Re-tailed Narratives and Everyday Objects Re-membered: Blue Curry’s ‘Souvenir’

By Marsha Pearce Friday, January 30th, 2015 Categories: Exhibitions, Features, Reviews, Updates
 

Marsha Pearce shares a review of Bahamian artist Blue Curry’s installation ‘Souvenir’, which was exhibited at VITRINE Gallery in Bermondsey Square, London from 19 September – 22 November, 2014. Drawing on the Caribbean’s booming tourism industry, particularly in the Bahamas, Curry’s work exoticizes innocuous objects and repositions them as marketable, prompting questions around the representation of the Caribbean and its relationship to consumer culture. Read the review below:

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Blue Curry, Untitled, stand, foot stool, shipwreck, coconut, 190 x 45 x 45 cm, 2012.

To have a souvenir of the exotic is to possess both a specimen and a trophy; on the one hand, the object must be marked as exterior and foreign, on the other it must be marked as arising directly out of an immediate experience of its possessor. It is thus placed within an intimate distance.

– Susan Stewart, On Longing, 1993: 147

In one of his untitled three-dimensional forms, London-based, Caribbean artist Blue Curry synthesises an ontologically captivating equation of a footstool, the detritus of a shipwreck and a coconut. With this, and other works, Curry presents enigmatic, hybrid silhouettes in his exhibition entitled Souvenir. The solo show is a visual exposition that probes the spatialities of the personal and the remote – of here and over there – in a confident play with the idea of “intimate distance.” The many works, taken together, illustrate the myth of a divide between the ordinary and the extraordinary and reinforce the connections between the quotidian features of contemporary life and the exotic aspects of tourist practices.

The notion of tourism has, for some time, been described in terms of a distinction from the mundane everyday; a segregation of home and ‘getting away.’ In that framework of understanding, what sociologist John Urry (1990) calls the tourist gaze is a way of seeing and making meaning that is built through difference – a visuality predicated on the unfamiliar or the exotic. It is a kind of optics that is usually exploited via the manufacture and retailing of items that fall outside of the day-to-day confines of home and work, such that tourism can be regarded as “an exotic set of specialized consumer products occurring at specific times and places […] such as resorts, attractions and beaches” (Haldrup and Larsen 2010: 20).

Yet, what if the exotic was not restricted to the beach? What if the tourist gaze extended to routine objects and experiences? Blue Curry attends to these questions with his sculptural forms, which give perceptible expression to more recent arguments in tourism studies that posit we are tourists almost every day. In their book Tourism, Performance and the Everyday, Haldrup and Larsen note: “So, far from being grey and ordinary, our everyday spaces are full of exotic and spectacular signs; we may say that the tourist gaze has become part of our everyday life because we spend so much time in front of television and computer screens: screens through which the globe enters our (mobile) ‘homes’” (p. 24).

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Blue Curry, detail of the installation ‘Souvenir’, 2014.

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Blue Curry, Untitled, car tyre and beans, 2010.

Curry’s work responds to today’s milieu of globally circulating symbols and images by taking commonplace objects often found at or closer to home: a hair comb, a lampshade, a car tyre, for example, and dis-placing or dis-locating them from their typical contexts of functionality and signification. He then re-members them, harnessing and appropriating the tenor of the word “souvenir,” a term which enters English language from the French verb meaning to recall or occur to the mind. His pieces, however, are more than outcomes of an act of summoning back. The result of his creative process of re-membering is his own conceptualisation of the souvenir that hinges on the prefix “re-” and stirs us to see afresh. His souvenir is, therefore, a radical combination and newly configured assemblage that resists quick and easy consumption; one that invites our eyes to travel across imbricated territories of the familiar and the foreign; the known and unknown; the unremarkable and the surprising.

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Blue Curry, Untitled, slide projector carousel, ashtray, decorative planter, 25 x 25 x 25 cm, 2011.

Blue Curry, Untitled, conga drum, mirror, sand, polystyrene, decorative platters, 110 cm x 65 cm, 2012.

Blue Curry, Untitled, conga drum, mirror, sand, polystyrene, decorative platters, 110 cm x 65 cm, 2012.

In one piece, Curry articulates a slide projector carousel with an ashtray and decorative planter. In another, a conga drum is orchestrated with mirrored perspex and a standing arrangement of platters. What might these various elements have to say in conversation with each other? How are we to decipher these unusual amalgams? If, as art historian and cultural theorist David Hume writes in his work on the material culture of tourism, souvenirs possess an invitational attribute – that is, they carry to varying extents a capacity to absorb our narratives – then Curry’s works remain wide-open provocations that keep us from applying any interpretations to them with finality. He vexes attempts to fix meanings to the objects, to comprehend them with certainty, and in so doing, he flirts with what Susan Stewart calls “the danger of the souvenir.”

We can get a sense of the peril that can come with unfamiliar objects in, for example, the North American 2001 film The Mummy Returns. In the movie, characters Rick and Evelyn O’Connell return to London with their son Alex from a trip to a site in an Egyptian city. They take with them the exotic Bracelet of Anubis, which a curious Alex puts on. The bracelet, however, exerts its control and will not let the young boy remove it from his arm. As the story unfolds, we learn that Alex has little time before the bracelet will suck the life out of him and awaken a Scorpion King and his army. It is this potential of the souvenir to wield its agency that Stewart acknowledges in her book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. She observes: “The danger of the souvenir lies in its unfamiliarity, in our difficulty in subjecting it to interpretation. There is always the possibility that…the object itself will take charge…In most souvenirs of the exotic, however, the metaphor in operation is…one of taming” (p. 148).

