Over the last couple of years, the artist formerly known as 'asianpunkboy' has shed his downtown Manhattan image to become more in tune with the complicated mechanics of the natural world. Today, Terence Koh is not so much the Naomi Campbell of the the art world as he once referred to himself, he is more like the Krishnamurti of the art world. In the quiet bucolic climes of Sonoma California, Koh is busy tending to his bee chapel and learning about sustainability. Gone are the shaved eye brows, and gone are the sycophantic hipsters who saw him as disciple for a night at Le Bain or a good caboose during a dance train on the beach at Art Basel Miami. In the last week, Koh has come down the mountain, to completely transform Moran Bondaroff Gallery into a microcosm of the sustainable universe he believes we should all be living - an experiment for sustainability. Koh will be living at the gallery during the course of the show. He has cut a hole in the roof where there was once none, planted a garden, and erected his chapel full of buzzing honey bees where guests are invited to meditate. There is also a bath and lots of vegetables growing. As we climbed the stairs, Koh was washing dishes while a fresh bee sting pulsated on his upper earlobe. During the course of the exhibition, Koh won't be using modern amenities, like a shower or even toilet. When we came to interview, Koh had to duck into the corner of the garden to pee - we opted for the gallery bathroom. The gallery has also been equipped with solar panels, but aside from the offices, the gallery is lit solely by candles. During the course of our conversation, it was nearly pitch black - his cat, Skeleton, was there too. In the back of the gallery, where there once was a storage room, is now a kitchen and cafe. A basket of donated food, and even a hallucinogenic cactus is waiting to be consumed. In the following interview, Koh - who is not reading the news - ruminates on the present predicaments of the world filtered through friends and visitors to the gallery, and chats about our own personal responsibilities to stand up for a planet constantly in flux and constantly in danger of losing its fragile balance.
AUTRE: So you haven’t seen much of LA since you’ve been here because you’ve been mainly in the gallery. Have you been able to enjoy the community?
TERENCE KOH: I’m trying to think if I’ve been to other parts of LA this trip. No, not really. I’ve pretty much just been here.
AUTRE: For a show like this, what is the preparation like? Besides the materials, what’s the process of mentally preparing for a show like this?
KOH: There’s not much. I’ve done performances before, so it’s actually -- ever since I did the nothingtoodoo show and I was going around the salt. I would go like eight hours a day for seven days. Everything is relative. That was one probably the most painful, mentally and physically thing I’ve ever done. In the gallery now, the fact that I can move around and talk to people. I didn’t feel that I needed to mentally prepare in that way. It’s a lot more peaceful. I’ve created a setting - my cat's here, the piano - and everything just takes place organically and naturally. Like Alan Watts’ philosophy, you just muddle through it. Just as it goes.
AUTRE: He had that philosophy that if you’re truly present, when you wash the dishes, you’re only washing one dish.
KOH: Exactly. You just be present in the moment. It’s something I’ve just learned recently.
AUTRE: How did the opening go? Did you feel like it went well?
KOH: I think so. I was overwhelmed and someone gave me an edible to calm me down. When I’m in Sonoma, it’s very remote in the grapevines and when I was in the Catskills I was on a mountain top by myself. So I've actually purposefully avoided openings and all these things. I didn’t prepare mentally for all these people. Usually when I have openings, there’s an office or something I can escape to and just walk away for a moment, but I had nowhere to go. And then the edible kicked in [laughter]. It was interesting.
AUTRE: I saw an Instagram picture of you in the boat. Was that when you hid in the boat?
KOH: I haven’t even seen it. I haven’t seen anything in days, which is great actually. It was really nice to all these people getting together and enjoying the bee chapel and sitting around here and playing the piano. All of these impromptu. Having conversations which was the whole point of the show. Making a setting where people feel comfortable together as a community in the times that we live in as well. Like a beehive with good intentions.
AUTRE: I want to talk about Joseph Beuys who had that famous performance where he was sort of whisked into the gallery. I like America and America likes me. Do you think taking these extreme lengths is important to make political or spiritual statements?
KOH: Yes I do. I think it’s through many ways. Through gentle ways. Because of what the current government is trying to do, trying to destroy the environment. I’ve been reading about environmental activism and the author, Derrick Jensen, who lives in Northern California. He’s advocating blowing up dams, not that he does it himself, but that the other side is so focused and vicious and powerful. As we’re sitting here, they’re thinking about the Keystone Pipeline. His big question is, are we even interested in winning this? Because it is a war. He’s advocating for extreme action. He talks about protests and how we all come together and it’s nice and after we feel good, we cook a dinner. But what have we actually achieved? We made ourselves feel good, but what have we done to fight the forces?
AUTRE: When did you first start to discover and learn about bees and beehives and taking care of them?
KOH: I think probably moving to the Catskills. Again in New York City, there are bees too, but when we live on a remote mountain top, you realize there are honey bees flying everywhere. I was coming from New York City, I didn’t think about these things. Only from living in nature do you open your awareness that it’s all really there. You read about honeybees in the news, because of all the things that we’re doing and it’s really a lot of things that we do like chemicals in farming. There was this voice that came up. “Build a bee chapel” and I didn’t know what a bee chapel was. It took actually a whole year to figure out. I thought I was going to build a pyramid and cover it in honey. I was talking to different people. There had to be more structure to it. Over time, it just organically happened. Talking to beekeepers.
