Sze Tsung Nicolás LEONG is a British-Mexican-American artist, born in Mexico City, and currently based in Los Angeles.
His visual practice focuses on how we see, understand, and belong to the world—whether it is by assembling a new landscape that questions how we divide near and far, foreign and familiar, as in his series Horizons; by revealing how a society can be reshaped through the erasure of its history, as in his series History Images; or by surveying the newly unfamiliar terrains of a political map discolored by isolationism and nationalism, as in his series Atlas.
Hi everyone, and thank you so much Selena; thank you Pascal, for inviting me to this fascinating project. I was intrigued by the title An Atlas of Looking at Water for two reasons: one is the meaning of atlas as a way of looking at the world, and the other is the mythological figure of Atlas, carrying the universe on top of his back, and the interesting play of scales between the micro and the macro that results.
So, I took this container of water (1) to see if I could derive a look at the world from it, and basically to try to make a landscape out of this container, because landscape is one of my main focuses. So what I did is I took a macro lens and stuck it right up to the edge of the water to see what would result.
This is probably a couple centimeters of the edge of the water against the glass (2). What I first noticed is that I would have thought the water would make a straight line, but it actually made a wavy line, and it reminded me of waves or an ocean view. What was interesting was that it was hard to focus on anything. When I looked closely at the photograph, there were little bits of dust and bubbles in the glass, but otherwise there was this atmospheric view that started to get a bit closer to something perhaps looking like an ocean landscape (3).
Because it was hard to focus on the water itself, I put a thin layer of oil on the top just to give a little bit to focus on and also change the conditions around the glass. This time, I made the container’s surroundings completely white and it started to look perhaps a little more Arctic, or icy (4).
Then, with this picture, I think there were some wood surfaces nearby, so it started to become more like an earthy landscape (5).
And what I discovered is that if I changed the focus—if I focused just beyond the edge of the glass, to the outside edge—then the water itself started to suggest more atmosphere (6).
There was a reflection from the bottom of the glass that then became or suggested the horizon line—which, depending on the conditions, which I’d change very slightly, started to become very different landscapes.
This is a little bit more deserty (7).
This last one, with the horizon line a bit more defined, started to get a bit more of that idea of distance happening (8).
This exploration put me into more or less of a reverie that reminded me of the William Blake poem “Auguries of Innocence.” The first line goes “To see a World in a Grain of Sand,” which I would modify in this case to be “To see a World in a Glass of Water.” To go back to the image of Atlas carrying the heavens, and this play of scales, I wanted to see if I could connect the smaller scale of photographs of this small container of water to the larger world—and to connect it to a larger project that I’ve been working on called Horizons, in which I’m picturing the world through looking very far into the distance. I hadn’t realized this before, but because I’ve been photographing this for so long (this is a project that I’ve been working on since about 2001) that it is, in a way, an atlas of water.
The series includes a wide range of different conditions and different states of water found on this very varied earth: the Dead Sea (9), Suruga Bay in Japan (10), the Philippine Sea from Taiwan (11), a salt lake in France’s Camargue (12), and the Salar de Uyuni, a dry salt lake in Bolivia (13).
Here, in Iceland, we see the different states of water from ice (14) to steam (15).
Here, in the Indian Ocean, you can see the different depths of water from changes in color, in a region whose existence is threatened by rising sea levels (16). And here, a recent appearance of bioluminescence in Southern California (17).
I also wanted to connect this series to the relationship between humans and water—and there is a sort of a mini story, through these photographs, of the relationship of humans to water. It begins with us coming out of the water as fish (18). This is not actually picturing that event, but is an image of tidal flats in France. We then eventually developed a relationship towards water that included a sacred relationship to a force that is much more powerful than we are (19).
We eventually built cities. These pictures represent that thin layer of civilization on top of the earth: Venice (20), Chicago (21), and even cities built despite the lack of water, like Dubai (22).
We learned to navigate and trade and form global networks (23), then also learned to control water, and channel and contain it on a tremendous scale. This is in California (24), and this is the largest dam in the world, the Three Gorges Dam in China (25).
We also learned to draw borders through water (26). This is one of the aspects (I guess you could call it) of the Anthropocene that I find very interesting: that, despite the vastness of the world, there is a human tendency to draw lines over it and to draw borders that are often incredibly arbitrary in relationship to the contours of the earth.
And with these lines, I think it’s a very important reminder when we are looking at water, that water is a substance that is fluid—it’s always changeable and very much in contrast to many of these human impulses to draw and fix lines on the earth. I hope that these pictures might serve as a reminder of that power of water (27).