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Terence Koh

The Grayscale Universe of a Post-Media Artist
Written by Maxwell Williams. Photographed by Alexei Hay.

It was easier to remember the beginning of my three days with the artist Terence Koh than the end. In the beginning: there is a bedroom-sized restaurant in Chinatown called Brown, where I meet Koh for dinner. “I have no brains,” he says exhaustedly. “I lost all my brain cells.” It’s the week of the opening of Performa 9, the performing arts biennial in New York for which Koh is giving multiple performances. This part is true. I remember thinking it odd that Koh would meet me at a place called Brown, given I had just watched a conversation with him from his YouTube project, “The Terence Koh Show” (2008). In it, Koh says, simply, “I hate color.”

We eat pike and share a flourless chocolate brownie with vanilla gelato, then grab some beers (for me) and cranberry juice (for Koh) and move over to Koh’s apartment to continue the conversation. At the bottom of the stairs are a cluster of shoes and a sign that says SHOES OFF FAG. “I’m germaphobic,” explains Koh sheepishly. Or maybe he’s not. “Actually, I like to torture people. I like to watch them take off their shoes. Especially ladies. They’re usually in high heels when they come. They get pissed off because it’s part of their outfit.” From there, up the white stairs into the rabbit hole of Koh’s apartment we go. Here, as is true of a decent percentage of Koh’s artwork, it is dominantly white. Nestled in the cracks of the white linoleum floor is a human skull; the taxidermied albino peacock you see on this magazine’s cover sits in a glass vitrine by the white wall. A white couch, a white table, Terence Koh, dressed in white. We begin the interview. “I’m having tea,” says Koh. But maybe I saw him pouring a vodka and cranberry juice. “No. I’m having chamomile tea.”

“Probably, yes,” says Koh when I ask him if he will answer truthfully to the questions I ask him. Things can be interpreted in different ways in his life and art, an ambiguity that I admire more and more in Koh’s work. It’s not always threadbare like some shows at galleries and museums, where you walk in and you pick up the one-sheet artist’s statement and you easily connect the dots between process and concept, medium and intention. It’s the contrary for Koh’s art—you have to work for it. To prove this, all I need to do is look to my right, where Koh’s two mini-refrigerators [one of which may or may not be broken and which may or may not contain the cranberry juice in which Koh may or may not have mixed vodka into] and his microwave are fit like Tetris into several of Koh’s famed vitrines from his Kunsthalle Zürich show in 2006. In the vitrines—which remind me of Kinder eggs with prizes inside—are objects purchased while thrift store shopping in Berlin, all painted white. What are they exactly, other than glass boxes with trinkets inside? “I am purely a conceptual artist,” says Koh, with infinite irony. So, maybe then it’s the space in between concept and beauty, or maybe it’s the space between post-minimalism and irony, that Koh exists. It’s a start. But, where does it all come from?

What we do know about Terence Koh is he was born in either Beijing or Singapore or Malaysia or Vancouver. Somewhere on Earth, probably. Let’s say China, 1980, because that’s what it says on the website of the gallery that represents him, Peres Projects. He studied architecture, and was one of Zaha Hadid’s star assistants. His early work was made under the nom de guerre asianpunkboy, and mainly existed as a website full of poems and pornography. Wikipedia says he was raised in Mississauga, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto. asianpunkboy died when Terence’s work became a hot commodity, around 2003. See, if anything is certain, Koh is the poster boy for contemporary art. He is, for lack of a better term, what Picasso, Duchamp, Warhol, Basquiat, and Gilbert & George were before him: a fully formed “art star.” What that means is, again, open to interpretation and argument. He is not part of any categorical art movement, and his work sells for a lot of money. He is Asian and he is gay and he was married this summer to a graphic designer named Garrick—who designs all his art books—and he lives on Canal Street. He has ten fingers and ten toes and he doesn’t pronounce the “h” in “th.” He “tinks” about “tings.” He is a very good artist. Or a very bad one.

