Institutional conflict and boundaries of time with Zoe Leonard’s “Strange Fruit”

By Sophia Lennox

Elm Staff Writer

David Wojnarowicz, a talented artist that created powerful, reflective work about identity, love, mortality, and civil rights, died after a devastating five-year-long battle with AIDS on July 22, 1992.

He was a dedicated activist who was unafraid to share his uncensored experience with AIDS in order to push for government and societal action. His death was a greatly felt loss to the HIV/AIDS community, art scene, and especially, his friends.  

His close friend and artistic companion, Zoe Leonard, was devastated by his passing. Leonard was also heavily involved with HIV/AIDS activism and spent much of her time taking care of others. When Wojnarowicz passed, she discontinued her involvement in formal activist organizations and went on two retreats, first for a year in Massachusetts, and then Alaska.

As Leonard has recounted in interviews, one morning early into her first retreat, after she was finished with her breakfast, she was left with two orange peels. She stated that she could not bring herself to throw them away, and instead got some thread and sewed the skin back together where she had torn it. She saved the mended fruit, and began to sew the skin of every orange, banana, grapefruit, lemon, and avocado that she ate.

She saved every fruit that she mended, and after five years, she had over three hundred pieces of sewn fruit in various states of decomposition. The fruit, strewn all over her workspace, became a facet of her daily life. In a 1997 interview with Anna Blume, Leonard stated that sewing gave her dedicated space to process the loss of her friend, and she would think about his life, his art, and their friendship while she worked. She named the piece, “Strange Fruit (For David).” Despite still being commonly referred to with “(For David),” that was officially removed from the title in 1999.

Two years into sewing, Leonard worked with renowned art conservator Christian Scheidemann to find a way to preserve the fruit. Through this process, Leonard realized that “the very essence of [the] piece is to decompose.” She decided that the ephemerality of the piece represented her grief over the loss of her friend, and that documenting its decay over time would be representative of the time that has been since Wojnarowicz’s death.

One day, the fruit will no longer exist, and that is the point.

Well, it would have been, if the Philadelphia Museum of Art did not preserve the fruit through a secret 20-year process.

According to a statement from then-Director Ann Temkin, the PMA acquired “Strange Fruit”in 1999 and made Leonard specific promises. Commitments given to Leonard by the PMA were as follows: the work would be allowed to decay without intervention, the piece would be given a dedicated room to stay in until it had either fully decomposed or was too unstable to be viewed, and that when the fruit decomposed, Leonard could come back and come up with something to transform the remnants into. Within two years, the PMA broke the first two promises.

The PMA gave “Strange Fruit” a dedicated gallery space upon its arrival. When it had been exhibited in the past, viewers were allowed to walk between the fruits, which led to some visitors accidentally stepping on and crushing them. While Leonard considered this part of the natural decomposition process, the PMA was not comfortable with that, and put it behind stanchions, severely altering how viewers interpreted the work.

In 2001, the PMA took the work off view. Researchers, such as Lizzie Frasco, believed that the fruit had become so damaged it could not be on display. They would later find out, when the piece was put on display for the 2018 Whitney Biennial, that the museum had conserved the piece so that it was no longer susceptible to dust, animals, or other agents of decay, according to researcher Nina Quabeck. In her dissertation, Quabeck posits that people did not know it was being conserved by design, as the museum wanted to uphold the belief that the work has not been altered.

In 2022, the work was announced to be coming back on permanent display to great excitement from the art community. For a few months, the museum maintained that the piece would be on display indefinitely, but then they changed the exhibition’s end date to July 7, 2024, which caused a lot of backlash as they would be breaking their agreement with Leonard again. Later, this date was removed with no mention of an end date, which leads some to speculate about whether it will be removed this July.

Leonard wove ephemerality into the meaning and understanding of the work, and within a short time of owning it, the PMA stripped that from it. However, at the same time, the only reason that I was ever able to see the piece is because of this decision. In a way, I am grateful for the PMA’s decision, because “Strange Fruit” is incredibly meaningful to me and seeing it in person changed the way I understood the piece and helped me feel more connected to Leonard and her art style. I wrote my art history thesis about the work, and over many visits to the PMA, I developed theories I would not have through just pictures.

Ephemeral art is in conflict with the museum as an institution, because they, a business, would not want to invest money into something that they cannot keep long term. However, the museum provides an essential service as it is one of the most accessible ways that individuals interact with and gain exposure to art work.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo caption: The Philadelphia Museum of Art is being met with criticism for its mishandling of famous exhibit “Strange Fruit” by Zoe Leonard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *