There is an old Chinese proverb that tells us: There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same. I might even have had this pearl of wisdom in the back of my mind when I went to the top of the mountain with Terence Koh, but as for the view, we had taken something of the left-handed path getting there so we could see things quite differently. And as to the way back down, well, there only seemed one option and that one was less than desirable as a large bear had taken up an extended stay there to feast on the blueberry bushes lining the path. It really had been a most magical afternoon, musing on the meaning of life and art while contemplating epic vistas and letting our eyes dig deep into impossible worlds of dappled light and dense vegetation. But, by the same fearful alchemy of the mushroom-laced ice cubes in our drinks that had made our heights so very heady, the descent seemed perilous at best. Terence, ever the optimist, and a man who has, many times, made his uncanny media savvy a part of his art, reminded me that at least it would be a good story to tell here.
Psychedelic and ursine intrusions aside . . . no journey with Terence Koh is ever simple or direct. Nor, from my experience at least, is it ever just one-way. There is always the promise of a return, often indefinitely delayed, along with the sly hint that there is always one step further to go, a final folly that is the real destination. I’ve been following Terence for a lot longer than any Alpine climb, first from afar as a fan of his scandalous and sensational asianpunkboy zine, but then over time as a fellow downtown denizen whose bratty success and excess seemed barely commensurate to his penchant for creating situations of stunning visual intensity and compelling mystery. He was weird, reportedly difficult, though I never experienced that, and for all his extravagant flamboyance, painfully shy. But let’s face it, we’re not used to art that is utterly jaw dropping. We’re accustomed to the marvelous, but it is rare that we are ever brought to marvel. The last time I remember seeing Terence from that time was the opening of a show he put together at his Lower East Side space Asia Song Society, that had a bunch of pals in it and the odd acronym BILTF for its title. I’ve never asked how many of the mostly straight guys in it ever knew the curatorial mandate was “boys I’d like to fuck.”
There are others who would have a far better idea of what happened, people who were there and who have since looked at me with some unspeakable dread when I tell them how I’ve been hanging out with Terence but, by whatever blaze of ignominious glory he went out in, all I knew is that I stopped running into Koh or hearing much about him. Then, about a year ago a painter friend, Steve Ellis, told me that Terence and his boyfriend Garrick had bought a house up the mountain from the town he lived in and were building a chapel for honeybees. I was delighted to hear that Terence, now immensely private and cloistered in some monk-like retreat from the world, said he would be happy to see me and show me his bee chapel on the mountain if I wanted to visit. Friendships are more involved and complicated than the simple accounting of the occasions we spend together or the years they come to mark, but somewhere on this journey from the gutter to the mountain, I’ve come to follow Terence with a curious mixture of befuddlement and enchantment. He agreed to do this interview with me because he likes this publication and wanted to use this opportunity to announce that he was moving to San Francisco, a town I suspect he hasn’t ever visited.
Though I understand that the costs of producing major projects after having parted ways with the blue chip galleries he used to work with, combined with having blown through all the money he made (including one notorious windfall where he gilded his own poop and sold it for hundreds of thousands) only to discover that the government still expected him to pay taxes on the money he’d made and spent so easily, has left Koh deeply in debt, I still refuse to believe he would just pull up stakes and move. What he did tell me however was that after playing personae for so long, he wanted to speak now, for the first time, with complete honesty— something I trust and am indeed grateful for. A dreamer, disbeliever and mystic, a wily conman and the most sincere artist I know, this then is the truth we found one summer afternoon on a mountaintop, fueled by mushrooms, in the company of birds, bees, and even bears, too high to lie but not so hung up on reality that what is known could ever compromise the impossible questions of unknowing.
This is such a magical spot.
Yes, but maybe you should lie down . . . would be more Freudian.
I’d love that.
Do you want to start at the beginning or the end?
It’s all the same; let’s just start.
The narrative of your art career is seemingly told now in a sequence of dramatic shifts — the arrogance, the self-mortification, the absence, and the prodigal return. It’s all very before and after, transformative dichotomies, but to me it’s maybe more continuous than all that.
