Is The Artist’s Celebrity Overshadowing His Work?
By Heather Corcoran
Just when the art world was without a star—someone to define the times the way Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst defined theirs—Terence Koh is answering the call.
Koh’s exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art turns a powerful spotlight (literally) on the audience and gallerists and art insiders are flocking. His first solo U.S. museum show comes less than four years after he first entered the art world’s consciousness with a show at Peres Projects in Los Angeles. Since then the Beijing-born, Vancouver-raised artist has skyrocketed to fame. While Brooklyn’s Banks Violette, an artist working in a similar vein, set a record for his highest selling price in 2006 – the final sum of $117,600 more than doubled estimates – Koh’s installations regularly sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And no wonder. He is everything we ask our artists to be: hyperbolic, glamorous, sexually provocative and predictably unpredictable. And like that archetype of the modern artist, Warhol, Koh says his life and works cannot be separated.
To begin with, he looks the part of the artist: He is young and slight with a fragile, bird-like face. His uniform of punk minimalism and white haute glamour is striking. To the delight of the art world, he knows how to throw a party, like the A-list fetes that opened the Whitney installation. And perhaps most importantly, he knows a thing or two about ambiguity.
In an e-mail, Koh said that inspiration comes to him in dreams. It also comes from art history, as his work riffs on ancient tradition and conceptual artists such as Yoko Ono and On Kawara. His work zig-zags from contemplative to lowbrow; handmade porn magazines, white chocolate paintings, deconstructed drum sets in inky black and even soiled underwear. Next to a surprisingly earnest blog on his Web site (kohbunny.com), he shills booklets with over-the-top sales-speak: “OUT now JUST FOR YOU DARLING!” He is a self-proclaimed money lover who says he doesn’t care about the market.
In a move perfectly in tune with his image as the eccentric artist, Koh skipped town after the frenzy of the Whitney opening. His assistant, through his gallery, confirmed that the artist had hopped on a plane and “secretly departed for the Caribbean” where he would stay for a week with no access to e-mail or telephone.
Koh answered questions faxed to his hotel in a way that, like in so many of his interviews, sounded like a mix of Dr. Seuss, Larry Flynt and a Hallmark card.
“Terence has a personality of an angel, a hustler, a curious boy; he just has everything one wants in a person,” said Javier Peres, Koh’s Los Angeles- and Berlin-based art dealer and former lover in an e-mail. Peres went on to describe an artist so dedicated to the pursuit of perfection that only a call from the Hermès boutique can stop him.
“I guess I invite misinterpretation, I must like that,” wrote Koh. His current work is no exception. While he said testing the thresholds of pain was an important aspect of the Whitney installation, what if someone were to switch off the light, would it still be a work of art by Terence Koh? “Of course!” he wrote.
On a recent Sunday at the Whitney, visitors passing the sunglass-wearing guards and waiting for the elevator shielded their eyes. Out of the small first-floor gallery dedicated to showing young artists, a 4,000-watt spotlight pointed outward, assaulting everyone caught in its path and tracing loose shadows onto a screen in the facing window. “They really need to shut that off,” complained one woman.
Looking directly into the light, through spread fingers, nothing is visible at first. Then, after the initial shock, a skeletal white tripod appears in the white room. Particles of dust float through the beam. And then, off to the side, there is that lead ball rumored to be filled with Koh’s own excrement. Everything obscured by that bright, blinding light.
For now, Koh’s star seems to shine just as brightly – eclipsing what’s really there. In the tradition of the great artiste, Koh’s celebrity has become inseparable from his work and a bit of it is in each piece he creates, along with the blood, semen and sweat that finds its way into so much of his work.
Terence Koh is up for sale, piece by piece.