Exhibition Review | Zoe Strauss: 10 Years + Billboard Project

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.[1]

Zoe Strauss | 10 Years (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Zoe Strauss’ exhibit, manifested in two contexts – the first throughout the city of Philadelphia as billboards of her work strategically positioned in well traveled spaces, the second as a traditional exhibit in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) – is a materialization of the utterances and the memories of those left along the margins of our society. The identity of these individuals, as just that, individuals (via this display) has created a psychogeography of sorts out of the cityscape. Their stories inscribe their-story (as opposed to his-story) along billboards that dot the sky. The contrast of these images can be jarring as you pass the hopes and dreams of these individuals and the falling out of those same dreams against the progressive utopic skyline of an area betting everything on becoming “America’s next great city”. Strauss calls for a reading of the lives of the individuals she documents – people she has lived with and befriended – to disturb those walking by. To wake them up. Calling attention to the artistry of these people (estranged and yet somehow familiar) and the environments they inhabit. Shedding light on those places in Philadelphia that many blindly walk through as the people in these works, trembling and hungry in some instances, stand to make up the foundation of the society at large. Strauss attempts to show the failings of this society in a very tactile way. To show that society has cheated that which it was meant to protect and afford the right to live. For isn’t the mainstay of our culture supposed to be the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Most importantly of life?

The exhibition located in the Philadelphia Museum of Art is emblematic of the messages that Zoe is trying to portray through her art works. The show was curated by Phillip Barberie and he seemed much in tune with Zoe’s overall wishes for the exhibit. Sponsors included the PEW Foundation for Arts and Heritage and public support from the Philadelphia Mural Arts, which seemed more in line with the public art funds that Zoe, as an amateur worked with, than more corporate (for profit) sponsors. The gallery space itself is located in the bowels of the museum, discretely tucked away (no doubt as per Ms. Strauss’ instruction), so as to not cause too much ado. It made, in a very poetic and beautiful way, evident that Zoe has had no formal training as a photographer and the sincerity of the works were felt and represented very well. However, this exhibit and news of its apparently shocking content, has out shined the Van Gogh exhibit that is currently at the museum. The physical layout of the exhibit is of particular interest as well as it would seem that a show with as much notoriety as this one would do as much as it could to live up to its purported deliverable. The bleakness of the exhibit, in a powerful way, added to the experience of the viewers of the pieces due to each piece having equal representational value. This was made apparent with regards to each photographs size and relation to each other. Due to the almost mechanized organization of the works, as gallery visitors began to look at each on respectively, certain points began to form where crowds would seem to bump into each other at the more disturbing pieces (for lack of a better world as interesting alone does not seem to cut it). Forcing a more awkwardly intimate feel to what is essential just a photography exhibit, these points of congestion when trying to walk through allowed for a barrage of commentary in contrast to your own, that opened up the visitors own interpretations of the works themselves. People’s conversations continued outside of the exhibit with each other as a result of certain pieces, due to their content, beginning to gain more notoriety within the retrospective itself. This part of the exhibition seemed close to Zoe’s overall goals of the show as stated on the walls when you first enter (of course personal photographs of the show were not allowed). The space was very quite, despite a slide show perfectly positioned to be ever so slightly out of view but ever so conveniently in the way, adding an almost cinematic feel to some of the works presented where seats were provided. This made the responses to some of the more explicit pieces, uttered by the variety of visitors (from the more seasoned museum elite, well to do college students, and people from the communities represented in the works) seem that much more powerful because of the echoes throughout the gallery space.

Zoe Strauss | 10 Years Billboard Project (30th St Station Philadelphia, PA)


The billboard project is an extension of Zoe’s retrospective at the PMA and adds a more poignant look to the narrative to which she is calling attention. The billboards are seemingly larger than life photographs, which raise pressing socio-political issues in their juxtaposition within the socio-cultural environments they occupy. In a very real sense, Zoe – through her work – attempts to materialize the many abstract issues that affect contemporary America by adding an “enter-active” element to her retrospective which becomes so pervasive in their stark contrast with their surrounding milieu.  One might even feel as if the issues themselves are following them as they wonder throughout the city. The process of bringing these issues to the fore and planting them in the faces of many that do not deal with them from day to day seems evocative of the dérive of the Situationist International and their notions of a psychogeography. Creating a subjective and/or affective “disorientation” in one’s experience of the city. Suggesting new forms of urbanism by calling attention to it’s failures, successes, and all in all strangeness, Zoe’s work almost pulls viewers to experience new ways of interacting within and with the cityscape – wondering in places never visited before – searching for her billboards that dot the sky line.


Zoe Strauss | 10 Years Billboard Project (Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art)


All in all, the exhibit was effective in its display and in getting the plethora of messages it intended to be understood across.  Zoe’s attempt to give voice to these situations were not about heroicizing problems or vilifying the people’s stories displayed by her works but to vivify their memory. To add a thickness and intensity that contributed to the materialization of that memory. Not as an epithet or effigy but to in-liven their faces. The city of Philadelphia could have done a better job of linking the artist to the works strategically placed around the city, however, the explicit telling of the locations of the works (outside of the information provided on PMA’s website and the website created for the retrospective) would have seemed to err on the side of a didacticism that might have taken away from the intent of the exhibit overall. The purpose of the works in the gallery and the public art found throughout the city was more than to just display the works of an artist who has been involved in the social fabric of Philadelphia for more than a decade, but to call questions to many a problem in a tough town.  As Robert Moor would state in his Bones of a Book, the visualization of these people’s stories represented “a code that, when input through the optic nerve, induces structured, coherent hallucinations. An equivalent experience does not exist. Words have shape and musicality. They almost have a flavor. But they are too easily drowned out by stronger stimuli.”[2] Zoe wants to make sure that our over stimulation doesn’t force us to look over those along the margins of our society. She wants us to literally read their stories, her photography acting in the place of words and the cityscape replacing the paper to which she scribes her subject’s stories. Much like in re-thinking what constitutes a book, these works represent a materialized version of what we have discovered, what we know (along with what we, at times, choose to forget) and subsequently build knowledge of the world about and of ourselves.[3] Through them we discover who we are and what we are as a society. Zoe’s exhibit and billboard project are indicative of both of the fore mentioned ideas. We could learn that simplicity can be very powerful.


Zoe Strauss | 10 Years Billboard Project (photo credit: K. Scott Kreider)
Zoe Strauss | 10 Years Billboard Project (source: visitphilly.com)

Visit the online exhibition material here:

Zoe Strauss: 10 Years Exhibit – Philadelphia Museum of Art

Zoe Strauss Billboard Project in Philadelphia


Notes and Works Referenced:

[1] Debord, Guy, and Ken Knabb. “Théorie de la dérive”.Situationist International Anthology Revised and Expanded Edition. Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006. Print.

[2] Robert Moor, “Bones of the Book” n+1 12 (Fall 2011).

[3] William Germano, “What Are Books Good For?” The Chronicle Review(September 26, 2010).