Garrick Gott: You’re always killing yourself, Terence; you’ve been killing your identities over and over again.
So true. At least since asianpunkboy, it is like a cycle of the creation and abnegation of different personae.
I find it hard to tell the truth because I don’t know what the truth is.
GG: You can’t tell a lie for the same reason.
The sound of the birds is wonderful.
Birdsongs: Can we ever know if they’re trying to say something or just enjoying the sound of their own voices?
I remember John Cage talking about how every sound was a symphony.
So you all but disappear as far as the art world can tell. You leave New York, change your phone number and email address, and don’t tell anyone where you are. If we weren’t neighbors and friends, I would never have known. But now, not only do you produce this major exhibition at Edlin’s, I hear you’re doing something later this summer with our friend Mike Osterhout, an artist we wrote about in this publication about a year ago.
Yes, Uncle Mike bought a shul. Or is that a synagogue?
They mean the same thing; a shul is a synagogue.
What is the Jewish mind? The shul has beautiful stained glass. When Mike invited Garrick and me over to show us what he was doing with the shul, it felt a lot like you just open the doors and go down a rabbit hole. Each situation inspires the response, an idea that is the vision.
Yes that’s true for both of you as artists—and perhaps how your show up at Andrew Edlin Gallery is not so out of place for a gallery that has focused largely on outsider art—yours is a kind of visionary conceptualism.
I’ve been thinking a lot about religion these days.
Yeah, what’s up with that?
GG: It’s like The X Files.
We want to believe.
Pop culture references like that kind of go over my head because I never watched that show. Much as we seem hardwired as a species to create belief systems of faith, it seems we also need to doubt. I’ve been reading the manuscript for this forthcoming biography on the great art dealer Dick Bellamy, who launched everything from pop art to minimalism and land art without ever making a dime, and I was struck by how artists like Donald Judd, whose work very much depended on a certain leap of faith, got furious at him when he showed James Lee Byars. Formalism allows spirituality, but shamanism in art always comes across like the emperor’s new clothes.
And I am naked and I have nothing to show. James Lee Byars is a wizard. He is wisdom. Religion delays personal wisdom. I’ve been reading Thomas Merton to try to understand Christianity; he was a Jesuit and an almost Buddhist like me. I was watching Krishnamurti on YouTube and then in a dream that very night came the voice, “You will make a bee chapel.”
The Indian mystic and teacher?
Exactly, I saw an interview where he was talking about how it is not about changing society, it’s about creating an evolution of the mind. He was talking in similarly turbulent times, and I thought with all the craziness going on in the world today I wanted to engage in my responsibility as a living being. Living on the top of a mountain, you begin to see the world differently, to be a part of it, because you can get everything up here, but to not be of it. Maybe you just have too much time to think about these things. I wanted so much to find a way to change society, but Krishnamurti made me realize it wasn’t about that so much as creating an evolution of our mind.
Maybe 30 years ago, when I was doing a story on her for Artforum, Yoko Ono told me—I remember having a similar kind of epiphany—when she told me that it wasn’t about changing the world, it was about changing ourselves.
Oh yes, that’s it. Yoko in the bee chapel with the peaceful bees of the universe. Then, oh gosh, as a gay Asian you read about Orlando and it opens up some kind of unexplainable need to take action. Peace is here right now. Strange and beautiful how the universe flows right through you. And because there was a mic in the bee chapel already and that mic was broadcasting live to the universe, if we could sing the names of the Orlando victims in the bee chapel to the bees, together with the bees we can sing their names to the universe. We are all light!
I think I was out of town for that. Was that when you had Tessa (Hughes-Freeland) doing projections and showed movies by Wojnarowicz, Jack Smith, Bruce LaBruce and others from the pantheon of queer cinema?
