Making the mundane remarkable|
Koh's piece Knitwork stitched out of unravelled garments
By ELISSA BARNARD / Arts Reporter
As exotic as Germaine Koh's itinerary is this fall, her art is rooted in mundane
activities and materials.
For the last 12 years Koh has been knitting a giant scarf out of unravelled used
garments. Knitwork, now folded over itself since it's too big to be stretched
out in any gallery, is at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia for the 2004 Sobey Art
"Even though my work takes quite different formats," says Koh, talking on the
phone from Berlin, "it is united by an attempt to pay attention to everyday
actions we might not otherwise notice like everyday labour and mundane sorts of
The Art Gallery of Ontario bought Knitwork two years ago, but Koh still goes
into the vault to knit. "Knitwork is very much about monumentalizing these
unseen and unthought of, unremarked, daily actions."
Koh has had a remarkable schedule this fall. She is now in Berlin for a
year-long residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien. "All of a sudden I find
myself in this monumental city."
Before going to Berlin, she went to Liverpool, England, where she is the only
Canadian artist in the Liverpool Biennial, an international art show of new
works commissioned from 40 artists.
The biennial opened the same day as the Sobey Art Award Exhibition and a show
featuring her work in Edmonton.
Koh will fly to Halifax for the Sobey Art Award announcement Oct. 14, then to
Chicago to give a talk and San Francisco for a group exhibit.
All this travel is "manageable," she says. "It's not out of control." Koh is not
about to become a crazed, jetsetting art star.
She came to Canada as a two-year-old, and grew up in a small town in British
Columbia. Koh did not consider art as a career until her undergraduate studies
"If I could have been an elite athlete I would have done that instead," says
Koh. "I could have studied physical education or architecture. There were any
number of things. It seemed to me art allowed you to pursue all these different
For Koh, art is a way of processing ideas about the nature of everyday life
using existing materials.
"From the very beginning my work has made a point of making use of stuff that
already exists in the world rather than making new stuff.
"I understand my task as an artist to be putting out new ideas about the world."
One of Koh's artworks for the Liverpool Biennial is a computer that downloads
messages from a mobile phone and translates them into Morse code. The code is
broadcast by a flashing light "like a lighthouse flashing across the sea," says
Koh, "that sort of sad and tragic image of a blinking light."
Koh has a master of fine arts degree from Hunter College, City University of New
York. She and her partner, Phil Klygo, also have an independent record label
weewerk that grew out of art and music salons they held in their Toronto
Koh answered questions about her work this week before leaving her house for her
studio in Berlin.
Inspiration: The life of the street. Small details that glue the world together.
Influences: Perhaps an artist such as Felix Gonzalez Torres, who was so great at
distilling complex social situations into provocative, elegant, challenging
situations. Writers acutely attuned to the absurd, such as Jorge Luis Borges;
or to the wondrous operations of chance (Paul Auster) and the richness of
everyday life and language (Georges Perec). Maybe Yoko Ono (we're both in the
Liverpool Biennial right now). Robert Morris was a model for me for a while.
Contemporary artists whose work interests me a lot include Rirkrit Tiravanija,
Olafur Eliasson, Francis Alys . . .
Favourite colour: Grey, green
Favourite food: Thai green curry, mmmm.
In your CD player: A compilation of the three albums released by weewerk - Great
Lake Swimmers, haunting alt-country recorded in an abandoned grain silo; The
Barmitzvah Brothers, and Elliott Brood, stomping death-country music. We made
the compilations to promote these bands at the Pop Komm music festival Phil is
attending here in Berlin.
Reading: Dave O'Meara's excellent collection of poems The Vicinity (Brick,
2003). I like the matter-of-fact way in which O'Meara unpacks the emotional
weight of everyday stuff like buildings and streets. Next up is Dave Eggers'
novel You Shall Know Our Velocity.
What would you do with $50,000?: 1. Make more artwork.
2. Continue to help promote other artists, by putting out more records and
organizing some more events under the weewerk banner.
3. Make contributions to Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, the Toronto Public
Library and the scholarship fund I started at the University of Ottawa the last
time I had a "day job."
4. Set aside some retreat time.
5. Try to make some investment(s) to establish a bit of the financial stability
that eludes most artists.
Advice to art students: 1. Be open to criticism and - related to this - be
2. Forge working relationships and critical conversations with people you
respect, which will help you maintain your practice.
3. Try to protect some kind of space dedicated to your work - if not a room of
one's own, at least a corner.
4. Avoid the tendency to narrow your practice by defining and reiterating a
limited number of concerns.