KLEINBURG, Ontario — In 2007 he described himself as “the Naomi Campbell of the art world.” Now he’s now hugging trees and talking about staying “in the moment” like a Buddhist zen master.
Once considered the enfant terrible of the New York art world, Terence Koh has settled down and embraced his shy side. His newest works, recently unveiled at the annual Luminato Festival in Toronto, pay tribute to the natural world while taking inspiration from two giants of Canadian culture. The installations also mark Koh’s first solo show in Canada. What took so long?
“No one ever asked me,” he says quietly, walking through the forested area around the McMichael Art Collection, north of Toronto. “People didn’t assume I’m Canadian, but I’m quite proud to be Canadian.”
Located in the heavily wooded Humber River Valley, the McMichael represents what might be considered traditional Canadian art; it’s filled with First Nations art (including paintings by Norval Morrisseau), Inuit work, and numerous paintings by the Group of Seven. The idea of presenting Koh’s work there came from Luminato Artistic Director Jorn Weisbrodt, who was eager to have Koh be a part of the festival. “One of the things I love about my job is that I can work with great artists and bring Canadian artists back here,” he said at Koh’s installation launch last week.
Dressed for our interview in a gray chambray shirt, denim overalls, and soft gray slipper-shoes, Koh looks every bit the rural zen master. He’s soft-spoken and frequently keeps his hands in his pockets. Born in China but raised just outside Toronto, Koh was known in the 2000s for throwing all-night parties at his Canal Street studio/apartment/gallery and making >YouTube videos with Lady Gaga. His work has moved from sculptural configurations of glass, paint, vegetable matter, mineral oil, stones, blood, semen, and other assorted substances to self-portraits, and on to performance-based art, perhaps most famously in 2011, when he had a solo exhibition at Mary Boone. The artist, who at the time dressed only in white and lived in an all-white apartment (even the keys on his piano were entirely white) spent his first solo show in New York circling an eight-foot mound of rock salt on his knees for five weeks.
These days his world’s become more colorful. “I didn’t want to be known as the Asian in white,” he says simply.
While Koh’s turnaround from outlandish NYC artist/party boy to tree-hugger might seem contrived, it is, by all indications, heartfelt and sincere. One suspects the change may be owing more to maturity than anything else. “I’m not sure if there’s different phases of life,” he says thoughtfully, “but maybe I’m becoming more child-like at the same time I’m being more adult.“
Koh chose the painter Emily Carr and author Margaret Atwood as inspirations for his Luminato work not in a calculated effort to embrace Canadiana or fit in at the McMichael, he explains, but because the two “strong women” are a reflection of his new embrace of nature, and of a more simple way of living and making art.
The Luminato show comprises two installations on the grounds of the McMichael. The first, “tomorrow’s snow,” draws on a scene in Atwood’s 1988 novel Cat’s Eye, which Koh read as a child. The performance features two dramatically backlit, white-clad children who slowly enter, lie down in a circle of tidy white “snow” (actually something called Snow-FX, widely used in film and biodegradable), and flap their arms to make snow angels. The piece lasts eight minutes and is performed in a wooded area canopied by yawning pine trees, with the audience sitting in tidy rows on one side of the “snow” circle.
The other installation, located a short distance away on the grounds, is “a way to the light,” a small pine tree honoring Carr. Koh planted the tree amid extensive, dense forests so that it could grow unhindered, towards the light, with a direct view of the nearby McMichael Artists’ Cemetery (where six of Group of Seven painters are buried, including Carr’s friend, the painter Lawren Harris). At the launch for “a way to the light,” Koh read a haiku he’d written for Carr, smiling at the well-dressed crowd that had gathered around the tree. It was a genuinely touching moment of engagement and warmth from an artist whose past work has kept him at an imposed, solemn distance from his public.
Koh is effusive in his praise of Emily Carr — her work, her ethos, her approach to art. “She’s always talking about the moment, like a Buddhism moment,” he says of Carr’s writings. “I read all her books and her autobiography over and over again, and she says it’s about the moment that counts, not the past or the future.”
Carr was deeply inspired by the native cultures of the Pacific Northwest, and her paintings frequently feature indigenous themes and items incorporated into forested settings. In 1927, she met members of the Group of Seven, who were then Canada’s most recognized modern painters; one of them, Lawren Harris, told her, “You are one of us.” Carr only achieved recognition later in her life. She was also an accomplished writer, and often wrote of being lonely, even as she cherished her self-imposed isolation deep in Canada’s woodlands. She also spoke extensively of being “in the moment” when she painted, particularly in her journals, collected in the 1966 book Hundreds and Thousands. While Carr associated with other artists, she was never of any particular movement or crowd herself.
Koh speaks of the tree he’s planted in Carr’s honor in anthropomorphic terms. “I wanted to give her a fighting chance,” he says, “ so she’s going to grow up strong.”
On a related note, Koh has also been studying deep ecology and the work of Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss. “It’s a spiritual ecology,” Koh explains. “He writes that it’s not solar power or wind turbines that will save the world — we have to understand who we are first. So it’s not the technology, but the idea of the whole connection to others things … It’s something I’m trying to understand these days.”
Perhaps through recent artwork?
“Yes! What else can I do but just work at it? And hopefully make something that touches yourself. Art has to radiate out, like a tree. It radiates out. Hopefully I can do something for … the better.”
In keeping with Carr’s idea of “the moment,” Koh asks the audience for “tomorrow’s snow” to stay still and observe, rather than react. No flash photos are allowed, and photos in general —as well as cellphones — are strongly discouraged. This sense of a quiet, meditative moment is especially poignant with the performance taking place in the woods; the only soundtrack for the children’s making of snow angels is crickets and the rustling of tree leaves. Tiny insects are illuminated by the beam of light that shines on the audience as the children approach; magically, the bugs begin to double as snowflakes. Thus the forest provides a lovely and thoughtful backdrop, one that underlines presence itself — you are keenly aware of watching something in the woods, at night, with all the sights and sounds and smells of a forest — while offering a reminder of the cyclical nature of life. By recreating a winter scene in a serene summer setting, Koh links ideas of growth and rebirth with Buddhist notions of mindfulness, temporality, and the beauty of the natural world.
Terence Koh’s “tomorrow’s snow” and “a way to the light” continue at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (10365 Islington Avenue, Kleinburg, Ontario, Canada) through June 13 as part of the Luminato Festival 2014.