So very beautiful. So very, very beautiful because Tessa was live djing the light images, so everywhere you turn, 360 degrees, there was a light collage. A dream that you could never see again. All this, and out there the stars are twinkling. And then here we are as well, you humans. It was so emotional from the day before with the shootings in Dallas, and somehow it was the killing of those cops that made me cry, even though it was not as close to me personally. A breaking glass point. Laying down looking at the trees looking at us. We are all responsible for transmitting our love into the world. This story is a way of showing and sharing that love. You see right now there is no separation, Carlo, between you and me. We have roots too, the ground and our roots right there in the ground are intertwined also. It’s a circle. At the opening with Frederic Tuten, he was able to speak to Paul Thek way out in the universe using the transmissions from Eve, the apple tree we put in the gallery. Frederic Tuten speaking gently into the space microphone. This moment to transmit a message across space and time brought water to my eyes.
Because Bee Chapel is such an obvious showstopper, a lot of the other work you’ve put in the show doesn’t get quite so much attention, but Eve is a very complex installation.
How crazy is it that I needed an apple tree and there were Andy and Polly, part of our community upstate, who do apple cider? Beautiful people. They had a sick apple tree they needed to remove from the orchard. So when we asked if we could dig her gently out and bring her to the city and treat her like a living goddess, they said of course yes. “Yes,” the most beautiful word. Eve the apple tree, yes, and alive and communicating with the cosmos.
Life is perhaps relative, but a red light bulb powered by a solar panel is a meager subsistence. But life and death come to reflect one another in your art. What seems most alive about Eve is the sound.
Yes, Eve is sleeping. She is transmitting sleeping tree sounds. The sound also comes from different sources; we put mics in each room of the show transmitting live back out. We miked the inside of the bee chapel and the sound of two candle flames burning. We also managed to speak with a professor at NASA and he helped get us set up a livestream from space. A telescope in Hawaii constantly transmitted livestream sounds to Eve in the gallery. And then the only recorded sound was when NASA recorded the chirp of two black holes colliding a billion light years away . . . Wow. Wooooooo . . . How would you open the two-face ghost?
But all these sounds collide into one another, until that point where they cancel each other out.
That’s right where Eve lies; there’s a cradle there that creates a cone of silence. When you enter, you feel the whole room vibrating, and you feel yourself vibrating, but when you enter the cone of silence, just right there, in that moment, the vibrations stop . . . an island in a vibrating universe.
It’s amazing to me because you have been living as an absolute hermit for the past few years but you found all these remarkable people to make this happen, like the tree from our local hard cider distillers, but finding Jim Toth to be your sound engineer is insane, he’s got such a visionary and pure relationship to sound.
He made everything possible. Jim worked with 3 Teens Kill 4.
Right, I forgot that. People know about them because David Wojnarowicz was in that band, but Doug and Julie too. They were an utterly unique band.
They were tuned into the bandwidth of the universe. That’s why in every room in the bee chapel show, it’s important that we’re not just listening, but that all these sounds are being broadcast back out into space from the show.
If you happened to be out in space when the signal was passing that would be one far out station to tune in on. I was just thinking of the films you showed that night. You must know Bruce LaBruce from having the same dealer, Javier Peres?
Right, we collaborated together on a show in Berlin. We made a dick cave, where all the stalagmites and stalactites were big erect penises you had to walk through. We had to give Viagra to the men so that their dicks would stay erect, especially the stalagmite dicks.
Fucking hilarious. Javier has allowed, even encouraged so many crazy things over the years. Wasn’t he also a partner in your studio exhibition space down on East Broadway, Asia Song Society?
Yes, A.S.S. Thank god for Javier—and Buddhist nuns. And being almost Buddhist.
So being almost Buddhist as in not everything, but almost everything?
Sure, but also almost because I won’t surrender the independence of my soul.
Yeah, but we probably sound like a bunch of hippies sitting around talking about religion.
I don’t mind being a hippie. And it is important to talk about religion and not be religion. One watches the news and sees what it is like to put anger out into the world like Donald does. This is what I got from my semi-voluntary poverty when I flew and moved up here. Living here you see a different part of America, and then you see things differently. Understand things differently. I didn’t understand the Black Lives Matter motto. I’m Asian, what about me? But really, what it is about is putting oneself in their shoes . . . to understand one another. This is what everyone has to do.
Yes, like the protest march you organized to walk from your apartment on 1st Street to the gallery on Bowery to open the show, with the all the posters saying simply “Now.” The meaning is open-ended, but it’s very urgent.
