For twenty-five days Terence Koh crawled on his knees around an eight-foot tall mound of rock salt. By the time I arrived during the third week of the performance the artist’s once pristine white outfit was soiled with grey and black stains on the sleeves and legs. This contrasted with the glistening – almost luminous – quality of the rock salt that was in every shade of white possible.
As I entered he was taking a quick rest, lying flat on his stomach with arms stretched above his head. His head was newly shorn with noticeable scabbing. It was eerily silent as visitors stood passively in the corners of the room. It was a mock-reigious experience: Koh was the bishop, the performance was a mass, and the Mary Boone Gallery was transformed into a grand cathedral. Critics have noted the performance’s spiritual quality, Roberta Smith (for The New York Times) writes that the artist is in search of “inner peace.” However, this epic endeavor appeared to me to be less about spirituality than it was about good art marketing.
Koh has become famous (read: infamous) for his white-on-white installations that at times include bodily debris– including, seamen and excrement. In an attempt to reinvent his image – a la Madonna -he models himself in this performance on the body artists of the 60 and 70s. Chris Burden had himself shot, Gina Pane broke a mirror with her bare hands and Vito Acconici masturbated for hours on end. And in directly engage himself in this lineage, Koh bears his own cross by crawling. Historically, endurance performers are show-offs who push their body to its physical limits. The “its me” quality, as scholar Kathy O’Dell writes, is a narcissistic command: “look at me,” “see what I can do,” “give me attention.”
Unfortunately for Koh, his performance is not as radical as that of his predecessors. Forty years ago this art radicalized the interchange between viewer and the art object, they took place in alternative spaces or in the artist’s studio for a small select audience. Now – in 2011 – performance saturates the art market with exhibitions across the globe as it has quickly been assimilated into the mainstream. The spectacle that was Marina Abramovic’s retrospective, The Artist is Present, at MoMA marked the apex of performance’s acceptance. Like Koh, Abramovic invited the museum audience to come and watch from a distance. As a result the performance is shallow and pedantic, merely a self-serving vanity project. Performance is a mask worn to merely draw attention to their stardom.
Koh’s knees began to hurt shortly after he began his performance and took to wearing kneepads for extra comfort. Thus, nullifying the endurance element of the performance. The padding made for a slight shuffling sound when the artist finally began to crawl again. His expression remained deadpan as he began to creep away from me and eventually out of sight around the mound. When Koh turned the disappeared, so did I.
As I walked down the street toward the train I could only recall how unimpressed, almost bored, I was with the performance. Perhaps Koh will have the spiritual experience he desires, unfortunately I will not.