Stranger than paradise
Blue Curry talks to Melanie Archer about the “misuse” of objects in his installations, and avoiding easy definitions
Detail of Untitled (2009), by Blue Curry; rope, bull shark jaw, 567 hours cassette tape; 300 x 50 x 50 cm. All images courtesy the artist
Dichotomies are at constant play in the work of the London-based Bahamian artist Blue Curry. Take, for example, his 2009 work Untitled — a 300 x 50 x 50–centimetre installation comprising rope, a bull shark jaw, and 567 hours of cassette tape. The shark’s jaw is suspended from the ceiling and the tape looks a bit like brown seaweed spewing from the inside of the invisible beast’s mouth to pool just so on the gallery floor.
Like much of Curry’s work, this piece is sophisticated but, at the same time, not. The impossible elegance of his compositions leans heavily towards minimalism, while the organic and inorganic materials themselves are presented either with a natural muted palette and simple forms, or highly manipulated, sleek surfaces. Curry’s work often engages objects that are visually associated with the tropics and, more specifically, the Bahamas, where the artist was born and lived until leaving in the early 1990s to further his education.
But to read Curry’s installations as a mere exploration of the tropical or the native would be too easy, too comfortable. Some forty years ago, the American artist Sol LeWitt put forward the idea that, in contemporary practice, “a work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist’s mind to the viewer’s. But it may never reach the viewer, or it may never leave the artist’s mind.”
Untitled (2009), by Blue Curry; rope, bull shark jaw, 567 hours cassette tape; 300 x 50 x 50 cm
Curry’s installations from the past few years are all titled Untitled — this alone closes a common conduit through which an artist hints at meaning in a particular work of art. One gets the same impression from talking with the artist — his words are deliberately chosen and he is “intentionally slippery” in defining his practice. Instead, we have to look not only at the materials of the installations but beyond them, beyond Curry’s little winks and sense of play in each work, and through to the message which remains, as always, open to interpretation.
— Melanie Archer
Untitled (2010), by Blue Curry; starfish, steel drum, mirrored perspex, silver tinsel;
150 x 50 x 50 cm
Untitled (2010), by Blue Curry; rope, polystyrene buoys, resin, crystal rhinestones;
1,100 x 25 x 25 cm
Untitled (2010), by Blue Curry; conch shell, strobe light (flash rate variable); 25 x 20 x 15 cm
In October and November 2010, via email, Curry answered a few questions about his recent work.
Melanie Archer: Your themes seem based on tropical imagery, but your materials mix the organic with technology, or with sleek or manmade materials (starfish/steel drum, shark jaw/tape). Could you talk a bit about the symbolism of this mix?
Blue Curry: I can say that direct symbolism doesn’t interest me. I’m really looking at image, and the way objects are used to create and reinforce an image. The starfish and the shark jaw are natural objects which have come to represent the image of the tropical, the exotic, and the native. They tie most people into fantasies of escaping to locations of leisure, warmth, and beauty. They sit at odds with manufactured materials that are functional, connected to productivity and associated with modernity. More than just putting these two classes of objects together, I consciously “misuse” them. The natural objects have already been turned into kitsch ornaments, and I likewise strip the manufactured objects of their use value. So, in the works you mentioned, an old oil drum becomes a mirror-topped display table, and the innards of audio cassette tapes are used to create a flowing gown.
MA: The Bahamas and the Caribbean are evident in your work. As your practice develops, do you feel that the influence of where you come from pushes you further along, or does the weight of it become increasingly uncomfortable?
BC: I can only feel the weight of it when I know I’m being considered a novelty, or asked to address politics which are of no interest to me. I hate being saddled with all of the superficial associations of the tourist destination just because the Caribbean can’t be understood in terms of critical thinking or contemporary art. I can’t tell you how many conversations I thought I was having about work which have ended as nothing more than fond recollections of sipping piña coladas while watching the sunset on a beach.
Further, when you can be identified closely with a place on the periphery of the bigger art world, you’re considered an “international artist,” a pejorative term which is a ghetto to be avoided. If it’s not all of that to contend with, then there will be someone haranguing you about colonialism or the diaspora and expecting that you take a position, because that is still the tired theory which is pulled out of the bag to interpret art production in the region. Identity politics are of no interest to me, and I don’t have to answer to them. I’m a visual artist born in the Caribbean who works with the image of that place, but I don’t claim to be making work representative of it, nor would I want it to be the main thing to define my practice.
MA: Yes, I reckon being considered an “international artist” is right up there (or down there, as the case may be) with being called a “black artist” or a “woman artist.” You say that you don’t want where you’re from to be the thing to define your work, but, in light of the materials you work with — sand, diving spear, sun cream, for instance — place might be difficult for people to look beyond. Is this a conscious or deliberate challenge on your part — for viewers to be able to look beyond the materials and through to the idea? And if it’s not place, what is the main thing that defines your work?
BC: That’s why I can’t understand why any artist would want to be recognised as, to use your examples, an “international black woman artist” — you paint yourself into a corner (bad art pun intended). It’s easy in a sense, because you always have the sound byte prepared for the interview, but it’s a formula for really predictable work. Maybe that’s why I’m intentionally slippery when it comes to making definite statements about my practice. I want to have the ability to make work that opens up a space for interpretation, rather than closing it down with set meanings spoon-fed to the viewer. Really good art for me operates in ambiguous and incongruous ways, avoiding easy definitions.