Honestly it had nothing to do with the show, I’d just always wanted to do this march from the East Village down Bowery, and Andrew opening a gallery there was the perfect excuse for this. Of course it is about being in the moment, but it was also something the Diggers in San Francisco would proclaim.
Not sure if it calls for an exclamation point or a question mark, but the declarative adds a bit of absurdity when it is not overly direct—like the old photo of Allen Ginsberg at a rally in the East Village, with that poster about pot.
GG: Right, it says, “Pot is fun.”
There are all always questions, about who we are—as a people, a civilization, a species. Not many households are asking these questions, but we need to think about them more. We must all whisper into our mother’s womb.
I’m not sure many of us have the stamina and fortitude for such questions; they demand a certain kind of bravery in the face of fear and the unknown. You did a wonderful turn around this impossible question with your show nothingtoodoo at Mary Boone in 2011, before you walked away from the art world. It was so punishing, mentally, physically, and spiritually, as extreme as anything your friend Marina Abramović ever did, to spend every day of the entire show in a vow of silence, subjugated on your knees, circling this huge pyramid-shaped mound of salt. Roberta Smith was uncannily prescient then to write in The New York Times: “All along he has raised questions on the nature of art, the role of the artist (and the artistic persona) and the condition of otherness. Here he may have ‘othered’ himself right out of the art world into the larger sphere of symbolic action.” Like damn, how did she know?
Between you and me, this was my intention. Who knows but the trees around and sister sky. It has not been easy, but I have been able to walk my way back to my beginnings which were inspired by fluxus, in my case specifically Ray Johnson, but all of them for allowing the ridiculous and understanding the greatest art is the art of living. And what George Maciunas meant by a living art is that anybody can do it, which is scary to a lot of people. For me this was life-changing, and so if we go at it we need to go at it full on. It’s like when you shit, live it, don’t just read a magazine, be there, aware and in the moment.
I know you don’t like to talk about things in advance but this story will come out after you do your project at Osterhout’s Old Shul for Social Sculpture…
We’ll be living in San Francisco by then. Painting sunsets in the Sunset.
So you say, but I’m not inclined to report all your crazy ideas and rash impulse decisions as fact. But earlier you talked about how these experiences, creating a bee chapel or making a shul into an art piece, are like going down a rabbit hole, so where has it taken you?
Well, one way to do this is the selfie phone cap. You know how people are constantly checking their cell phones for new messages. What if you had a cap that had like a selfie stick built into the cap and so on the other end of the stick is your phone? You could wear this cap around the house or anywhere and you could constantly check for new messages because your cell phone would always be right there in front of you. Selfie phone cap.
Okay, we move on. You know, when I left the shul I had a vision, that’s how shows come to me, and I saw this pool of water—floating, sparkling, living water.
So it’s not a thought, it’s an image, and then you think about what you saw?
Right, I didn’t even know what it meant. Later I put “Jewish Water” into Google and I learned about the mikveh, which in Judaism is like a bath, mostly used by women, for cleansing. This I don’t completely agree with. Why must women need to be cleaned and not the men too? Then there is the beauty of the mikveh—that when you immerse yourself breathing in, you have to choose life and breathe out. Intention. Serious intention. Please everybody reading right now: concentrate on your breathing. Breathe in slowly filling your stomach with air and then breathe out slowly and gently. This is it, we are who we are now. But okay, back to the mikveh. You go down seven steps into the womb of mother, like a spa but as a way to float and just become light. Do you know we are all light? That’s why we do complete immersion, and have an attendant, so you go over every inch of your body, and the mikveh must have naturally flowing water, so it’s pretty complicated. Mike found a natural spring behind the shul and we borrowed a generator and got a pump to bring the water constantly into the horse trough. We will build it so that it blocks the door of the synagogue, so that the only way to go into the show is if you immersed yourself into the mikveh. I was so happy to send out an invite that asked people to bring a swimsuit and a towel to see a show. More smiles for the world. I wish I could dip the whole world in a mikveh now.
