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Terence Koh: Captain Buddha Closes Soon at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt
Terence Koh, Captain Buddha (26560), 2008.

FRANKFURT.- In an incredibly short time, Terence Koh’s spectacular performances and experientially intensively accessible installations have made him a highly respected “gesamtkunstwerk”. The Chinese-Canadian artist, who first achieved notoriety through his alter ego “Asian Punk Boy”, is one of the most fascinating discoveries of recent years. Like no other artist, he transposes influences from post-minimalism and 1970s body art into a cosmos uniquely his own, governed by decadence and deliberate excess, which grants the viewer instants of fragile beauty. Following up on his spectacular installations at the Kunsthalle Zurich, the Wiener Secession and the Whitney Museum in New York, Terence Koh is installing one of his signature monochrome environments especially for the Schirn; for this exhibition, he will initiate the surreal objects, ritually summoning them to life, in a secret performance. Under the title “Captain Buddha”, visitors who set foot in the luminously flooded room are invited to accompany the artist on a journey that will take them on a search for themselves through the entire world – India, China, Burma, Belgium, Africa, Mexico and Canada are just some stations along the way – one that aims to reach nirvana and ends in nothingness.

Terence Koh is always the center of his installations – between a genius puppeteer subjecting his audiences to his situative environments and the absolute mythologization of a perfectly staged self that carries an impact even beyond the narrowly defined boundaries of a work of art – entirely in the tradition of Warhol. Like Dorian Gray, Terence Koh does not age, his date of birth magically adapting to his impregnable youth. Whether as an MC of decadence or a contemporary dandy who most glamorously surrenders the classical ideal of beauty to decay, Koh always seems to transmute life entirely into art. “I was genetically designed,” says Terence Koh, “to do things that make the world more beautiful.” For his New York project the Asia Song Society (ASS), Koh paraded down Canal Street in 2006 styled as the artist Zhang Zyi from Shanghai, swaddled entirely in a red veil, flanked by incense-bearing attendants also dressed entirely in red; he capped the procession by issuing a general invitation to enter a mysterious red room full of red sculptures. In the same year, he caused a 4000-watt sun to shine in the lobby of the Whitney Museum, and additionally illuminated New York’s famed Madison Avenue as an “act of generosity”. Shortly thereafter, he announced the presentation of his debut album “Sprungkopf” in Berlin and delivered a stark, three-minute yelling performance with his face concealed by a black, long-haired wig, accompanied by three half-naked men.

In Koh’s work, it is only at first glance a contradiction when the minimalist emptiness of a white room is confronted by the orgiastic baroque of a dark dance of death, the imagery of Zen Buddhism by Christian iconography, precious gold plating by the most banal objects conceivable, the purity of white by contamination with the full panoply of bodily fluids, or the art-historical canon by subculture. Koh causes both the figure of the artist and his own installations, objects and performances to oscillate between a broad range of mutually antagonistic poles, revealing a romantic aspect to his work: the reconcilability of the irreconcilable.

In Koh’s work, cultural identity also emerges from a seemingly infinite palette of possibilities: as neither-here-nor-there, as ceaseless change, as transition between Asia, America and Europe, but also as a diversion. This play on the artist’s own existence is reflected in his work in such objects as dynamic, modularly stacked display-case architectures furnished with a varied selection of white objects. On closer examination, these objects appear to be the global jetsam of all places and times, stranded high and dry in a pale, strange and often grotesque beauty. Coated in white by the artist as if by a wise taxidermist, they are presented to coming generations as scrupulously preserved treasures.

Youth and decay, beauty and fragility, sexuality, cultural identity, individual personality and, ultimately, life and death, are Terence Koh’s grand themes. In his work he illustrates the fractured nature of human existence: on the one hand, the urge to experience the world to excess, to divide oneself, the yearning for the existence of a place outside oneself; on the other hand the infinite solitude that all humans know and constantly experience anew. Sexuality, a central element of Koh’s work, is not bound by moral, ideological or normative strictures, but instead is a temptation to forget the compulsions and the torn nature of human existence.

For his installation at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Koh links two worlds that at first glance seem almost antipodal: Buddhism and that popular classic of world literature, Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” –the tale of the fateful quest of charismatic and supremely obsessed Captain Ahab for the Great White Whale. But the two worlds are alike in their descriptions of endless and irresolvable search- a unity conveyed in the title “Captain Buddha”. For this installation, Koh himself set out on a quest: clad as a monk in a golden robe, he journeyed to fifteen places – Canada, Japan, China, Thailand, Mexico, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Israel, Iceland, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Africa, and the USA – in his search for objects, much as Captain Ahab sailed the world over in search of the White Whale. In Terence Koh’s words: “I’m like the captain in Moby Dick. I’m trying to find the White Whale in the white objects, but in the end I find nothing.”

The number fifteen is derived from the fifteen stones of the Zen garden of the Roan Temple in Tokyo, one of the legendary rock gardens that adorn the grounds of every monastery in Japan as a place of meditation for the monks. In their order and clarity, they are intended to soothe the spirit into the ideal state and enable an awareness of the essential and the beautiful. In this exhibition, Koh’s fifteen white-coated bronze objects, which the viewer must first find in the bright white light, represent both the spiritual and physical journey of the artist – all of them are assemblages: a cupcake sporting a little finger with a wick on top instead of a candle is covered by a swarm of bees; a monkey hangs from a coat hanger; body casts of the artist are juxtaposed with Burmese and Tibetan coins. A “currywurst” sausage shares space with a Buddhist peace symbol, a garden gnome hangs by the neck from the arms of Maya, the mother of Buddha, as she embraces a branch – as legend maintains she did during the birth of Buddha. There is a broken umbrella with a stuffed bunny as a handle, a Hula Hoop with Hermès gloves, a bicycle tire sporting the legend “captain Buddha incorporate” written in Chinese characters, and a dead Mexican bird. Each of these objects reveals a surreal story and harmonizes with the others to create a complex, world-spanning narrative that repeatedly loses its way in darkness. Finally, the center is dominated by a self-portrait of the artist as a starving Buddha on a golden coffin. In a secret performance the night before the opening, Terence Koh will touch each of the immaculately white-coated bronze objects with a marble wand, knock on it and speak to it in a private ritual. This secret performance will be documented in a film that will subsequently be shown on a monitor as part of the exhibition.

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