Not only is artist Terence Koh able to live a quiet life in New York City, he also creates compelling, mysterious art exhibitions. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.
He's a quiet man who's made a lot of noise in the art world. His exhibitions have created a buzz internationally and expanded the boundaries of avant-garde. But Terence Koh has a very mainstream guilty pleasure: he's a fan of summer blockbusters.
"At the same time, I want to be a monk. I want to be monastic and ascetic. I don't have a cell phone and barely check email," he says. "It's just being true to yourself. So I know that I like summer blockbusters just as much as I like staring at a blank wall all day."
Terence Koh's work has been seen and shown in museums and galleries all over the world. He's enjoyed exhibitions at the Whitney and MOMA and he's collaborated with one of his biggest admirers, Lady Gaga.
Koh is credited with creating visually compelling landscapes in his exhibitions. His shows are happenings, like the 2011 exhibition "nothingtoodoo" at the Mary Boone Gallery in which he took hours to traverse a cone of salt on his knees.
Koh says his creations are meant to be mysterious.
"Whether the mysterious is pee or music by Beethoven or by Bach or, like, a cloud in the air or a leaf falling down, I think the sense of mystery is what I always try to do," he says.
Yes, he did say pee. One of Koh's more controversial works featured a collection of various bodily fluids and functions. But he claims that he didn't intend it to be controversial.
"We all pee or we all take a poop or something and it was just like as we all use, I don't know, we all dance sometimes, we all talk," he says. "It's all part of life itself and it's all part of the spectrum of life."
At his Flatiron apartment and his work studio nearby, it's almost always quiet.
And at this point of his life, monochromatic. All white. The clothing, the workplace, the cat. Even the piano. Koh had the black keys removed.
"I think for me, being in all white, it's almost like I feel like being a student, like I'm in training somehow," he says. "It's kind of ironic that I'm really shy and I choose to wear all white because you're a vision in all white. And sometimes I do get tempted. I go like, 'Maybe I just want to be in plaid shirts and Banana Republic or something like that.'"
Koh's desire for quiet can border on the extreme. He occasionally takes a vow of silence (fortunately, not during our interview). It can last for a day, a week. One time, it lasted for three months.
"It's almost like shutting down stimuli because when I don't hear my own voice, I feel like the other senses are more acute," he says. "And I'll also start drawing as well in a notepad. So it makes it fun for everybody else. "
Each day, Koh wakes up and goes to a small closet in his apartment to draw.
"It's almost your subconscious in your dreams," he says. "It's almost like putting what your dreams were into a drawing."
Between the two spare, monochromatic settings, home and work, lies the cacophony of the street. Koh is a solitary figure in all white amidst the chaos. The juxtaposition is striking and, for Koh, inspiring.
"When I walk down the street, I see myself as a one-person opera," he says. "An opera, when you go on the stage, it's not just an opera singer singing to the audience. The audience somehow reflects emotions back to the opera singer in a two-way dialogue. Even when I'm walking through the street, it's a two-way dialogue."
Koh is not considered an overtly political artist. But he says on his way to work, he stops to take note of a courthouse, a reminder of the freedom he enjoys here
A courthouse, which is what this is, just reminds me that I need to be mindful of the different persons around the world," he says. "Different people don't have the rights that I do, the freedoms that I might have. Just being able to walk in the street, do what I do and just be happy."
A person's bio is not often the subject of controversy. But Terence Koh has been known to alter the details of his own life, like where and when he was born.
"This is going to sound elitist but I think whatever an artist says is the truth," he says. "So if I say I'm born in Singapore, if I'm born in Beijing one day, I think it's my way of perceiving what the world is."
When Koh was a young boy, he and his family moved to a suburb of Toronto. It was clear to his mother and father early on that art would be their son's passion and his work.
"I did a drawing of a cat but I drew it upside down," he said. "She likes to tell the story because she knew I was going to be an artist because I could draw cats upside down as a kid."
He studied architecture at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and briefly worked in the field. But in the late '90s, New York was calling.
"It's almost like this vortex of energy itself just kind of drew me like a moth to a flame," he says. "It was exciting."
The start to Koh's journey was not necessarily unique; the young artist who becomes the art world's latest rage. But his ascendance was dramatic.
There was nothing "monastic" about those early years. His alias was "Asian punk boy" and he was quoted as saying that "art is a party."
Koh's star rose rapidly and he heard plenty of praise and criticism, much of it passionate.
“Of course, being human, it’s much nicer when someone goes 'I'm touched by your work itself,'" he says. "It's almost more important to me to take a scientific view of being, again, neutral because it makes me more effective as an artist."
Koh has a fascination with science and is looking to include it in his next project. After an initial period of "new artist on the block," he's settled into his career, pursuing his passion, a passion that's taken his work around the world. But New York is home for Koh, a quiet man in a loud city.
"I always consider being an artist both a sponge and a mirror at the same time,” he says. ”You're absorbing all these different things but you're also reflecting all these different things. But I think I’ve become a better sponge and a mirror over time in New York."