It seems this practice of ritual cleansing fits very well with lots of the work you’ve done.
Yes, when I do performances it’s cleaning myself. Oh, it’s a . . . it’s . . . well, this is great. It’s nice when you tell the truth.
And it’s great to believe you. I’d like to ask you about your interest in artist books as a medium. I love that book light to nothing with fluorescent ink you don’t see but in the dark lights up as little stars on the page, but from the beginning, as asianpunkboy, you’ve always been concerned with publishing as a way of making artist multiples.
Oh yes, to multiple is to multiply yourself and then everybody realizes everybody is everybody else. Okay—the same with making a book. That’s how I became an artist when I made asianpunkboy magazine in Vancouver. Friends gathering around pasting and cutting and sewing and cooking and farting and baking and smoking and looking and seeing and floating and looking to the most of the thinking. And when you make something and it gets sent out into the world, on a shelf somewhere as a book waiting to be picked up. Oh! You are connected to that person, and time and place are no longer mattering. These are the things that matter.
Yes, this is how I first knew you, as asianpunkboy. And then I heard about this artist Terence Koh, and I didn’t know who that was until somebody told me, you know Terence; he’s asianpunkboy. How did that happen?
That’s how I got to New York City. Phil Aarons read about me in V Magazine and wanted to buy an asianpunkboy magazine. And I proposed instead that he had to buy not just the magazine but also the house the magazine lived in. And please I needed $8,000 to make the house. Now this is the super great part; that Phil actually took a leap of faith and sent me the money. So this money helped Garrick and I buy a ticket and move to New York City in the late ’90s.
Shelley and Phil Aarons are pretty visionary that way. I mean yes, they are crazy obsessive collectors who have to have absolutely everything that matters to them in the field of artist’s books, but way more than that they do so much to sustain and nurture this world. Along the way they have supported Printed Matter with love, energy, and money beyond the call of any patron, and enabled the Artist Book Fair to flourish, so that it feels more like a festival for an entire movement than your typical art fair. I could see them paying for a house for your magazine if you said it needed one, but what sort of dwelling was this?
The House—we actually call it the coffin for books—really looks like an all-mirror coffee table the size of a coffin. You lift up the mirror top over a white fake fur-lined box and inside are various boxes jig-sawed together. I think there are about 132 boxes. And you can open or peek inside each box and see different scenes and rooms where book and magazines live. Neckface watching book. Kafka has a big beetle in a little box and a little dresser and the book is hidden in the third dresser. I do believe heaven is being on an island with coconut trees and a giant library.
I liked that woman Catherine we just met at your place. She said she runs that school out of Pioneer Works. Are you going to teach there?
The things that really interest me now are the systems of living. Every day living is every moment living. And where the spirit is. Kembra Pfahler was telling me about this class she was teaching with Pioneer Works and she thought I might be interested in teaching too. Now the very concept of even thinking about teaching is a bit crazy for me. What would I know what to do standing there in front of a classroom of students with a blackboard? But then Catherine Despont, who is co-director of education there, came up and we had a lovely day visiting the bee chapel and walking the meadows and eating Garrick’s yum yums. We talked about the education system today and how we are responsible for creating new systems. And this got me thinking about how I would ever teach. I figured it out a few days ago, and the class is called Zombie Utopia.
This year is the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia, from which we inherit this word utopia. What a perfect way to celebrate.
The premise of the class is that Trump is now president and, like in the movies, people in major cities are suddenly turning into zombies. The class will be set up as a series of visits and stays up here on our mountain in the Catskills. What kind of shelter do we need, how are we going to eat, take a poop? Suddenly all these questions get very important when you know those zombies are slowly crawling their way up the mountain. The days would be structured on the model pioneered by the Nearings from Living The Good Life. Four hours of labor, four hours of play such as reading and writing or music and art making, and then four hours serving others in activities. We will help out in working farms or collect trash by the waterfall. We will learn to draw with the plants, sharing the flow of blood through our human and plant veins. Collect goat manure. Everybody working together as honeybees. Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily bee, life is but a dream. Well, goodbye East Coast, hello Sunset!