You Light Up My Life

Artmarket darling Terence Koh dances with skeletons and brightens the lobby

Now that much of the art world functions like a heat-seeking money-making missile, it's hard to keep your envy, cynicism, and churlishness in check. Yet we need to get a grip. Despite all appearances to the contrary, only about one-percent-of-one-percent of all artists make money from or are lauded for their work—possibly much less. The problem is that nowadays this infinitesimal percent is dominating the airwaves. At times you can think "Everyone's on track but me." Downer that this is, it's not new. Only the names and faces change.

Take the January 15 cover of New York magazine featuring three cute, young white male artists canoodling in their underpants in bed together. Inside, a 12-page spread gushed about how Ryan McGinley, Dash Snow, and Dan Colen are showing everywhere and making fistfuls of money; one of the trio is a drug-addled scion of an American fortune, another has an "impressive penis." For the moment the market is a new kind of cash-and-carry W.P.A. in which more artists, many mediocre, are able to support themselves from their art. At the risk of being a buzz kill, however, a sorting-out is going to take place. Sooner or later, faster than you can say "Rainer Fetting," many artists now being hailed as major stars will be remembered as little more than minor blips. As for the scion featured in New York, if Snow's work doesn't get more original, all that will one day be said about it will be that we had the luxury to say a lot about it. Which brings us to Terence Koh, who had a four-page spread of his own in that same issue of New York. There we learned that Koh is a critical and market darling who sells work to mega-collectors for upwards of $500,000, maintains studios in three cities, has employed as many as 28 assistants at once, and dances with skeletons. Koh's latest installation, now filling or not filling or maybe spilling out from the Whitney Museum's Lobby Gallery, consists of the brightest light I've ever seen in the otherwise empty white lobby gallery. That's pretty much it.

It would be easy to dismiss Koh's Whitney piece as the latest in a long line of almost-empty installations—a tried-and-true avant garde tradition that dates back to 1959 when Yves Klein exhibited an empty gallery as art. Koh, 38, could be derided as a flash-in-the-pan. After all, as with many of the current crop of super-hyped, although undoubtedly sincere artists, who think they're playing the media but who are probably being played by it, Koh's posturing is already almost making his work a laughingstock. What's intriguing about Koh, however, is that despite the histrionic kitsch and spectacle in his work, not to mention influences like Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman, David Wojnarowicz, and virtually every angry-young-man artist who has used blood, semen, and skulls in the last 30 years, Koh has a way with density and theatricality, and an ability to integrate these things with materials and his own psyche.

Koh's "Study for the Light Within My Imploded Self," September 2006
Dean Sameshima, courtesy Peres Projects
Koh's "Study for the Light Within My Imploded Self," September 2006

Koh's press release claims that his installation is about "dark matter," "cosmic events," and "queer space." None of this is actually evident in the work. The most historic thing about Koh's Whitney installation is that now that he's put a very bright light in a museum, no one will ever have to do it again. Yet there's an enticingly physical, even philosophical pull to the work. Surprisingly, the Whitney piece connects to the aggressive ways Gordon Matta-Clark (whose gnarly retrospective is upstairs) split space. Koh's installation lacks the experimentalism and rigor of Matta-Clark, the beauty and directness of Dan Flavin, and the depth of James Turrell. Nevertheless, it exudes nerviness and desire, and makes you extremely aware not only of your own body and the bodies of others, but of being brought into close contact with the power of light. The glaring incandescence makes you cognizant of how you and the museum are connected to the power grid, and to the massive forces that keep all this in motion. You're in touch with some hidden space of elsewhere. This lends his work weird Marxist dashes of alienation and disassociation, mixed with something utopian and seductive.

The physical way that Koh uses light also makes you understand that seeing can hurt, which is a weird and wonderful thing to think about in a museum. On a very basic level we go to museums to use our eyes in order to gain personal and collective knowledge. We're there to experience feeling and thought from looking. Thus, museums are transporters that metaphysically take us to inner-and-outer dimensions. They are places to escape the crowd and enter the group mind, but also to break free of the group mind to reintegrate with the crowd. In museums we hope to experience rapture from form. This makes museums, among other things, ecstasy machines. Koh turns the museum into an agony machine. Something about the sheer immensity of sight, of seeing so much so that you can't see anything at all, temporarily rescues Koh's work from the burn-out and ersatz mysticism that dogs his work.


Street Cred
Let a thousand galleries (and paintings) bloom south of Chelsea

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