With roots in the street art scene, prolific artist David Choe is well known for his works of public art, but a private show in his hometown of Los Angeles is only open to a very select audience. The Choe Show opened last month in a secret office building off Wilshire Boulevard, and is only accessible to people who were accepted after a lengthy application process. Once approved, they had to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), and were forbidden from masturbating, watching porn, eating, drinking, or doing drugs for 12 hours before viewing the exhibition.
Choe has come under fire recently for a 2014 story he told on his podcast with porn star Asa Akira, DVDASA (Double Vag Double Anal Sensitive Artist), in which he described forcing a masseuse to perform oral sex on him. In response, his recent NYC mural was protested, defaced, and ultimately whitewashed. Although Choe has apologized, claiming the story was fabricated, an extension of his edgy personality, critics have not been satisfied. “Whether or not you did it — it’s not irrelevant, but in this context, it’s less relevant to the fact that your persona is perpetuating what is becoming more and more normal in our cultural zeitgeist, which is that it is okay to talk about sexual violence in a joking manner or to make it okay to act that way,” protest organizer Jasmine Wahi told Hyperallergic.
In contrast to the backlash that greeted his New York mural, the Choe Show in Los Angeles has slipped largely under the radar of both critics and the general press, with the exclusion of the LA Weekly which ran two articles including one that featured universally glowing reactions from people who had seen the show. Although Hyperallergic was not able to view the exhibition, we did speak with a few visitors, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because of the NDA they had signed. Outside the nondescript office building there was no sign that anything out of the ordinary was going on inside. A man in an oversized serape with a clipboard stood at the entrance to the parking lot, checking off names and making sure only the chosen got in, while a couple of attendees waited on the sidewalk for their rides to pick them up.
One visitor described what sounded like a group therapy session, where a guide leads a group of jumpsuit-clad participants through different rooms. In each, they encounter a person such as a guru or “expression therapist” who encourages them to confront challenges in their lives and describe the things that are holding them back. Intimate details that they divulged on the application are brought up. In one room, they beat an actor with a whiffle ball bat while yelling the name of something or someone who has given them pain. In another, they watch as actors recreate scenes from Choe’s life. Cameras are recording every step of the way, and the agreement that participants signed allows their likeness to be used. Choe’s visual artwork is on view in a pitch-black room, illuminated only by the guide’s flashlight. Choe himself appears at certain moments, in the beginning as a hologram and later in person. At the end, members of the group are separated and asked on camera what they’re doing to improve other people’s lives. Then they’re given a cookie.
“I wanted to go and form my own opinion,” our source said. “After seeing the Choe Show, I thought it was extremely exploitative and masturbatory. He’s trying to pretend like he’s gotten help and now he’s trying to spread the love and help you, but he’s just talking about himself. What if people do have mental disorders? He’s not a fucking therapist. What are our most vulnerable moments going to be used for?”
This perspective is in marked contrast to the opinions voiced in the LA Weekly article, lauding the experience as “a deeply humbling and moving work of art.”Comments on Choe’s instagram were similarly effusive: “This show just made me feel so happy and alive!”; “Truly an experience that I will never forget for the rest of my life. Thank you for gifting us all with this experience. You’ve touched a lot of lives.”; “I’m grateful. Thank you David for helping me face what I’ve been averting for years.”
We did speak with others who enjoyed the show, but they explicitly asked to not be quoted, even anonymously, and specified that our entire conversations were off the record.
David Choe did not immediately respond to an email request for comment. The Choe Show closes on Saturday, and the application process is now closed, but applications for Phase 6 are now being accepted.