Last week I had the opportunity to see nothingtoodoo, an exhibition by Canadian-Chinese experimental artist Terence Koh, at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York City. The exhibition features a massive, cone-shaped pile of rock salt—eight feet high, twenty-four feet across—and the artist circling it on his knees, stopping periodically to prostrate himself, only to recommence the ritual. He is silent, and no text is displayed anywhere in the barren, white room (with the exception of an opening letter that the docent gave to the public, but he ran out of them by the time I got there, so pooh). He is doing this performance from 10am to 6pm every day for a month—a truly rigorous exercise. (Bathroom breaks? Hunger pangs? IcyHot?)
I’m no art student, especially not one of performance art. And neither is my sister, though she might disagree with me. So we asked each other, and ourselves, what makes this art? There is definitely an aesthetic beauty to the scene, a ceremony defined by the whiteness of the clothes, the salt and the walls, and by the simple repeated motion of the artist. But it does more than please the eye; it raises questions about the role of the observer. Is there a correct way to interpret Koh’s message? Are we supposed to be as silent as the artist? Sis told me she felt almost compelled to join him in his circular journey, and, while I did not have the same urge to follow—she’s weird—I too wondered about Koh’s relation to his audience. He never acknowledged his observers; his face was serene, his eyes glassy.
We left the exhibition after a few revolutions. His knee-walking began to appear normal, as if it were his custom, trailing his lower legs behind him. I still can’t come to any conclusion about the performance. Maybe this is because I didn’t read his announcement, in which he calls his show a gesture of solidarity with movements of peace and non-violence. Nonetheless, it left me with much to think about in terms of what art can be, and what it can teach us about ourselves. Because, when you think about it, aren’t we all just walking on our knees in circles, physically moving but metaphysically idle?