I t may be tempting to chalk up Koh’s market ascendancy purely to Peres, but there would be no hype if there weren’t something substantive to promote. Koh’s work isn’t all about the easy impact of gold-plated excrement and all-white rooms. What intrigues curators and collectors is that with each installation, he’s constructing an idiosyncratic and visually stunning universe. “It’s always a risk to give someone such a big space, especially if artists are realizing their first large solo exhibition,” explains Kunsthalle Zürich director Beatrix Ruf. “It can be frightening. But Terence definitely is not afraid. He has an incredible formal ability, the ability to do several things in parallel, and of course, the right urgency. He’s very obsessive. Very precise. And he doesn’t give in.”
Indeed, Koh has a particularly sharp vision. He’s commonly lumped with Gothic Revival artists such as Banks Violette, Aïda Ruilova, and Sue de Beer, because his work is dramatic and occasionally all black. But what makes Koh compelling is his command of space (he once worked for architect Zaha Hadid) and a formal style akin to the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, celebrating the beauty found in decay and impermanence. “As a child, I really enjoyed going to Asian funerals,” he recalls. “I loved that we all had to dress in black for fourteen days and then on the actual cremation day everybody was in white … Maybe that is what struck in me the monochromatic colors.” An in-your-face gayness also dominates his work, be it the engorged penis on his home page, the man-children he deploys in his performances, his use of come as an art material, or his inviting Armory Show fairgoers to an “opening” that was actually a gay backroom. It’s hard to come up with a prominent artist since Robert Mapplethorpe or David Wojnarowicz whose homosexuality has been employed so provocatively.
“If I fail, I fail spectacularly in front of the whole art world. Either way, the splatter will be beautiful.”
Distinguishing between Koh’s life and his art is virtually impossible. “I don’t think of Terence making individual pieces,” says artist AA Bronson, a founding member of the conceptual group General Idea. “It’s one complex piece. An almost fictional autobiography, one extended work. Artists like Dieter Roth, Yoko Ono, and Ray Johnson all made these little projects that were part of the fabric of their life. Terence does that as well.” The details of that autobiography constantly shift to his advantage. Koh grew up in Canada, but press materials state that he was born in Beijing, and his birth date has advanced over the years from 1977 to 1979 to 1980. Bronson chuckles: “Terence lies about everything. I think he was born in Singapore. And my guess is he’s about 36.”
Bronson, whom Koh considers a sort of father figure, worries about the speed of his onetime studio assistant’s success. “I really hate seeing artists take off that fast, because they almost always crash,” Bronson says. “Terence is the real thing. But even real deals can burn out. I say that to him all the time.” Helping set the pace of an artist’s career is one of a dealer’s primary functions, and Peres’s balls-out speed raises eyebrows. “I see young artists as embers to be patiently fanned into flame. Javier’s approach appears to be more like pouring gasoline on it,” says Becky Smith of Chelsea’s Bellwether Gallery. “Call me old school, but when it comes to an artist’s trajectory, I look at the whole ‘Kaboom!’ thing suspiciously.”
The pitfall here is that getting the art world’s attention is child’s play compared with keeping it. “He’s in a very interesting moment,” observes Ruf. “Some artists don’t even get looked at, but others have the problem of only being fascinating. People are fascinated by Terence’s objects and the white spaces. But as an artist, you have to ensure they have an experience beyond that first fascinating moment. That’s a challenge Terence will have to face just as Andreas Gursky and Jeff Koons did.”
It’s impossible to say whether the Whitney installation will deliver the type of transcendent experience Ruf describes, but it certainly shows that Koh won’t let himself be labeled a one-trick pony. There are no vitrines. No white powder. Nothing broken, decomposing, or vaguely sexual. Instead, inside a pristine room will stand a spindly tripod holding a movie spotlight, 600 degrees Fahrenheit at its surface and emitting an artificial daylight visible yards away on Madison Avenue. “It casts hypersharp shadows even in the middle of the day,” says curator Shamim M. Momin, who also selected Koh for the 2004 Whitney Biennial. “You’ll walk in, start to sense that it’s crazy bright, then turn and have it explode into your vision. The idea is to evoke a physical sensation that is both painful and amazing.”
Next up for Koh is a group show at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery, another solo exhibition during Art Basel, and a public-arts project in Beijing planned to coincide with the 2008 Olympics. Not to mention plans to start working with a heavy-hitting European gallery. Despite Bronson’s advice, Koh does not fear fizzling. “I think it’s quite elegant when a star starts burning out, becoming much brighter and then eventually imploding and becoming a black hole, becoming antimatter,” he says. “I look forward to it. Just not for a billion or so years.”