I was not the only person to find the fruit affecting. In a monograph for Frieze about Zoe Leonard’s work, the critic Jenni Sorkin describes seeing the installation for the first time while wandering irritably around the Philadelphia Museum of Art some time around the beginning of the millennium. ‘From a distance,’ she writes, ‘it looked like detritus. Then I got closer and stopped being annoyed and instead became very sad and felt suddenly very alone – despair hit me like a truck. The sewn fruit was absurdly, inexplicably, intimate.’
Loss is a cousin of loneliness. They intersect and overlap, and so it’s not surprising that a work of mourning might invoke a feeling of aloneness, of separation. Mortality is lonely. Physical existence is lonely by its nature, stuck in a body that’s moving inexorably towards decay, shrinking, wastage and fracture. Then there’s the loneliness of bereavement, the loneliness of lost or damaged love, of missing one or many specific people, the loneliness of mourning.
All this, though, could be conveyed with dead fruit, with drying skins on a gallery floor. What makes Strange Fruit so deeply touching, so intensely painful, is the work of stitching, which makes legible another aspect of loneliness: its endless agonising hope. Loneliness as a desire for closeness, for joining up, joining in, joining together, for gathering what has otherwise been sundered, abandoned, broken or left in isolation. Loneliness as a longing for integration, for a sense of feeling whole.