Terence Koh Stages a Bold Return to the Art World—and a Chapel for Bees
Two years ago, Terence Koh moved upstate to get away from the hustle of the New York art world. The artist took time to reset in the wilderness, and just this weekend, he made a roaring return. “terence koh: bee chapel,” the artist’s new show at Andrew Edlin Gallery, kicked off with a festive start on Saturday, beginning with a procession from 1st Avenue and 1st Street down to the gallery on Bowery and Rivington. Koh’s dramatic re-entry into the art world echoed the playful stunt of artist Maurizio Cattelan, who came out of his own art-world retirement just a month before, with plans to install a golden toilet at the Guggenheim. While not as flashy as Cattelan’s stunt, Koh’s parade sent ripples along the Lower East Side with its mysterious call to action. The processors carried signs reading “Now.”
The sight appeared to be part protest, part funeral. Impromptu pallbearers carried a self-portrait of the artist as deflated beekeeper-meets-astronaut. Strange but captivating, the mummy-like object was eventually entombed within Edlin’s second gallery space by members of the procession, which included Printed Matter’s Phil and Shelley Fox Aarons. “We’ve been in many processions with Terence,” Shelley Fox Aarons tells me over the phone. “Back in the day, he used to lead them; this time he let the effigy lead the way.”
The Fox Aarons have always been Koh’s champions. They began collecting his zines in the early 2000s back when he was publishing under the pseudonym Asian Punk Boy, and now they are the proud owners of My Coffin (2002), Koh’s first sculpture that evolved out of a collaboration with the publishers. A window into Koh’s past and present, Aarons saw “bee chapel” in its first iteration: a whimsical sculpture on Koh’s upstate property filled with live stingers. “In the bee chapel in the country, you are much closer to the bees. Terence leaned in and said, ‘Shelley put your face up against the screen, no, closer,’” she recalls. “And, it’s actually a different experience like that. Your vision starts to blur and you go into this altered state with the smell of the honey and the wax. It’s almost like you are melting into yourself—which does not happen in the bee chapel at Andrew Edlin, but I think it gives a different sensation... It feels like you are communicating with the universe.”
There is something distinctively interstellar about Koh’s exhibition. The chapel’s elliptical shape resembles a rudimentary spaceship, especially upon seeing the plastic tube that filters bees into the gallery. And the insects aren’t the only living things in the exhibition. A felled apple tree greets visitors in the musky first room, where the beekeeper rests on a bed of topsoil. These primal vignettes link up to create a sense of journey through the darkened space. The sights and smells encourage one to embrace the senses rather than intellect. Somber but weirdly sweet, the intoxicating mix leaves one to wonder what Koh is ultimately getting at. “Terence always works in layers; [his works] are composed of many references that build on one another,” Fox Aarons says, offering some guidance. “It’s never about just death without being about the life cycle. It’s really pretty existential. I would say most of his work concerns the place where annihilation becomes transcendence.”
His hive certainly walks that line. For someone with a severe allergy, the bee chapel poses a lethal threat, but it’s the pending extinction of these pollinators that seems to be at the heart of this exhibition. “Terence brought people to the bee chapel [upstate], but he felt he needed to share this project with a larger audience because of its implications,” Fox Aarons explains. An artistic response to Colony Collapse Disorder, a disease killing off the world’s bee population, the show places critical emphasis on the relationship between nature and man. Giving a glimpse into Koh’s adventures into the wilderness, the exhibition’s triumph is its ability to take an abstract concept and make it visceral.
“terence koh: bee chapel” is on view at Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York, May 21–July 1, 2016.