Toon Leën

The I of the Work: Mediating Between Images as an Artistic Practice

This PhD project explores why images so often appear to operate with agendas of their own. As an artist, I approach this question from the position of an accomplice in the ambiguous, misleading, and mysterious ‘activities’ of images. Positioning myself as an intermediary rather than a ‘maker’ of images, I investigate correspondences between images from various contexts, including art collections, historical archives, news websites, and social media.

In a series of lecture performances and video works, I experiment with different ways of speaking about images. Building on the work of scholars in visual culture studies, Bildwissenschaft, and anthropology, this project connects three intersecting lines of inquiry: it addresses the interaction between images, the ability of images to evoke empathy, and the ways in which images can be used as substitutes. Premised on the idea that the agency of images is a function of relations rather than of fixed attributes, this project investigates the elements that establish such relations, and seeks to follow the images’ movements, imagine their motives, and facilitate their mutual attractions.

The first stage of this research culminated in the exhibition —Sarah Bal— at Fred&Ferry Gallery in Antwerp (February–March 2022). The exhibition featured a series of abstract paintings and a video lecture by fictional artist Sarah Bal. Taking the figure of the dash as its leitmotif, the exhibition combined a subjective iconography of coups d’état with a reflection on the rhetorical device of interruption. These themes were further developed in the lecture performances A Big Basket of Apples (2022) and Homage to the x (2022). In my current research, I am focusing on the notion of image-mediated empathy. The lecture Homage to an Absent Pony (2023) addresses the persistent influence of Christian iconography on visual strategies for evoking empathy. To further explore how images direct our empathic gaze, I initiated the conference and exhibition project Agents of Concern , which took place at PXL-MAD School of Arts, in November and December 2023. This project brought together a wide range of perspectives on how images affect our empathic engagement with others.

Toon Leën studied painting at Sint Lucas Antwerp. His work moves between painting, video, and lecture performance. Earlier projects include the lecture performance Personally, I’m Most Interested in the Shapes and Colours, which was accompanied by an artist book of the same title (published by MER. Paper Kunsthalle, 2015); the lecture performance Sarah Bal, Student of Colours (2019); the concert lecture Correspondances mystérieuses, in collaboration with pianist Lucas Blondeel (2019/2021); and the short video Zwischen den Bildern (2020).