I am finding out that my existence is a Mobius loop and I am at the point of reaching towards zero so that something [sic] comes out of nothing.
– Terence Koh to vulture.com
Collapsing boundaries of what lies inside vs. outside an exhibit seems to be on many artists’ minds this summer. Over at the Park Avenue Armory, Martin Creed’s “Back Door” exhibit literally opens the back gate to the exhibition space periodically — allowing light to flood the dark chamber as it allows sounds and the gazes of audiences to spill out the building — as videos of people evacuating their stomachs and bowels or just opening and closing their mouths are projected on screens. Neïl Beloufa’s “The Colonies,” which just ended at MoMA, captures video of audiences moving through the exhibit and incorporates that feed into the work, itself, almost in “real time.” Terence Koh’s current exhibition at the Andrew Edlin Gallery pushes this inside/outside blurring from inside the four walls of the “white cube” literally into outer space, with a complexity as rich as the loamy black soil that lines the gallery floors.
Even before stepping inside the gallery, an array of solar panels with an odd plexiglass cylinder pointed upward sits beside a strange mirrored contraption and attracts passersby. I learn later that the solar panels are powering the exhibit, the cylinder is an antenna beaming the exhibit’s sounds out to space, and the mirrored contraption is “feeding” captured sunlight to a sick tree inside via fiber optic cables — but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Inside the gallery entrance, the smell of dank earth and sweet honey hits the nose as viewers encounter found objects of “political significance” — everything from protest signs to campaign buttons to vintage postcards of the Twin Towers — immersed in honey, beeswax, earth, and bee pollen. Brittle twigs add another element of earth, and earth sprinkled on pelts point to the processes of decomposition that will render all back to earth. Living sprouts emerge from the soil to complete this cycle.
The “protest” signs, as it turns out, were made and brought in by audiences, in a “protest” march staged on the day of the opening. A radio hanging from the ceiling tuned to a radio telescope in Hawaii plays “the sound” of two black holes colliding light years away. Burlap sacks bearing logos of tea or coffee companies from the four corners hang above, near the ceiling. The bees and bee products — wax, pollen, honey, honeycomb — presumably come from Koh’s farm upstate.
Behind a thick black curtain, with its walls painted black and the floor lined with earth, the next gallery is bathed in a darkness broken only by a solitary red bulb. Here, in one corner, a single, unbroken bass note resonates from a black speaker box. A tree — a dying apple tree named “Eve,” brought in from an orchard upstate — lies on its side, uprooted, surrounded by a few apples. Both Eve and what looks like a mummy but turns out to be an astronaut suit were likewise brought in as part of the march.
A sign just outside this gallery explains the sound sources [all “errors” reproduced from the original]: 1) a live stream of sounds from the cosmos received from the windward community college radio observatory on the island of oahu in hawaii; 2) a mike in the bee chapel room recording the live sounds of the bee hive in the bee chapel room and transmitted back into the apple tree room; 3) the sound of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away recorded on 11th feb 2016; 4) the vibrations of the flames burning in the candle room [the adjacent gallery, in which a beeswax candle mounted on the floor burns at both ends]; 5) the compression and expansion of air in the room; and 6) an electroencephalograph (EEG) connected to Eve, other small plants, and the earth in the room.
As mentioned, the next room over, with its walls painted black and floor covered in earth, contains a solitary candle at the center. This dark, silent room could not provide a more stark contrast to the bustling Bowery just outside. A palpable sense of peace takes over in this primal darkness, surrounded by this elemental soil — the source and the destiny. I take a deep breath and my heart rate drops.
Beyond that lies the final gallery. This last gallery contains the eponymous bee chapel, an off-white, enclosed space in the shape of a bishop’s hat made of beeswax — a small room within the room — mounted on top of an earthen mound with steps leading up to it.
Audiences are instructed to remove their shoes and place their phones in wooden box. This viewer felt like he was entering a sacred space.
Inside the bee chapel, however, we learn that even this enclosed space within the space of the gallery is not actually, fully enclosed. A mesh lines the inside of the chapel and connects to the outdoors through a pipe leading out the window, through which bees freely move. It’s like the outside is enclosed inside. Their buzzing intones a chord and the sweet smell of honey and earth infuses the air.
These various feedback loops — rooms within rooms that connect to the outside, soil and trees and other “outdoor” materials brought in, plants both growing and decaying in the soil, input from audiences in the form of protest signs and ambient sound, sunlight gathered from outside (from the sun!) to power the lights and speakers inside and being “fed” to a dying tree, sound beaming out to the cosmos — all these things force the viewer to question what really lies inside vs outside. And the press release for the exhibition opens with a reference to childbirth — “doo yoo remember the moment when you first came from yoor mother’s womb? the instant of birth? please this is very important, take a quiet moment to remember.” — that moment of bursting outside that’s familiar yet mysterious to us all.
Where does the exhibition end and the cosmos begin? Is that even a worthwhile question?
Or is this exhibit like the Möbius loop Koh compares to his life in the opening quote? Not the “zero so that something comes out of nothing,” but more like the infinity in which everything spins out of everything? (It is worth noting that Koh has named his property where he lives upstate “pantöu,” derived from the Greek word for “everywhere.”)
Pondering these questions, I walk over to a similar installation nearby — Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room. Like Koh’s “Bee Chapel,” the New York Earth Room involves truckloads of earth brought indoors to a gallery, but the experience of that sheer mass leaves me speechless.
Koh’s “Bee Chapel” closes on July 29. I recommend taking some time to stop by there and walking over to the New York Earth Room immediately following. You will not be disappointed.