Walk into America

Review October 7, 2020

By Patryk Stasieczek

I surprised Zoe Koke at an exhibition of hers in an East Vancouver multipurpose space. She didn’t notice me immediately, so I watched as she remedied an unwanted peekaboo of wood and canvas behind a piece of tapestry that was a part of her installation. Her movements reminded me how long it had been since we last occupied the same place—during a Montreal winter in a repurposed basement that smelled of Dove soap. Her practice became suddenly present and I half-visibly paced between her photographs occupied with thoughts on wellness, the physical materiality of being, and how a practice of writing images embodies resolution but retains layers of distortion. Days after the opening, she and I walked the Boundary Bay shoreline of the Tsawwassen First Nation with our eyes peeled for fragments of shell burnished by the water and sand.

Koke had recently moved to Texas from Los Angeles and I had returned to the Lower Mainland region of British Columbia. Together we were elsewhere, digesting the mythos of what had pulled us away. We talked about the immediacy of place, the resonant vibration of media, and the affects influencing our transitional currents as we collected particle-encrusted pastel lengths of organic waste. I had many self-reflexive and private thoughts grating in my permanent evaluative mind, but was pulled back by the kilometre-long distance of low tide. We discovered that the best shell fragments were at the wavering high tide line where larger pieces of sediment and sea life washed up.

Image: Installation view of American Myth, 2019 by Zoe Koke. Photo by Mitchell Barton, courtesy of Washer / Dryer Projects.

We would have unknowingly entered the United States had we continued walking south and not turned back on account of the cold, the humid wind against our faces. I am uncertain of Trump’s America. I see it painted in polarized light, masquerading the pursuits of freedom and justice as attention seeking models of a frenzied reactor of 24-hour news cycles and algorithmic conditioning. This era of uncertainty is fuelled by infotainment slanted by political leanings, lobbyists, conglomerates and is mirrored by the resonant cry of “don’t forget to like and subscribe, and hit that notification bell.” This phenomenon is not limited to America, it is in fact a global one, but the systems branch out from the roots of the pursuit of Western freedom. I spoke with Koke of my time in Florida’s panhandle for an exhibition and how reassuring the disparity between my anticipation and reality was. She concurred these worried myths in her pursuit of graduate studies at UCLA and her later decision to resettle in Texas throughout our outward search for rough/smooth fragments of the grit and it quelled my internalization. Underscoring my inward uncertainty, my access to her exhibition has been mediated through my knowledge of her, our shared experiences and an interface of images and words that have cyclically appeared on the screens that carry me as much as I carry them.

In Zoke Koke’s American Myth, impermanence is emphasized by the flash-lit, textural fragmentation of a seemingly inaccessible site in middle America. As a northern cultural cousin to the United States, Canadians often conflate their own North-American cultural identity through the “maintenance [of] images, symbols, places, and icons” in Americana and the American dream. (1) This idea of the West as a pervasive global phenomenon disregards the historic atrocities of a systemic colonial legacy in the continuation of such an illusion. This myth of America that Koke articulates in her work is as universal as it is tangential. Her work is a precipitate of a self-awareness and complicity in the voluntary and involuntary sustainment of fleeting symbols of Freedom such as is represented in her photographic representation of Lady Liberty and civil disobedience. This dilemma she is facing—the pursuit of happiness in spite-of-it-all—is pointed out in her non-hierarchical treatment of double exposed images and their placement. Presented as a visual ruin, the images intervene in Washer/Dryer Projects, a private laundry room project space in Salt Lake City, and act as containers of her proximity to simulated institutions and fleeting American landscapes. 

Image: Detail of work in American Myth, 2019 by Zoe Koke. Photo by Mitchell Barton courtesy of Washer / Dryer Projects.

As her exhibition is mediated through a photographic interpretation and the digital screen, how the photographs render the exhibition space is a quandary. It is impossible for me to remove the snapshot aesthetic from Koke’s interventions, and I considered the documentation as a collaborative footnote with Mitchell Barton of Washer/Dryer Projects. This layering underscores the physical insertion of Koke’s photographic observations on the fallacy American mythology—such as liberty, fame and monetary success—specifically in relation to power and well-being. These ideals are tied to creative practice and professionalization that double down on the validation that American art institutions have in validating the myth of an artist, especially for those back home. With her collective symbolism of double exposed images, the exhibition space, a site of domestic care and maintenance, becomes hyperbolic. Here, the simulacrum of her encoded arrangements is itself a malleable vehicle for an internal re-evaluation of the American dream, a dream that is played out as an intentional lean onto the legacy of Western structures in contemporary culture. This presence is unyielding.