AUTRE: I read or heard from someone that you built the chapel partly to protect them from bears, was it?
KOH: We built the first chapel in the Catskills twelve feet up in the air, because there are all these bears. Otherwise, they’d smell the honey. We built a catapult system.
AUTRE: That’s wild.
KOH: It wasn’t just my idea. There were so many people that made this show happen. The carpenters, the beekeeper, the gardeners, and the whole gallery helping out. Just all these different people and things coming together.
AUTRE: Have you seen the movie, “The Spirit of the Beehive?" It’s a Spanish film.
KOH: Oh yes, part of it. I don’t remember much, but I remember it’s very dark.
AUTRE: It’s dark. The director uses bees as symbolism to talk about people and control. You seem to have attributed more positive symbolism to bees.
KOH: The Spirit of the Beehive moves into like Shamanistic territory and I’m studying Zen Buddhism right now, which is like things that are directly as they are. There is no mysticism to it. I feel like I’m always between Mysticism and Zen Buddhism. Both forces that are completely opposite and I don’t know what side it is, because I do believe there is magic, somehow. When candles burn and there are ashes. There’s a mystery that is magic. But in Buddhism, it is what it is. There is no more to a candle than a candle. In the bee chapel, it’s nature and it just happens, but also why do the bees do what they do? How do they swarm. There are so many mysteries to bees.
AUTRE: Interesting. When you first started making work, especially in New York City, there was a big difference in the work you were making as compared to the work you’re making now. What do you think it was about nature that inspired you to try something new?
KOH: Maybe it was learning to accept nature. When you live in it and you learn to be a part of it. If you don’t get yourself firewood and you live in the Catskills, you’re going to freeze.
AUTRE: I want to talk a little bit about the writing that you did for this show. It’s really beautiful. Where does the language and poetry fit into your artistic practice? Because you use very unique language to describe your practice. Have you always used that language to describe each of your shows?
KOH: No. I think everyone is sort of born with their own language, I believe. Because you go to school and grade school, they switch you into being part of society. Without school, I wonder what type of grammar and syntax we would use. It could be very interesting. Maybe we would all speak in poetry or like the bees, we wouldn’t need to talk. The beekeeper was talking to me about language like how do they know their distance from the beehive? They all cling together. That’s a different system of thinking. We could have developed different natures that aren’t language based.
AUTRE: There’s a lot of unconscious communication that we do. A lot of people speak without saying anything, even if they don’t realize it.
KOH: We’re gonna discover just like radio waves that maybe we’re telepathic. It’s all within ourselves. I think it’s because from what I read, we move too quickly as a civilization. The spiritual has moved faster than the physical. If we moved in tandem, that’s when maybe things would get interesting.
AUTRE: Last summer, you were at Andrew Edlin Gallery. You did that show and it was just the Beehive, right?
KOH: There were a few different things.
AUTRE: You cited the names of the Orlando victims, which is really interesting and you said you wanted to sort of let the bees hear those names. Can you talk a little bit about that?
KOH: Most beekeepers talk to the bees. You tell them the news of things that are happening around the world so that you treat them with respect. The idea is that I think the bees do listen and hear. The idea was that in that show, there were microphones connected back into satellites, into outer space so I thought if I channeled it and talked to the bees about things that were happening, they would again channel it. The whole system would all be channeled into outer space. Me, the bees, everything. It’s one way to keep them alive as well. It affected me, being gay as well, to see that happen at a gay nightclub. You feel empathy because you feel it’s closer to you. I’ve been to spaces like that. It’s all about perspective. I want to be connected, but also disconnected. Maybe by disconnecting, I can focus my energy. There’s so much going on, it’s like what can I do? But with this show, we can be connected and responsible.
AUTRE: You should get everyone to chow down on that cactus.
KOH: Right? Exactly. Like a little bit each and we can find different ways to do things. Sitting here disconnected from the world, is it doing any good? For myself, maybe, but I don’t know.
AUTRE: It seems like an important gesture. A really important gesture and maybe a lesson for people to sort of take a step back and disconnect a little bit.
KOH: Just living and being, maybe that’s one way. They can take away clean water, they can’t take away spirit itself. We have our spirit. They cannot take it away. When Krishnamurti wrote the greatest art is the art of living, he wrote it in one of his books and even greater than the greatest works of paintings or poetry or architecture is the art of living itself. It took me awhile to understand. It’s almost like from touching the cat, to talking to you, to cooking food. This is how we do it in our way.
AUTRE: Nurture our intellect.
AUTRE: When you imagine the future, which emotion do you feel most dominantly?
KOH: [pause] The future is now.
AUTRE: The future feels present.
KOH: The future is the present. It’s unexplainable. There’s nothing you can do about the future or the past. But to feel the future is not possible. The only thing we have is the now.
Terence Koh "Sleeping In A Beam of Sunlight" will be on view until March 11, 2017 at Moran Bondaroff gallery in Los Angeles. text, interview and photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE