Wednesday, September 29, 2004   The Halifax Herald Limited

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 Award Exhibition.

"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 social transactions."

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 at university.

"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 research fields."

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 apartment.

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 ruthlessly self-critical.

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.

Copyright © 2004 The Halifax Herald Limited