In her column Corpus, Jordan Kisner examines the stories our bodies tell.
Zoe Leonard, Strange Fruit (detail), 1992–97, orange, banana, grapefruit, and lemon skins, thread, buttons, zippers, needles, wax, sinew, string, snaps, and hooks, 295 parts, dimensions variable. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Purchased with funds contributed by the Dietrich Foundation and with the partial gift of the artist and the Paula Cooper Gallery, 1998. © Zoe Leonard. Courtesy the artist; Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne; and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Graydon Wood.
When I undertook this column, I had the notion that I would be writing about, I don’t know, heredity. Like: I went to a healing circle in south Brooklyn. After a few days of being asked to think about the particular ways we might need to be healed, as well as the particular ways we might offer healing to other people, we were taken into a small, dark room in groups of four or five and told to sit on stools and close our eyes. The two women leading the healing circle told us they would be drawing initiatory symbols in the air over our heads and invoking various energies on our behalf. They instructed us to keep our eyes closed and to anticipate that we might receive a vision of a spirit that would guide us in this healing journey. I was there because I was curious about the nature of the healing these women claimed to invoke, but I was resistant to the endeavor. I did not want my vibrational frequencies altered. I did not want a spirit guide.
I was feeling fraudulent and confused and a little guilty for being an unbeliever in this room of aspiring healers, and so I was startled when—sitting there in the dark with my eyes closed, confused and fraudulent, dimly aware of these two women waving their hands in the air around me—I had a sense suddenly that my grandmother (my father’s mother, Mardell) was near my left shoulder and my great-grandmother (my mother’s paternal grandmother and namesake, Carmen) was at my right.
They’ve both been dead for more than fifteen years, and I hadn’t thought about them for a while—nor had I ever really thought about them together. I’d never spent any time with them together, and they weren’t at all alike. Their arrival as a pair in my imagination was a surprise. In the moment, I half wondered whether this meant they needed some kind of healing or attention from me, posthumously—or, conversely, whether I needed some kind of healing that had to do with them.
This would not have occurred to me but for the subject of the convening that had brought me to this little windowless room. The teachers of this particular class talked about practicing their healing on the dead, and after they said it a few times I tentatively raised my hand. “Why would you… need to heal the dead,” I asked. They told me that the dead can remain in need of spiritual healing in the same way the living do. Not everyone is healed by the time they go. One of the teachers suggested that when we heal ourselves, we heal our ancestors, too.
I did not become a healer in the manner in which the leaders of the circle had intended, nor did I seem to begin any overt healing journey that day. But over time, and as I began this column, I thought I might write about these two grandmothers on my shoulders so that I could think more about how a body, my body, is composed of many others: how it holds the traits and quirks and traumas of all the bodies from which it is descended and many of those it touches, how the imprints of two such different and unconnected women could be carried together in a body like mine, and how that is a great freakish mystery of time and space that we all walk around with every day, all the grandmothers waiting for us to notice them on our shoulders.
But today, I am sitting here eating fruit—an orange from my mother’s orange tree—and looking at photos of the artist Zoe Leonard’s Strange Fruit, which is the peels and skins of nearly three hundred pieces of fruit Leonard ate over the course of a few years in the early nineties. “I didn’t think of this as making art at all,” Leonard wrote of the fruit. The finished piece is a contemporary vanitas, but the act of its creation was more of a grief compulsion. Her friend David Wojnarowicz, who was an artist, photographer, writer, and AIDS activist, had died of AIDS, as he knew he would, at thirty-seven, and Leonard was bereft. More than a hundred thousand Americans had died of AIDS by then, and thousands more would die—are still dying. And Leonard was not going to die. She was going to live—is still living—a full life as an artist, a gift Wojnarowicz was denied.
She started sewing fruit. After she ate a banana or an orange or a grapefruit, she would take the skins and stitch them back together with thread or wire. She had gotten this idea from Wojnarowicz’s work—he used thread in his art, and had once broken a loaf of bread in half and then stitched it back together with red embroidery floss. She would eat an orange and then sew it back together, empty but reassembled. The effect wasn’t to make the fruits seamless or to fool an observer into thinking they were still whole; instead, she highlighted the suture. She installed zippers and buttons. She used neon-colored thread. She braided extra embroidery floss so it dangled from the pedicel of a lemon like a tail. Over months, these little decomposing sculptures accrued along her windowsills and on the floor of her studio. “Like memory, these skins are not the substance itself, but a form reminiscent of the original,” she wrote. Eventually, in 1995, she exhibited them in her Manhattan studio. The Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired the fruit, all 295 pieces, in 1998.
I happened to see Strange Fruit a few years ago when the Whitney Museum of American Art put on a Leonard retrospective. The fruit was laid out in a white box of a gallery ensconced in the middle of the exhibition, stretching into the room as if toward a horizon. The pieces looked like gravestones, or like bodies. It was all mostly mummified—after working with a conservator to see whether the skins could be preserved in their decay, Leonard decided to just let them be.
The fruit on display at the Whitney (carefully stored at the Philadelphia Museum of Art most of the time) is still breaking down. “They are fading and cracking and turning to dust as I write this,” Leonard wrote in the late nineties. “It’s an absurd act of repair.” Leonard’s stitching doesn’t change the ultimate end of these fruits—they’ll go exactly the same way as the orange peel I threw in the trash just now. She just delays and extends that process, and makes us look at it. The conservator, in one of his letters to Leonard, told her, “Decay is always the same, and at one point, it will all be powder.”
It may seem strange after a year of mass death to be revisiting art about death, but in the past season, I have wanted to look at art that constitutes absurd acts of repair. I want gestures of preserving what is seen as disposable, and reassembling what will never be whole again. I am drawn to art that did not begin as art, but as a refusal to let go of what must go. After the last year, I want to remember what art or writing can do in the face of grief or absence, the ways this practice can be a form of retrieval or reincarnation or mending.
When I first saw it, Strange Fruit struck me as a show of lineage—a monument to Wojnarowicz and the way he lives in Leonard, who is entering her sixties now, and in her work. Because of how many peels and skins there are, the multiplicity of the missing fruits, it also functions like a monument to the many other unnamed beloveds lost to that epidemic, people for whom Wojnarowicz fought when he was alive. This is chosen inheritance—or maybe not, if you think of loving and grieving someone as a phenomenon rather than a choice. It is heredity, or that which stays with you and inside you whether you want it to or not.
From my grandmother Mardell I inherited a sweet tooth and a tendency, as yet unmanifested, toward osteoporosis. From my great-grandmother Carmen I inherited—through my mother, I think—an enthusiasm for cooking, gardening, and citrus. From Leonard, maybe, I have acquired a way of looking at fruit and disappearance and the continued presence of what seems gone. When you eat an orange, it stays in your body for a day or two. It transforms from an orange into pulp into a series of fibers, sugars, and minerals, and then it is mostly gone. Except that it is not quite gone. The vitamin C, the potassium, the calcium embed in your bones and strengthen them against decay or destruction. This fruit, still inside you, helps your body heal itself.
Jordan Kisner is the author of the essay collection Thin Places. She is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, and her work appears in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, n+1, Pitchfork, and others. She is also the creator of the Lit Hub podcast Thresholds.
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