JTF (just the facts): A total of 29 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung edge to edge against white walls in the East and West gallery spaces. All of the works are chromogenic color prints, made between 2002 and 2012. The prints are each sized 28×48 and are available in editions of 5+2AP. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Hatje Cantz (here). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: We don’t often think of landscapes as regimented, or strict, or geometric – the natural world is a notoriously unruly place. So the controlled proportions of Sze Tsung Leong’s Horizons (two thirds sky, one third land) are a striking statement of conceptual redefinition. He’s turned the inherently unique into the precisely repeatable, applying a top down framework that transforms wide panoramic views into interchangeable units.
Leong first showed images from this project in 2008, and he has continued to make pictures in the series in the intervening years. This exhibit mixes old and new images, often juxtaposing a photograph from several years ago with one made in the past year or two. What’s also new is a larger print size; seen on the walls of the gallery, the effect is more enveloping and elongating than the smaller prints, which often read like dashes of Morse Code from afar.
Hung as sequences of images in long continuous lines, Leong’s photographs often show us striking similarity where we would have expected obvious difference. Urban views of Paris and Havana are nearly identical, each with a dome jutting above the density of city. Water views (not unlike Hiroshi Sugimoto’s seascapes) compare Bolivia with the Maldives, with rocky interruptions in Japan and pilgrims in the Ganges providing momentary distractions from the flatness of the horizon. And water’s edge skylines from Venice, Chicago, and Seoul run together as though they were one neverending urban sprawl, reduced to the dark smudge of a thin jagged silhouette.
Leong’s landscapes have more vitality when he has been forced to work harder to shoehorn the scene into the rigid structure of his visual approach. A broad expanse of concrete terrace in Havana, a watering hole in the Kenyan bush, and a paved cul-de-sac in a desert subdivision in California wouldn’t seem like normal companions, but in Leong’s framework, they all suddenly have something in common. Similarly, the parade of tourists across the tidal flats of Mont St. Michel echoes the migrations of zebras and water buffalo in the Masai Mara, and the medieval towers of Toledo and Saint-Malo seem like siblings. The precision of the conceptual overlay forces the landscapes into unexpected relationships, where scale, distance, and geography have been harmonized.
Like the photographs of August Sander and the Bechers (as discussed here), Leong’s pictures apply a consistent visual approach to a particular subject, in this case, collapsing panoramic landscapes into a taxonomical system. It’s a formula that has proven surprisingly flexible, allowing Leong to take the classic form of the 19th century landscape horizon and infuse it with a modern typological crispness.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $14000 and $25000 each, presumably based on the place in the edition. Leong’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.
Whatever kind of landscapes you photograph the question of “where to put the horizon?” soon becomes a critical one and one that is very difficult to resolve satisfactorily. It’s up there in significance with questions of flat planes, and whether to keep the camera perfectly level or is tilting allowed and if so how much – or if a mish-mash of various approaches would be legitimate.
There is the memory, and planet-like momentum, of landscape photography and painting’s back catalogues which always seem to impose themselves, usually accompanied by a dreadful sinking feeling of creative failure. At some point, and repeatedly, the default choices have to be examined and control wrestled back somehow, intellectually or intuitively.
There is no doubt that a consistently applied taxonomical system, as seen here with Sze Tsung Leong’s photographs, can eventually make even individual images recognisable – which is always a remarkable achievement with a medium such as this.