asking the workers themselves to take the images of their empty workplaces, she does not revel in their absence, but powerfully invokes their invisible presence, somehow empowering them. She has transformed the workers into documentary photographers, and their vision effortlessly merges with her own. The sheer emptiness of these spaces always points back to what, or who, is already latent in them: the worker.
If, on one level, the workspaces end up looking remarkably generic – those of workers in the cultural industry bear an eerie resemblance to those in utilities. If Léonard’s project recalls Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We, in which people are allowed to live out of public view for only an hour a day and are referred to by numbers instead of names, here the protagonist has a name that is shared with his workplace. The images force the heterogeneous to take precedence over the apparent homogeneity of their work environments.
Léonard’s signature conceptual rigour is always already at work here. They shine an unsparing, decidedly non-Utopian light on our social life, without any spectre of comic relief, while naming the inhabitants of the workplaces and effectively freeing them from such taxonomy. But does she, as some critics hazard, suggest that the place of work is synonymous with the self? That we are prosthetic extensions of the places we work within? Or does she show the incommensurable relationship of worker to place, therefore privileging the workers’ own invisible presences as unassailable truth, auratic necessity? The answer is, almost certainly, the latter.
First published in Issue 129