In 2007, Marc Spiegler wrote a rather baiting article, albeit well-written and entertaining, treating his New York Magazine readers to a spectacle of excess (a document of Koh and his dealer Javier Peres on a shopping spree) and of semi-open insider art dealings (it cost $400,000 to create the 1400 vitrines for the Kunsthalle Zürich show). He documented Koh’s usage of bodily fluids (a gold-plated collection, including Koh’s excrement, sold for $500,000). Given that the article was called “Is Terence Koh’s Sperm Worth $100,000?,” it is more a critique of the art market’s treatment of a young artist, or a subtle jab against decadence in the art world, than it is a profile of Koh. In fact, Koh hardly shows up in it, as if to reiterate that it’s hard to pin him down.

On the other hand, London’s Serpentine Gallery’s Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects, Hans Ulrich Obrist (the #1 most powerful man in the art world, according to ArtReview Magazine’s much derided, yet often discussed, Power 100), has followed Koh’s career for some time now. In an e-mail, he explains to me what he thinks of Koh’s work. “[I’m interested in] the utopian dimension and obvious proximity with the notion of Gesamtkunstwerk,” says Obrist, using an art historical term translated as “comprehensive artwork,” referring to Koh’s all-encompassing practice in the post-medium situation. “Terence Koh does everything: he does books, he does boxes, he does exhibitions, he does Internet, he does performances. He does specific installations, but he also does what Gilbert & George call ‘art for all.’” Obrist goes on to talk about Koh’s main influences: Warhol and Yoko Ono. Fame is a word often associated with Koh. Ono was very famous, too, but weird. Maybe that’s what ties them all together. They’re all Gesamtkunstwerk-ing weirdos.

As I sit in front of Terence Koh at his kitchen table, I quickly understand my interview with him will be much more of a conversation. It will be less of the dialectic he and Obrist recently had (also on YouTube) and definitely not investigative or unpleasant. He speaks softly when he admits he doesn’t allow very many face-to-face interviews—perhaps as a result of Spiegler’s less-than-flattering look into his world—preferring to conduct them through e-mail. Koh puts on John Cage’s “Music for Two Pianos.” Other than that it is eerily quiet. Koh even notes that we are being extremely “civilized.” But it could be even more so. “Ideally,” he muses, “that would be a perfect life: to be in an all-white room and to have nothing but a bed and all my groceries would be brought in a little pill.”

Regardless of our civility, we end up discussing everything from New York artist Ray Johnson’s suicide (“I like artists’ lives more than the artists’ work.”) to George Michael’s art collection (“One of my goals in my life is for George Michael to collect a Terence Koh piece.”) to meeting Madonna the night before in the Standard Hotel’s Boom Boom Room (“She was grinding on me!”). He sings me an aria from “Adansionias, A Tragic Opera in 8 Acts,” a recent project he did in Paris. He is extremely intelligent and knowledgeable about art history and can expound upon his work like few other artists, but his lost brain cells keep him taciturn for the most part tonight. “I forgot the question,” he says. “I’m being a difficult interview.” Suddenly, the interview devolves into yes and no answers. And then he starts to just say “yes” to everything. In a video from “The Terence Koh Show,” Chinese artist Zhang O asks Terence if his Chinese name is Ming Fing Ling. I ask him about that. “I guess that’s my name,” he says, giggling as though he’d never heard it before. “I like the way it sounds.

“I don’t intentionally make things vague and inconsistent,” he continues. “It’s as truthful as I can be. It’s what I remember. I just want to make things more honest. It’s like Indian myths and folklore. It’s just as truthful as the rain falling down.” Then, Koh tells me about why rain falls. It’s because of a white polar bear that he says died in Ontario. An Indian chief who wanted to show his prowess killed the bear. The bear’s tears are the rain.

The next evening, Koh and I, along with his assistants Alex and Val take a car to the Brooklyn Museum. It is sprinkling outside, but unseasonably warm. When we get there we are herded into a tiny storage closet in the education center of the museum, where Val applies full black body paint to Koh, who is in a black leotard and matching black sheer tights. I have offered my assistance and will be Koh’s videographer. When Koh is fully blackened, Alex and Val, also in black, put on long black wigs backwards so as to cover their faces, like a pair of heavy metal Cousin Its. I am told by the museum to get Terence at exactly 9:30 p.m. I am told by Terence to stall. Finally at about 9:45, a museum staffer comes to get Koh. I try to tell her the paint is still drying, he’ll come out soon. She makes it clear she’s not leaving the room without him. Koh, the diva, steps in. “I’ve been doing this so long,” he says. “I’ll go out when I go out. That’s how it works.”