A photograph taped to the exhaust ventilation of the often-used domestic utility appliance, (the dryer) provides a reference point for Koke. Functioning as a mise en abîme, (2) her intervention of organized glasses filled with fluid is superimposed with a floating image of antique show globes. These glass vessels were developed in Britain, and by 1789 were exported to windows in America to help differentiate businesses that sold medicinal remedies and promoted an ideal of wellness. By the 1930’s, these vessels became a legislated symbol of transformation for the old Western apothecary into the more contemporary pharmaceutical industry. In towns and cities, these globes also conveyed messages: red was used as a color stating an active, localized plague, and green was used as an emblem that all is well. In her exhibition, Koke physically reimagines these globes as an arrangement of plastic champagne glasses filled with a rose coloured liquid. This color is a warning, and it speaks to the internalized disassociation of an embodied truth as evidenced in her photographic images. This warning is compounded further with her image of the windowed vitrines of show globes. It becomes a mirror for her cheap facsimiles, her receptacles of myth, and the site itself has doubled once again.

Image: Detail of work in American Myth, 2019 by Zoe Koke. Photo by Mitchell Barton courtesy of Washer / Dryer Projects.

The personifications of Libertas in the exhibition are exemplified as a papier-mâché figure at a demonstration against the presidency in New Orleans, and again as the half-scale clone housed in the New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, dupes that anchor the mythology of Auguste Bartholdi’s 134-year-old monument to liberty. The synthetic pervasiveness of the American dream does not easily reconcile the “real” conditions that are prone to unravel when one confronts their freedoms. Between the internally anticipated dream and the external confrontation of personal circumstances, pressures and realities, the exhibition acts as a vehicle through that moment of uncertainty in the “pursuit of happiness”. The myth depends on the dreamer and for an artist like Koke, it becomes a coping mechanism: hinged on doubt and reliant on hope. Showcasing her work in a non-hierarchical setting is not new for Koke. Her intention to circumvent capital “A” art spaces addresses the socio-economic positions that many working, recently professionalized artists face today. Immersed in this reality, I believe that this also articulates the increasing reliance on photography as an interdisciplinary tool for acknowledging these marginalized forms of labour. Evermore images have become relays for the assimilation of aesthetic information via the interconnectivity of the Internet, and in Trump’s America images are being re-defined as subjective emblems of truth (little myths). The documentation of Koke’s exhibition is the vehicle for a performativity in artistic production that reinforces the hierarchical systems that traditionally support, legitimize, and establish emergent forms of inquiry, community, and visibility. The documentation of American Myth removes the viewer and revokes the embodied relationship that we have with images—and as a result I am viewing Mitchell Barton’s translation of Koke’s exhibition, and this is unsettling. Photography is a subjectivity, it is a vehicle that evades definition and emphasizes our inward attention. As participants of images, photographs accelerate the process of becoming in viewing that presses against a collective pursuit towards something into an internalized process of mirroring, coding and decoding. As a result, images become inescapable tools that serve our collective myths, ideals, and articulate the foundations that have become emblems of our expressive trajectory into the maintenance of Western ideals. For Koke and the work exhibited in American Myth, images serve as a warning and are an inescapable maintenance of myth. We look up to the horizon at the encompassing, evasive, dynamic line of elsewhere which surrounds us, and think of what brought us here. We articulate a drive of unspoken futures through images that are in collusion with our inward nature, drawn out by our actions with objects and place. As a result, the photographer becomes the vector for myth and its ability to inspire and defeat. This exchange becomes a survival of a divisively meaningful and fleeting mediation of influence and substance. As a residue of being-here, photographs make permanent the impermanence of being, they are the show globes of the now and they place an individual with the world and evoke a poetic deception that perpetuates an unsettling attention to our hapless myths.

1. Zoe Koke, Exhibition Text, Washer / Dryer Projects, 2019.

2. A formal technique of placing a copy of an image within itself, often in a way that suggests an infinitely recurring sequence.

American Myth showed in December 2019 at Washer / Dryer Projects in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA.

Feature Image: Installation view of American Myth by Zoe Koke. Photo by Mitchell Barton courtesy of Washer / Dryer Projects.