There can be tough encounters with souvenirs, but Stewart sees that the trope often at work is one in which an object of difference must acquiesce to our translations and definitions. Curry, however, undermines this convention of thought. In engaging the notion of the exotic or the different, Blue Curry’s works resist our tendency to tame or discipline the various objects he brings into dialogue with each other. Experiences of his art become a deliciously risky interaction of will. Can the artworks bend to our imposed desires and understandings, or is it that we must submit to the power of evasion his sculptures hold? It is this push and pull of expectations and connotations, indeed the destabilisation of presumptions and calculations, that makes for a stimulating traversing through the exhibition.

Installation shot of Blue Curry's 'Souvenir'.

Blue Curry, Souvenir (Installation shots), 2014, VITRINE Bermondsey Square. Photographed by the artist.

Curry takes this process of subverting our gaze a step further by deploying the sea as a “representative piece” of his tropical birthplace of the Bahamas and injecting it into the space of the Vitrine gallery as a stretch of backdrop, against which we must reread some of his strategically mounted work. Sea, sun and sand have long been emblematic consumer products of Caribbean tourism and the Bahamas, in particular, has played a dominant role in that industry: “The Bahamas has been a mass tourism giant in the Caribbean […]. For a nation of about three hundred thousand people, it has carried a disproportionate share of the Caribbean tourism market. No country has taken the mythology of the Caribbean as ‘paradise’ more seriously than has the Bahamas” (Strachan 2002: 92).

Curry establishes the sea as an exotic, paradisiacal specimen or souvenir. The souvenir is, after all “metonymic to the scene of its original appropriation in the sense that it is a sample” (Stewart 1993: 136). With the image of the sea, he sets up a panoramic view that spans the gallery’s 16 metre-long window. Against this image, he positions a number of Plexiglas stands upon which sit his sculptural composites of hair combs. The transparency of the Plexiglas pedestals makes them almost vanish against the aquamarine sea and Curry’s objects appear to float on the water. This floating or suspension of his objects constitutes both a literal and metaphoric disconnection of the items from their everyday use and it is a tactic by the artist that allows us to see them in relation to and as part of the sea as souvenir. Curry uses alienation and display value to achieve a recontextualisation of plastic hair combs as exotic: “For the invention of the exotic object to take place, there must first be separation. It must be clear that the object is estranged from the context in which it will be displayed as a souvenir; it must be clear that use value is separate from display value…to create ‘tourist art’ is to create display value from the outset” (Stewart 1993: 149).

This idea of display value has strong currency in how the artworks are to be addressed and perceived in Curry’s Souvenir. Through his use of the gallery’s long window – which is located on Bermondsey Square and can be viewed by the public 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – in a retail style or store window display format, he instigates a re-tailing of the objects. Again, that prefix “re-” is invoked in his presentation. In other words, in re-tailing his pieces, he quickens us to engage with the objects and come to new ends, new conclusions, new “tails” – or the homophone “tales,” which speaks to the notion of the narratives that can be linked to and delinked from the familiar items that populate our everyday existence. Curry definitely sells us something in this exhibition: we are encouraged to buy into a more penetrating vision of the world around us. He deftly manipulates our gaze, calling for us to make our practice of looking less myopic and more expansive, like the horizon of blue sea that seems to extend forever in the space of the gallery, beckoning us beyond that line where sky meets water; beyond constructed, artificial limits of knowing and experiencing.

Blue Curry, Souvenir (Installation shots), 2014, VITRINE Bermondsey Square. Photographed by the artist.

Blue Curry, Souvenir (Installation shots), 2014, VITRINE Bermondsey Square. Photographed by the artist.

This is of course, not the first time an artist has presented us with configurations of elements that ask us to recalibrate our sight. Picasso’s 1942 “Bull’s Head,” created from the seat and handlebars of a bicycle, is one case in point. Yet, what sets Blue Curry apart with this body of work is his situating of his visual perspectives within a discourse on tourism and exoticism, which allows us to blur distinctions between near and far and book flights to revisit our comfort zones, where the phenomenal sings with and through the humdrum. This makes his exhibition one grand souvenir – a reminder that we sample life and win our trophies every day when we rise with courage and imagination to tend to our children, go to work and relax on our sofas with television remote in hand or a good book.

‘Souvenir’ ran at VITRINE Gallery, Bermondsey Square, London from 19 September – 22 November 2014.

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References:

Haldrup, Michael and Jonas Larsen. Tourism, Performance and the Everyday: Consuming the Orient. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Hume, David. Tourism Art and Souvenirs: The Material Culture of Tourism. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

Strachan, Ian Gregory. Paradise and Plantation: Tourism and Culture in the Anglophone Caribbean. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2002.

The Mummy Returns. Dir. Stephen Sommers. Perf. Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, Freddie Boath and Arnold Vosloo. Universal Pictures, 2001.

Urry, John. The Tourist Gaze. London: Sage, 1990.

Marsha Pearce
Marsha Pearce

Marsha Pearce is ARC’s Senior Arts Writer and Editor. She holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine Campus, Trinidad. She lectures in the Department of Creative and Festival Arts at UWI and is also a freelance arts writer for the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspaper. Pearce is the 2006 Rhodes Trust Rex Nettleford Cultural Studies Fellow.