Not all of the materials I work with connect with the image of the Caribbean, but it is true that those materials that do are exceptionally loaded. It’s this “loadedness” of the materials that I’m interested in and work with ironically. The problem with irony is that sometimes the work flips back on itself and can appear to be a straight representation rather than a critical interrogation. As I don’t provide any justification of the work to say otherwise, on a cursory reading I suppose the viewer could think it’s about nothing more than where I’m from, as you suggest. There’s much more going on than just that, though, and smart viewers don’t have to have that explained to them.
MA: Does your work lose its criticality when shown at home compared to elsewhere?
BC: I make my work for a fine art audience — but of course what a fine art audience is varies from place to place. In London they are so highly exposed and so au fait with contemporary art that you can find yourself having a heated argument with a cab driver over who should win the Turner Prize, as I did recently. In this environment I always expect to be challenged and to have an opportunity for critical debate around my work. On the flip side, the audience in the Bahamas is much smaller and the interest in fine art does not permeate the wider society at all. Within the small circle of people who do appreciate contemporary art there is terrific enthusiasm and support, but the traditional boundaries and expectations for the visual arts continue to hem artists and discussions in. As a “hometown boy” I have to fit within those discussions, but I don’t adapt my work to do so. Instead I show the same work I show internationally, in order to glean a local perspective on what I’m doing and to perhaps expand the local art conversation in some way.
MA: Could you talk a bit about your process for an installation — are you motivated to develop pieces based on materials you find, or do you seek out materials to suit an idea?
BC: Making work for me is always about achieving the correct combination of ideas and materials. I’m persistently collecting, hoarding, and sifting through objects, images, and concepts. For the most part it’s an unconscious process. I’m always taking detailed mental notes on everything around me, as anything I come in contact with could end up in the work. Sometimes intuitively I know I have the perfect materials for a piece, but have to wait for my thinking to catch up in order to recognise their critical mileage. Other times I may come up with an idea and am unsuccessful at finding the exact materials I need, so I’ll keep it on the back burner until I do. Recently the discovery of a shimmering transparent powder-blue shower curtain completed a work that I had in mind for years. Imagine, an artwork owing its existence to IKEA!
There’s no telling where I’ll find that finishing element for a work or the object which may be the start of a new one, so I always have my eyes open.
MA: It can be argued that the space in which an installation is shown factors more heavily in the work than it would with another, more traditional artform. With that in mind, when creating a site-specific installation, are you guided by the space itself, or do you take an idea you’ve been thinking through and make it work in that space? Or is it a bit of both? — Do you find yourself adjusting a work or compromising due to the limitations of a space?
BC: Installations are always about compromise. The artwork is ephemeral in comparison with an architectural space, so usually it is the latter that defines the limits of the work, unless you’re planning to tackle it à la Gordon Matta-Clark. I always visit a space I’m working with before deciding on what to make, as there will be nuances, limitations, and technicalities to consider. When I moved a ton of sand to a gallery in Germany for an exhibition, I had to carefully consider the load the wooden gallery floor could bear before installing the piece. In this way the space you are given to work with can impose serious restrictions on your ideas, but also can be the impetus for whole new ideas or challenge set ways that you thought your work should be installed.
MA: Your work seems to have a humourous, playful element to it — a sort of joking that belies a serious message. I mean, you took a ton of sand on vacation! Could you comment a bit about the place humour has in your work, whether conscious or not?
BC: There definitely has to be a place for humour and lightheartedness in art. You can address serious issues in a non-confrontational way using humour. A conch shell with a strobe light flashing in it can be taken as serious conceptual minimalist stuff when you see it sitting there on a stark white gallery floor, but it’s really an absurd comical combination if you think of it in any other context. Because it is positioned in a rarified fine art way you might not know whether to laugh at my work or not — but you can.
Contemporary art is just daft sometimes, and I am knowingly taking the mickey out of it. Only in art could you take a ton of sand on vacation, fill a cement mixer with thirty gallons of sun cream, or glue beans on a car tyre, and call it work. Having said all of that, I still do take it all quite seriously.
Like Taking Sand to the Beach (2006), by Blue Curry; 1,927 lbs of sand collected from a beach in the Bahamas installed in a German gallery; 1,654 lbs returned; 550 x 500 x 30 cm
Blue Curry is a recent graduate of the MFA programme at Goldsmiths in London, where he lives and works today. He was born in the Bahamas in 1974. His work has been part of group shows at the Liverpool Biennial; Art Basel, Miami Beach; the Musée International des Arts Modestes, France; Real Art Ways, Connecticut; and at numerous galleries in London and the Bahamas. In 2011, Curry will take part in the Carnivalesque show at the World Bank in Washington, DC. His first major solo show, at the Nassauischer Kunstverein in Wiesbaden, Germany, opens in May 2011. See further examples of his work at www.bluecurry.com.
Melanie Archer is a former managing editor of DAP/Distributed Art Publishers in New York. She is now based in Trinidad.