Since his departure from the New York art scene several years prior, Terence Koh has appeared in the art context at fits and starts; a performance here, a reading there, or an unexpected appearance at the PS1 Art Book fair in 2014, where the artist sold materials from his farm in upstate New York. His momentary appearances implied the artist was continuing his work while living far from the madding crowd, but rarely was his work on view, or presented within the gallery context. This changes with Koh’s Bee Chapel, a powerful install at Andrew Edlin Gallery on the Bowery that hints at Koh’s increasingly nuanced practice.
The exhibition is split into segments, welcoming the viewer through a series of rooms that gradually distances them from the bustling city outside the exhibition space, and pulls them deeper into Koh’s suspended landscapes of sound and shadow. Passing by a series of assemblages in the gallery lobby, often made from detritus, glass and beeswax, the viewer can detect an immediate departure into the leftover artifacts of past eras, a collage of materials that recall the dusty shelves and cabinets of barns and countryside homes. Behind a curtain, however, the show quickly dispenses with material signifiers, revealing a dimly-lit room awash in droning, bass-heavy soundscapes and a massive tree trunk. The apple tree, named Harriet, was salvaged from a friend’s farm, and brought to New York as a memorial of sorts. Lit only by a series of burning candles, the space is flooded with droning noise, which seems to recede as the viewer approaches the trunk, allowing a moment of quiet reflection directly next to its lifeless form.
Passing through into the next chamber, a single candle burns in the darkness, creating an illusion of infinite space around its flame. Lingering inside this room affords a sense of expanded perceptual acuity, as sounds grow more vivid. It’s a cleansing room of sorts, emptying the viewer’s previous associations before proceeding into the Bee Chapel itself, an immense wax dome in which a hive hums with active insects, and fills its arching form with the sickly sweet scent of honey.
The show welcomes a slow, considered pathway through its arranged spaces, and the spare selections of objects in each makes for a fascinating enquiry into Koh’s almost monastic dedication to his subject matter. His work is an exercise in reverence, in considering each object in its relations to its surroundings, and its agency in the creation of a whole. It’s a perspective that works well for the exhibition, not merely as Koh’s triumphant return to New York City, but rather as a reflection of his decreased pace as an artist. Koh’s own voice, which has long explored momentary inflections of objects through history, natural agents, and human perception, turns inwards here, using the space of the gallery as a focal point on which the slight sounds, images and even smells, of his home is allowed to present itself.
What appears in turn is not so much the spectacle of delicate sonics and inverted space itself, but rather a momentary glimpse of Koh’s own mental landscape, as if the artist had brought a piece of his farmland’s remote, meditative sphere into the heart of New York City. Koh’s work is more about his own personal state, of sharing this calm, this expanded relationship with the natural objects around him; trees, rocks, bees, wax and dirt, into a microcosm of his own experiences, a world as intriguing in its internal consistency as it is compelling in its silence, and its inclinations towards an evacuation of self-awareness. It’s a world of Koh’s deep camaraderie with his natural surroundings, one in which the death of a lone tree is treated as momentous, and serves as an opportunity for in-depth personal and spiritual reflection.
This sense of renewed perspective, of treating lone objects in his surroundings as companions, totems and compositional elements, that underscores Koh’s renewed artistic vigor, a note that’s increasingly emphasized by the presence of the bees in the final room. This buzzing mass of insects is presented more as a group of guests than art material in this regard, and the viewer’s entry into the chapel repositions them again as hosts in this domain, as equal participants, where their space and function is treated as a sacred presence.
If Koh wanted to take a step back from the art world he had embedded himself so tightly within, than his return places these two spheres into close negotiation, as he uses the gallery itself to transmit his own constructed universe into the gallery itself.
Bee Chapel is on view through July 29th.
— D. Creahan