We’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow is a new body of work by Kotama Bouabane that examines the relationship between object and image through an experimental ethnographic approach. Taking its title from the Beach Boys’ 1988 song “Kokomo,” which describes a lush fictional island off the Florida Keys, the exhibition similarly explores the construction of tropical non-places—ones that exist only in the North American middle-class imagination—through numerous familiar tropes in travel photography. Just as Kokomo becomes a stand-in for all things exotic, images featuring palm trees, coconuts, or dewy cocktails conjure ideas of paradise, escape, leisure, and luxury.
The series takes as its starting point an image of artfully arranged coconuts, suggestively cracked open as drinking vessels, which Bouabane found in a 1970s Kodak manual on colour correction. For Bouabane, the dramatic presentation of the image within the banal technical manual draws a connection between photography and economies of leisure and travel, while also being emblematic of photography’s complacency in the exoticization and commodification of its subject. Playfully inverting this consumer-object relationship, the series obsessively takes coconuts as form, medium, and content. The exhibition brings together images created from a pinhole camera made out of a coconut and processed with coconut water in the chemistry, photograms of coconut “faces” made by puncturing the indentations on top of coconuts that seem to present a chorus of singing characters, and a large-scale coconut sculpture that quietly fills the exhibition with a rendition of “Kokomo” played on the khene, a traditional Laotian reed instrument made of bamboo and coconuts.
This mimetic and obsessive layering of coconut imagery destabilizes an easy or unified reading. Rather than overdetermining the symbolism of the object, the repetition fragments meaning and points to the artifice inherent in the photographic medium. The coconut appears again, humorously out of context and mounted to the end of a selfie stick held by Bouabane as he poses with tourists at a lookout on a mountain in Banff, another highly exoticized place. Presented as a postcard, the absurdity of the image underscores the seemingly bottomless human desire to document and locate ourselves in relation to place. The familiar wide-open mountain expanse pictured in the background of this image—often circulated on postcards and in candid photos from family vacations—is unsettled by the presence of the coconut. Taken out of context, the coconut, an object with rich associations to place, confuses a clear relationship between signifier and signified. Instead, the accumulation and repetition of the symbol self-reflexively attempts to reckon the object within its field of representation and reengages the image as a mutable site for contemplation.
Co-presented with Gallery 44
Curated by Leila Timmins