As a designer-label ascetic who boasts a white, monkey-fur coat and white-on-white suits, Terence Koh has no trouble getting attention. But it isn’t just his monochromatic taste that turns heads. The ceremony, elegance and debauchery of his sculpture and performance work, which can involve white chocolate, potato starch, white sugar, blinding white light and bodily fluids, also draws crowds. For his current show at Mary Boone’s Chelsea gallery, however, visitors are leaving him pretty well alone.
That’s because Koh is avoiding all contact with them. For the run of the show, which is called “nothingtoodooterencekoh,” he has taken a vow of silence. And frankly there isn’t much to shout about. Though he is present every day during gallery hours, Koh’s act is so quiet that people sweeping aside the heavy white curtain blocking the entrance to the exhibition space may not even notice him right away.
What they do see immediately is a mountain of rock salt – 45 tons of it, imported from the Salar de Atacama, an ancient salt lake in Chile. It takes up most of the gallery, lit only by what daylight is coming through the skylight. Once they start walking around the mountain, they will come across the artist lying prostrate on the floor beside it or inching around it on his knees. He repeats these actions throughout the day without a break, raising not even a murmur from his bewildered audience.
The gnomic character of this performance is a far cry from the show Koh did in Tokyo last year with the overstated Lady Gaga, or the breakneck art history lesson he delivered during the 2009 Performa biennial, speaking total gibberish. And though his commitment to his current task may remind people of Marina Abramovic’s relentless staring contest at the Museum of Modern Art last year, “nothingtoodooterencekoh” isn’t about a spiritual catharsis or connecting to individual souls.
Mostly it speaks to the ephemeral nature of experience. Nothing from the show is for sale, at least not yet, though people on his e-mail list might expect otherwise from the handwritten “goldfor peace” message he sent out last month. “Deer friend,” it began in his characteristic lower-case play on English, “peace iz non-violence. peace is everywhere. peace is now. I the artist terence koh propose to use my exhibition at mary boone gallery … to start a ‘Tink Tank’ for peace (8 chairs)…” He went on to say that he would finance the “Tink Tank” with profits from the sale of eight gold paintings. “we can start peace now,” he concluded. “lets doo it together.” He signed the message, “love for eternity, terence koh.”
According to the gallery’s director Ron Warren, Koh hasn’t made the paintings yet, nor has he indicated when he will. (There aren’t any chairs apparent either.) And though he announced before the show that he intended to level the mountain during the course of it, he has made no move to do so thus far. All the gallery expected from Koh’s previous work, Warren added, was that “something beautiful” would follow.
The salt mountain fits that bill. Otherwise the show feels empty. What Koh does provide is the “Tink Tank” — a space for meditation, should anyone care to stick around long enough to contemplate anything. Most of those who walked in while I was there did not. What remained was the whiteness of the presentation — the salt, the walls, the white pajamas Koh wears and the shirt sleeves of the gallery’s staff. If Koh is putting himself through his paces to cleanse contemporary art of its multimedia, mash-up spectacle and its valuation by money alone, he may yet have a long way to go.
“nothingtoodooterencekoh” continues through March 19 at the Mary Boone Gallery, 541 West 24th Street.