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Is Terence Koh’s Sperm Worth $100,000?

Portrait of the artist as a young punk capitalist.


Terence Koh’s artistic coming-out hardly seemed auspicious. It was May 2003. Collector Javier Peres had recently scrapped his international-law career to open Peres Projects gallery. He offered its opening show in Los Angeles to Koh, a young New York artist then known as asianpunkboy, whose track record consisted of little more than a perverse and freewheeling Website and a few ’zinelike books. As art openings go, it proved to be bizarre. Artist–designer–gay icon Ryan McGinley played D.J., and there was no art in the gallery itself. Through a hole in its floor you entered the basement, which Koh had transformed into an all-white space inhabited by two albino parakeets. “The Los Angeles art world was like, ‘You had a party, not an opening, and there’s no art in your gallery. You’re a joke,’ ” remembers Peres.

Fast-forward three years and jet halfway around the globe to Switzerland, where in June crowds flocked to see Koh’s solo installation in Art Basel’s invitational “Statements” section. Through word-of-mouth, the work—which included glass vitrines containing fist-size gold-plated chunks labeled as Koh’s own excrement—had become one of the fair’s signature pieces. More than a dozen collectors fought to buy up the various components, whose total selling price approached $500,000.

Even in an art world marked by the speed with which new stars rise (and fall), Terence Koh’s trajectory is phenomenal. After Art Basel came the season-opening show at the prestigious Kunsthalle Zürich, which allocated him more than 8,000 square feet of space; Koh blanketed one huge room in white powder—walking inside felt like suddenly being caught in a fog bank—and filled another with 1,200 glass vitrines stacked to form a precarious labyrinth. Six weeks later, the godfather of the British art market, Charles Saatchi, and his curatorial ally Norman Rosenthal awarded Koh the pole position just inside their controversial “USA Today” show at London’s Royal Academy, where Koh showed CRACKHEAD, a wall-like arrangement of 222 vitrines containing plaster heads covered in a festering mold owing to the humidity trapped inside.

Capping Koh’s run, the Whitney Museum will open its 2007 program on January 19 with a solo show in the ground-floor gallery devoted to spotlighting young artists. The stakes are high. “Being in the Whitney is like having this huge magnifying glass shining on you,” says Koh. “If I fail, I fail spectacularly in front of the whole art world. That in a way relieves the pressure, because either way, the splatter will be beautiful.”

The Whitney opening—followed by a Koh-hosted all-white after-party à la Truman Capote at Deitch Projects downtown—marks the artist’s triumph in a city where not so very long ago he couldn’t afford studio space. In October, Koh moved back to New York after a three-month sojourn in Berlin. He took over an entire building on Canal Street, painted every exposed surface white, and designated it the new home for his Factory-style gallery project, Asia Song Society (ass). Koh shares the upstairs with his longtime boyfriend, Garrick Gott, a graphic designer. Peres Projects director Blair Taylor manages the gallery’s roster of New York artists from an office directly below their apartment. In the basement will be a sort of clubhouse for the hard-partying downtown art crew, which includes artists such as Peres Projects stablemate Dan Colen, as well as Banks Violette, Barnaby Furnas, Dash Snow, and McGinley.

On the afternoon I stop by, just before Christmas, Koh is having a shoe crisis. He and Peres are planning to fly to Toronto early the next morning for the wedding of gay filmmaker Bruce LaBruce to his Santeria-priest lover, and Koh needs some white pumps. He calls an SUV car service, puts on “the monkey fur” (a hypnotic white couture coat that looks like it was stripped from a yeti’s back and stitched by elves into a sort of winter bolero), and heads to Patricia Field.

Given his swallowlike frame, Koh has humongous feet, and the store doesn’t have white pumps in his size. Improvising, Koh spies a silver version with three spikes jutting from the toes and buys two pairs: the ones in stock, which he plans to razor-slit so he can wear them to the wedding, and a pair commissioned to fit him. The shoe crisis solved, Koh and Peres storm Seven for some Bernhard Willhelm. Speed-shopping both the men’s and women’s sections, they rack up a four-digit bill in fifteen minutes. (Koh is particularly pleased with a pair of white shorts that were once knee-length but have been lacerated into lingerielike laciness.) On the way out the door, they notice a silver necklace that looks like a cross between a feather boa and the sort of thick dookie rope popularized by rappers in the eighties. Peres, in full sugar-daddy dealer mode, caps the shopping spree by buying it for Koh. It’s beautiful but heavy and sharp. By the time we get back to the complex on Canal, Koh’s swan neck is an angry, rashy red. “It’s not the first time I’ve caused you pain,” jokes Peres.

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