If there is any doubt that New York-based artist Terence Koh has perfected the art of winsome provocateurship, it was put to rest upon reaching the terrace of his Shibuya penthouse hotel room, where a plastic, spermatoza-shaped chalice, filled with milky white liquid, lay innocuously on the artist’s deck table. Metal wiring threaded through the white, smiley-face cap of the chalice connected the object to a string of pearl beads. Koh barely gave it a second glance as he busied himself with preparations to leave for Yokohama, where he is included in the Yokohama Triennale 2008, “Time Crevasse.”
In only five years since his debut exhibition in Los Angeles with his exclusive dealer, Javier Peres, Koh has rocketed to art world fame. He is known for combining bling decadence with a monochrome, minimalist touch. He sent ripples of admiration through the New York art establishment with his untitled solo presentation at the Whitney Museum of American Art in early 2007 in which he installed a 4,000-watt floodlight in the ground floor gallery, blinding passersby.
Visiting for the third time, Koh was at ease in Japan, referring with idiosyncratic specificity to Tokyo as his “third-favorite city.” He explained, in a baritone voice belying his wiry frame, “I like the sensibility here, even the fast food has an elegance in the way it is packaged and presented. And there is so much more density of people and information with all the signs, traffic and noises. It’s very stimulating.”
In Yokohama, Koh is presenting “Boy by the Sea” (2008), an 88 percent-scale wooden sculptural portrait of himself on a plinth (the superstitious Koh says the number 88 represents, for him, the concept of double infinity). The sculpture is covered in more than 80,000 crushed pearl beads and topped with similarly decorated wooden bunny ears. The sculpture and plinth in turn became elements in an eponymous parade the artist organized for the preview night of the Triennale on Sept. 12.
The parade was initially publicized through a Web site featuring only a cryptic haiku, a map of Yokohama’s port area, and a time and date for a meeting place. The haiku, over which Koh agonized for days, reads: Hiding a white pearl dressed all in white and silent following rabbit. The day before the performance was to take place, the bunny ears for the sculpture — a late addition — arrived at Koh’s hotel. Consulting with his Tokyo-based assistant, the artist decided to hop in a taxi to go the exhibition site rather than carry a bulky box on the train.
As the city’s skyline rolled slowly across the elevated highway, Koh was full of questions about Japanese culture and society while simultaneously peppering his assistant with instructions for the parade and elaborating on how he developed the ideas for the work.
” ‘Boy by the Sea’ is inspired in part by the recent protests in South Korea and 21st-century information networks,” he said. “In Korea, thousands of people turned up for the protests and within weeks the government was ready to resign. And it was about beef.
“We are living in a new age in how information is processed. My parade is organized using 21st-century technology, through the Web site, text messaging and Facebook, as well as cards and stickers that we’ve been handing out. I’m not interested in the ownership of an idea but rather the sharing of information.”
When the afternoon traffic slowed to a crawl, Koh inquired whether people use commuter helicopters in Japan. After his assistant warned him that it would be expensive, Koh blithely dismissed her concerns with a simple exclamation: “It doesn’t matter, I’m a diva!”
He continued discussing his “Boy by the Sea” project, saying, “The work is very site-specific. I did a lot of research into Shinto religion and ceremony and also considered Yokohama’s history as a port town. Both the sculpture and the plinth are made from the same wood used to make ships. And the idea of covering the sculpture in pearls also references sea-borne trade. I was hoping Mikimoto would sponsor the pearls for the work, but it didn’t pan out so we had to use fake beads. I planned the parade route to pass between the Red Brick Warehouse buildings on the pier, which parallel the architecture of torii gates placed before Shinto shrines.”
Playfully acknowledging his borderline Orientalism, Koh countered his own statements with the interjection, “But I don’t want to be known as a rice-queen artist!”
Around 9 p.m. on the night of the parade, a gathering of onlookers assembled at Yokohama’s Canal Park, where they were met with a small group of half-naked young men kneeling in the grass behind Koh’s sculpture, now adorned with the ears. Some participants correctly interpreted the haiku, and came dressed in all-white, as did the irrepressible drag queen Vivian, decked out in a furry white headdress. Even Joan Jonas, the senior pioneer of video art also included in the Triennale, could be seen wearing a white rabbit mask.
Koh himself appeared in a loincloth, plastered from head to foot in white powder. He led the silent procession to a spot overlooking Yokohama Bay, where two plinths were awaiting. The sculpture was placed on one plinth, and he climbed on the other, then wrapped white string around the sculpture’s bunny ears and his own head to create a torii-like temporary structure. Lit by piercing white spotlights, the crowd passed through the gateway, and then the performance was over. Koh disentangled himself, stepped down, and ran off barefoot into the dark.
As the spotlights — competing with the almost full moon overhead — were switched off and the crowd dissipated, Koh’s words from the previous day’s taxi ride came to mind.
“I think all artwork needs to be completely narcissistic,” he had said. “It’s almost like looking in a mirror. As opposed to vanity or selfishness, such narcissism is the only way to make something that is beautiful and will touch someone.”
In execution, the parade had a halting, ragtag feel, as photographers scurried around lining up shots and stragglers brought up the rear. Yet the media-savvy Koh is certainly aware that the legend of the work is made not so much by eyewitness accounts but by the circulation of images documenting a “you had to be there” moment. Irrespective of whether anybody in attendance was actually touched, Koh would be happy to know that a slide show of the night’s events is already posted on YouTube.
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