Parting the rough gray curtain at Mary Boone Gallery, I entered a large white room containing a gigantic pile of salt. Two middle-aged women were standing halfway across the room, near the crystalline mound. One urgently waved me toward her, whispering,"You can't miss it!" We watched the artist Terence Koh, dressed in white and on his knees, methodically shuffling forward along the perimeter of the pile, his arms stiff at his sides. At irregular intervals Koh would lie facedown, extending his body in a perfect line. With his shorn head, blank gaze, and austere attire, he resembled a monk going through his daily ritual. A camera mounted in the rafters took a picture every sixteen seconds, documenting the exhibition and capturing the precision involved in "nothingtoodoo," the artist's new performance (through March 19). Is Koh, who once described himself as"the Naomi Campbell of the art world," suddenly developing some dignity?
Before the exhibition began, Koh offered a concise, handwritten note explaining this undertaking with statements like"peace iz non-violence" and"peace iz nothingtoodoo," which is maddening, if not downright insulting. The art itself is worth experiencing, even if the rhetoric behind it makes you want to throttle the self-described"Asianpunkboy." The piece could even be a revision of the tale of Lot's wife: we look upon the artist without turning into another pillar of salt (unless I'm wrong, and the first unlucky gallery-goer became the current mound).
In 2008, Koh was "Captain Buddha," conducting a search for enlightenment at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt. At Mary Boone three years later, he creates another state of meditative absorption. There's something very beautiful happening here, as the artist quietly prostrates himself alongside this elemental material. He doesn't worship it, but acknowledges its power over the space even as people queue up to see a famous artist on his knees. There's nobility in this silent offering; it lacks any mischievous tricks, an interesting turn of events for an artist who previously plated his own feces in gold and sold it to the highest bidder. After the Dionysian excess of his previous work comes a sober piece based on a denial of the self. Perhaps he's taken cues from his friend Marina Abramovic, or studied other disciplined performance artists like Tehching Hsieh. Either way,"nothingtoodoo" is the opposite of an exhibition like White Cubicle Toilet Gallery's"Temple of the Golden Piss" (2005), where Koh covered the bathroom walls of the George and Dragon Public House in London with mottled bits of gold and hung an upside-down cross from the door. In"nothingtoodoo," Koh begins and ends with salt in a white room. It is an aesthete's vision of asceticism, perhaps, but at least it's an attempt at evolution.
(Images courtesy the artist, Mary Boone Gallery)