Brewing up conceptual art
By Beverly Cramp
A pot of water doesn’t boil. Germaine Koh is trying to make tea at her new studio. She investigates and discovers the stove’s electrical element isn’t working. Quick as a whip, she swivels the stove away from the wall, checking to ensure the plug is connected. Her next move is to the fuse box. Aha, the switch is off. Koh flicks it on. Soon, the stove element is bright red, the water heated, and the tea brewed.
It could almost be a piece of Koh’s art, befitting her long-term practice of finding poetry in the mundane – whether the growth of our hair or the sensation of wind as we walk outdoors. Koh’s conceptual work draws attention to things we largely undervalue and encourages us to consider the familiar objects, ordinary places and common processes that shape our lives. “I’ve always, from the beginning of my practice more than 20 years ago, been concerned with everyday actions,” says Koh. “And how, over time, they incrementally build up to affect or shape our lives.”
Koh, who is based in Vancouver, is one of Canada’s leading mid-career artists and has an international career that has included exhibitions in Britain, Germany, Australia, China and the United States. Her ongoing production of ingenious idea-based art is the focus of an upcoming exhibition, Weather Systems, which opens April 6 at the Kamloops Art Gallery. The show includes a survey of major pieces from the past as well as new work.
Koh has been working on Topographic Table, a wooden model of the mountains on Vancouver’s North Shore in the form of a table. Like much of her work, it will be interactive, although she is still working out details. “There will be electronics in the table that will shake it – vibration sensors set off when traffic goes by or people walk by,” she says. “Or the table could take a signal from a smart phone that will connect on the Internet and feed back to the table, making it vibrate.”
Work that links the natural environment with some form of human technology is a common thread in Koh’s work. For instance, in Prayers, a 1999 work that will be reconfigured in Kamloops, she adds a computer to an existing network in the gallery to spy on other computers. Keystrokes from the monitored computers are translated into Morse code and then, using a smoke machine, vented outside the gallery as encoded smoke signals. “Prayers is making visible a kind of daily labour – the typing of emails – and broadcasting it to the outside world,” says Koh. “Essentially, I’m using the smoke machine as a printer.”
The piece illustrates Koh’s typical working methodology – she takes a familiar object or situation and, by altering it slightly, draws viewers’ attention to how they normally think about something and how that might have shifted. “I try to come up with a very elegant, minimal form that, as it unpacks and unfolds, contains within it reflections about social processes,” says Koh. “The piece ties together a whole lineage of communication technology – smoke signals to Morse code to steam power to the telegraph to digital communications.”
Koh can trace a link between Prayers and one of her earliest conceptual projects, Knitwork, an ongoing piece that also highlights everyday labour. Since 1992, Koh has been unravelling hundreds of old sweaters and knitting the yarn into an absurdly long and constantly growing object that offers a physical record of the passage of time. Another ongoing work is Self-portrait, an oil painting she first completed in 1994 and repaints periodically on the same canvas to reflect her changing appearance and new aspects of her life. Each time it is displayed, it is accompanied by documentation showing previous states. The portrait is less about creating a record of herself and more about the act of painting and the process of aging.
Koh immigrated to Canada from Malaysia at age two with her parents, who were teachers, and was raised in Armstrong, B.C. She attended the University of Ottawa, earning degrees in fine arts and art history, and then completed her MFA at Hunter College in New York in 1993. She soon established an active, if peripatetic, career that saw her travel regularly to exhibitions and residencies in Canada and beyond, as well as curating and lecturing. In 2004, she was one of five finalists for the Sobey Art Award, which recognizes Canadian artists under 40. She began teaching at Emily Carr University in Vancouver a few years later. In 2010, she was honoured with a VIVA Award, which recognizes outstanding achievements by mid-career artists in British Columbia.
A decade ago, Koh began a three-part series, Fair-weather forces, that explores relationships between human behaviour and natural or meteorological elements. The series, which will be brought together in one venue for the first time in Kamloops, includes wind speed, a turnstile with a built-in motor controlled by a device that monitors wind speeds outside the gallery. Essentially, the turnstile moves in relation to the wind’s power. “It is a real-time monitor of what is going on outside,” says Koh. “There’s something weird about these pieces in that they are reporting information to us that we should already know about if we have any kind of attentiveness to our environment. If it’s a blustery day, we should know that without having to see this turnstile inside spinning madly around. But the way that we live our lives is such that sometimes we don’t have the time to pay attention to outside signals.”
The next piece in the series, (sun : light), undercuts the usual purpose of interior lighting. Lights are bright during the day. But as the sun goes down, they slowly fade to darkness. The final piece, (water level), features a row of stainless steel posts linked by velvet ropes, the type of structure typically used to control crowds. But here, the ropes are connected to electronic and mechanical feedback systems that relay the real-time water level of a nearby water body. Ropes rise and fall as the water rises and falls.
The piece aims to draw attention to phenomena that might otherwise be unrelated – social-control systems and the unpredictable movement of natural forces. “In past times, commerce was genuinely affected by the environment, more so than now,” says Koh. “For example, if a storm came up, ships couldn’t be unloaded. I’m relating natural-system rhythms to man-made barrier systems that we are familiar with today.”
Given the range of technology, you might suspect Koh is a computer geek. Not so, she insists. She learned everything from scratch, including programming and engineering electronics. “There’s something magical about soldering something together then plugging it in,” she says. “It either blows up or it works. Ultimately, I would like my work to help in a general demystification of technology. It is a huge barrier for a lot of people . . . Hopefully, my work underscores the idea that technology doesn’t have to be frightening.”
Germaine Koh: Weather Systems is on at the Kamloops Art Gallery, April 6 to June 15, 2013.