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Beyond the Tropical Veneer: Sun cream and the Aesthetics of Leisure

Krista Thompson. 

NN, a publication of Forum Stadtpark, Austria. 2010.

Sun cream is an essential part of the tourist’s arsenal, a substance that marks, indeed embodies, the traveler’s immersion in the tropics. Pearl-white, sticky, shiny, and applied through a ritual of bodily touching and turning, it prepares visitors for their holiday experiences.  It glistens in anticipation of sweat, sits stubbornly on white skin on the verge of tanning, and intoxicates with an almost edible scent of “exotic extracts,” as a bottle of Hawaiian Tropic reads. The sun cream forecasts in a single whiff all the holiday pleasures one might consume, sensorially, visually, orally, sexually.  

It is precisely because sun cream, smeared on the body like paint on canvas, seems so representative of what the artist Blue Curry describes as an “aesthetics of leisure” that he chose it as a medium for his work. Indeed, the cover design for the catalogue is silk-screened by the artist with Hawaiian Tropic sun cream. It sits in small, creamy, iridescent, globular, and barely discernible dots across the surface of the book, forming a Braille, which emits that unmistakable and unforgettable tawny scent of suntan lotion. For the artist, who lives in London and grew up in the Bahamas, the project highlights the images and practices associated with touristic ideals of “the tropics”: the broadly defined, ever-changing, and often utopic ideals that encompass places worlds apart, from Hawaii to the Bahamas. In so doing he addresses the “global art industry,” and the ways that contemporary cultural practices come to be experienced, packaged and consumed.

His use of a singular “exotic extract,” as the substance of the piece, brings to the fore how in the past complex societies have been distilled into and sold through a product. To take the example of the artist’s country of birth, colonial administrators and tourism promoters marketed the Bahamas through different ingredients identified as tropical or exotic. In the 1860s, in perhaps the first olfactory-related tourism campaigns, the islands were marketed to travelers with respiratory ailments for their refreshing salt-air. Fifty years later, when the beach and sunbathing entered the imaginary of the tropical holiday, tourism promoters then reduced the tropical holiday experience down to sun, sand, and sea, elements that Curry has used as the main medium of his work in the past. The process of condensing the islands to a touristic substance, a refined product, continues, even though it is now carried out by national governments in the postcolonial era. His work begs the question, what happens to culture and art when enlisted in these processes of extraction and commodification? What form of culture and art comes to be constructed through the medium of sand and suntan lotion? How are tourists also acted upon, transformed bodily, and indeed produced through these tropical products and cultures?

The silk-screened covers call further attention to how notions of the tropics and its forms of touristic consumption have become so pervasive that they now regularly assume new and intangible forms. Tropical ideals are not confined to the realm of the visual nor do they require material forms of transmission or physical souvenirs. Rather, they can be produced through immaterial means such as through the body, memory, or, as the book covers demonstrate, the olfactory senses. Viewers of his work, who take or catch a whiff, both tap into longstanding ideals of the tropics and generate them anew. The smell of the sun cream automatically induces in every consumer, even the unintentional one, their own multi-sensorial images of the tropics, a whole world of ephemeral representations and sun cream tinged memory. There is something too about the materiality of the sunscreen, its buoyancy, water-resistance and plain resilience, its shifts in color, texture and smell that mimics how tropical fantasies take on their own material and immaterial lives. An exotic extract, the sun cream will change over the course of its visual life as part of an art object, leaving an imprint, a stain, in many ways mutable, uncontrollable, and unpredictable.

In much the same way that Curry’s contribution extends his inquiry into the nature of the tropical experience into the realm of art. His work probes the ways that artistic production is experienced and consumed in the present. His artwork, which is simultaneously the cover of a book about art, calls attention to the means, mediums, and immaterial expressions that translate or are seen to represent artistic practice. More specifically, it highlights the role of a book or catalogue in this process. In much the same way that he interrogates the substance of icons of the tropics, he calls attention to the materiality of catalogues, which can disappear from view and come to represent, to stand in for, the piece of art, exhibition, or event. Ultimately, he foregrounds that which is hidden from view, but presumed to be represented, in these efforts to distil and package contemporary art. 


Krista Thompson is an independent curator, associate professor of Art History at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and the author of An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography and the Caribbean Picturesque (2006) and Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice. Her writings have appeared in Art Bulletin, American Art, The Drama Review, and Small Axe.  

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