When we emerge from the storage closet, the lights in the museum lobby have been dimmed. Koh positions himself behind a makeshift DJ booth, lights some strobes and starts pumping techno music at the art-seeking crowd. “DANCE!” he commands into a microphone. The Cousin Its try to pump the crowd into a frenzy, but little works. “DANCE!” he shouts again. But it seems the people at the museum are there to watch a performance, not be participants in one. This is Terence Koh, after all, the man who says he’s interested more in “artist’s tricks than in artists.” Maybe would-be ravers feel duped. It’s probably just the denizens of Brooklyn not wanting to look uncool. Then, just as I sense people are starting to feel the pulse of the beat, Koh breaks off from the DJ booth and enters a roped-off circle of heroic Rodin bronzes, where he does a Butoh-inspired contortion dance. With the bright lights on him, a circle forms around the statues and watches Terence warp his body. It’s truly beautiful, especially through a camera.

Later, he leans into me and says, “That part wasn’t supposed to be good.” It’s an awkward moment for me. I truly thought it was good, even if he deflects the connotation. At the end of the night, we go our separate ways, and I am somehow holding a black balloon in my hands. This is when things start to get fuzzy.
A photo shoot is happening in Asia Song Society. ASS, as it is almost only referred to, is Koh’s art gallery just below his office, which in turn is below the apartment I interviewed him in 48 hours previous. Val is painting Terence again—white this time. The albino peacock is being photographed, along with Koh, who looks like a cross between an African tribesman and a Mayan warrior. He hooks the peacock’s tail to his custom-made white Ralph Lauren bodysuit he received from Fischerspooner’s Casey Spooner.

“I have done this more times than you can imagine,” Koh retorts when I remark about his willingness to perform for the camera. He stands on a chair and contorts himself to the point where I’m ready to jump if he falls. He leans against the wall and let’s out the most ferocious silent scream. And I can’t remember the rest. Perhaps his scream sent us all into a state of hypnosis, like a siren’s call.

I fly back to Los Angeles and begin to think about my trip. I’ve known Koh for a little while now, and I’ve seen a few of his performances (and even one “non-performance” in Miami at Art Basel). I saw his infamous Whitney Museum show, where he aimed, in his words, “the brightest light possible” at the entrance of the museum. It was, according to him, an “outpouring of white love. It was my hippie piece to New York.” I felt that love back then, even if the light was so bright I couldn’t see right for several hours after. It embodied what Hans Ulrich Obrist later confirmed to me: Koh’s “utopian dimension.” The white pills, the white room, the white walls of art.

Maybe his bright beam of love mesmerized Aarons, Saatchi, Frahm… Did he cast a hypnotic light spell on these bastions of the art world? Obviously those collectors mentioned are very rich, very thoughtful white men, who are able to make
a purchase based on taste rather than value. Because it’s hard to say if Koh’s artistic bon mots can sustain their individual value on the primary market. In all honesty, I’d rather see Koh’s work exist in an institution, breaking down the white walls of the museum gallery, than languishing in a collector’s warehouse in Paris. They deserve to be experienced. They trigger something in us that whisks us away to a place where we are alleviated from our earthly contraptions. “I believe,” says Javier Peres, owner of Peres Projects, over an e-mail late one night, “a primary influence of Terence’s work is its ability to empower the viewer, including other artists, to explore the art-making process to its fullest and to create art in response both to the world around them, but also to what is inside them.”

The grayscale world in which Koh lives is not so black and white. A complex lineage of abstract, post-minimalist work clashes in the air above him, forming singing clouds, the precipitates floating down in a snow blanket of operas and sculptures, performances and bunny heads. Something Terence said while sitting in his kitchen echoes in my mind: “When I create something, it just pops up in my mind.”
Terence Koh: The Grayscale Universe of a Post-Media Artist
Written by Maxwell Williams. Photographed by Alexei Hay.

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