Five (mind-blowing) minutes with Terence Koh
Paris fashion week is currently in full swing, so if you’d happened to spot artist Terence Koh as he strolled into the blue chip Thaddaeus Ropac gallery this weekend—wearing an all-white getup that included a wooly Alexander McQueen cowl that he’s refashioned into a sweater, a Comme des Garcons shirt and collapsible Mary Ping sunglasses—you’d be forgiven for assuming he was a visiting stylist who’d gotten lost on his way out of the Dries Van Noten show. Of course, Koh is not just a fashion plate but one of the art world’s most widely-exhibited provocateurs, whose installations, sound pieces and sculptures reference everything from queer culture to James Turrell. Here, the Chinese-born, New York-based artist takes a few minutes to chat about his latest performance piece, Adansonias, debuing at Ropac in Paris Tuesday night. An “imaginary opera” in eight acts, the multimedia piece is loosely based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. For the show, Koh has transformed the gallery’s main space into an all-white stage set, with fine salt covering the floor.
So, for your first opera, you’ve written the libretto and the music, designed the sets and the costumes, and you’re singing in public for the first time. Nervous?
I’m pretty calm, considering. This is not a Western opera, or a Chinese opera, or an opera that has any clear sense of timing or anything. But all great operas need a simple story that everybody knows. So I’m playing myself as the Little Prince, very abstractly. He goes around visiting different planets.
What characters does he meet?
Actually I’ve cast my parents in this. They are coming. My father’s character is based on Godot, from the Beckett play. And my mother is going to play Anna Karenina, but as a prostitute from Alphaville, the Godard film. She doesn’t know that yet.
When will you tell your mother that you’ve cast her as a prostitute?
I don’t think she’ll find out (laughs). I’m going to be singing in my own [invented] language, so there will be English translations flashing above for the audience to see to see. But she won’t know what the words are.
And you’ve also cast eight French men to play buddhas?
Yes—there’s the dream sequence of the opera, which has eight buddhas, dressed in monk robes and masks, painted white. Last week we rented a big van, and there are pictures of us running around Paris. We went to the sex dungeons, the cruising ground in the Tuileries, which is amazing. It’s full of condoms and everything, and it’s right outside the Louvre.
What is the story of The Little Prince about for you?
It’s about the loneliness of individuality. About being trapped in a desert. So the opera is a tragedy.
For the score, you’ve composed music for piano using only the white keys. What does it sound like?
It’s not melodic. I composed the music only based on how pretty the notes look on the page. I don’t read music at all.
Art critics have come up with various explanations for your continuing obsession with white, from its symbolic associations with semen and cocaine to Eastern death rituals. Why do you like white so much?
I don’t think there’s any symbolic meaning for me. It’s just like why you like the color blue, or why you like roses over chrysanthemums.
You’ve been living in Paris for the past few weeks while preparing for the show. What’s your life like here?
I’ve been a hermit, completely. I’ve experienced Paris by staying in my apartment and reading books about Paris. And watching Godard movies and Truffaut movies. I haven’t really been to good restaurants— I eat boiled eggs at home, and make soup.
You did make it to the front row of Rick Owens show on Friday.
The clothes were amazing, weren’t they? Like origami. I wanted everything.
Photos: courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac.