Zoe Koke talks to Esther Isabel

Arizona Last Stop, 2020

The artistic gestures of Zoe Koke call into question societal forces, natural and manmade, accepted and forced, old and new, that weigh down contemporary shared experience. Her timely body of work highlights the falseness of myths that have been presented to us in her display and assemblage of the afterlives of everyday objects, poking holes in the hollow promises that are global capitalism, perceived gender roles, and the American dream. While attached to singular traumas, these gestures present us with commentaries on universal dilemmas that face the world, leaving viewers anxious, regretful, but hopeful. Zoe Koke is a Canadian artist and a recent UCLA MFA graduate, she lives and works in Los Angeles. . -Rafael Barrientos 

Border, 2020

Interview by Esther Isabel

You recently finished your MFA at UCLA. Since moving here, I have noticed that Los Angeles is a city of extremes. A city of high highs and low lows. Did you feel that the city and its energy has penetrated your art practise in the years that you have spent there? 

Sure. In Los Angeles, you can be anything you want to be. In a way, I feel entirely anonymous there, in particular, driving through the city. I think the environment certainly influenced what I was doing, there’s this deep sense of loneliness paired with this exhilarating notion of freedom. It’s perfectly American, and as one of the most photographed places in the world, I was intrigued by it and still am.

Elysium, 2019

American Dream, 2019

How do your politics inform what you do?

It might sound cheesy, but my politics are the reason I pursued art. It’s emblematic of freedom to me, albeit this freedom is very privileged and of course chained to the luxury market. But I do think of making art as a weirdo thing to do and a therapeutic need. 

Did you ever consider that the porcelain sculptures were symbolically representative of what you felt “chained down” by at that time in your life or that the traps you make represent a similar thing? Do you feel that art making is a subconscious or conscious materialization of one’s inner world? 

Yes. I was working through bodily trauma and was reading Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch and traps and chains were the most direct metaphor for capitalism’s effect on on the female or othered body. I think the history of the emergence of capitalism and it coinciding with the witch hunts and its connection to (veiled forms of) genocide and the degradation of different peoples is history we all need to know. To your second question, of course!

Childhood, nostalgia and the natural world are themes that I have noticed in your work. In 22nd Century, you had clementines strewn about the installation. It gave a visceral and nostalgic feel of the earth, it’s protective layer and it’s inevitable decomposition. Do you feel your art practice speaks to climate change? 

Thanks! The oranges were certainly offerings in this work, but also express something about abandonment. And I like this idea of them feeling protective. They also feel luxurious to me. The show is sort of a warning, like, “Look at the plenty right now.” I do think of my art as more and more connected to the natural world, expressing our strange move away from it, an inability to see its power. I like considering the accessible dichotomy of fragility and strength in representations of nature and definitions of “the sublime.” In this way the work is certainly about climate change. This Nina Simone song 22nd Century a friend showed me a couple years ago really struck a chord with me so I had it playing for my little solo show in Ottawa last year.

Nirvana (after the Malibu fires), 2019

22nd Century, 2019, installation view with clementines, MoMa PS311, Ottawa

Mythos, 2019, porcelain, glass thermometers

Afterlife, 2019

Acheron installation, 2019, Acheron and Texas-Mexico Border, inkjet prints, Nerve 1 (bear trap, charms, sterling silver chain) and offerings (bronze cast objects, volcanic rocks, petals and oranges on marble),

Since graduating, do you feel that there is a difference in how you navigate your artistic career? How hard is it to survive as an artist since being on your own outside of the institution? 

Of course. Grad school offers unrealistic conditions for art. Unless you come from money or a connected family and don’t need to have jobs to survive afterwards, it feels impossible to remake that period. The art world is blatantly classist and our society is so focused on the individual right now, which hopefully is changing as we speak. I am invested in art ultimately because I think what we make can tap into collective intelligence and communicate beyond language. I think the conversation needs to be larger than your own practice. 

You and I have collaborated on one of my music videos, Endings. I felt that your methodology was intrinsically feminine and gentle. How do you feel being a woman influences your art practise? 

Working with people I love and want to support makes that disposition natural. Trying to diminish ego is important to me. I am interested in the difficulty of love. How it’s one of the hardest things for people to do. I also have the privilege to be kind and inclusive, so why wouldn’t I attempt that in all things.  I also don’t believe women should have to take on dominant, snobby or masculine traits to have careers. Kindness and collaboration has a specific type of leverage in a world where the status quo is built on expressions of power.