Essay in Germaine Koh: Open Hours (McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton, 2002). Copyright Rosemary Heather and McMaster Museum of Art.

 Supersaturated Quiet

Rosemary Heather

For her exhibition at the McMaster Museum of Art, Germaine Koh has installed works in several galleries, throughout the Museum building, and on one of the University's pathways.  This arrangement assumes that each viewer brings a frame of reference to the work, although the gallery remains the ultimate context for understanding.  By dispersing the artworks, Koh ensures that the viewer circulates, asking them to exercise not only their person, but also their prerogative to act as an agent in the work's interpretation.

Koh makes works that pivot out onto the possibility of their reception.  Koh's confidence in the artwork's ability to add meaning to the world combines what she can reasonably expect to believe about its significance, with a faith in what she cannot know or anticipate about it.  Beyond a familiarity with the basic tenet of contemporary practice -- that art rarely looks like art anymore -- you are not required to know much to understand Koh’s work, although you are required to think.

As is often noted in discussions of her work, Koh's art is characterized by a material ordinariness.  The works take form as a result of a certain kind of happenstance.  Mimicking the artist's expectations for meaning, available materials are made to function as correlates of what she wants you to understand.

In 4w 2d a/c (4 walls, 2 doors, air conditioning) vinyl tinsel, hung in parallel lines two feet beneath the ceiling in the Museum's main exhibition space, shimmers in the current of the building's air conditioning system.  Although the tinsel shimmers, you cannot hear it rustle.  The room is otherwise empty; with nothing else to look at, your thoughts become focused on the tone of the room.  Listening to it, you become sensitized to the invisible system of air that sustains the building, and something you never think about is made apparent to you -- except you don't see it so much as it becomes visible to your mind's eye.

I have a friend who once, while standing in line at the bank, had the synaesthetic experience of being able to taste the colour of the bank teller's tie.  As in synaesthesia, where seeing dissolves into taste, or sounds evoke colours, Koh's work offers a momentary reorientation of experience.  In the same way that synaesthesia undoes the hierarchy of the senses, Koh demotes the primacy of the visual in art in the interest of creating tangible thoughts.  In its ability to be itself and represent the building air duct system, 4w 2d a/c embodies your experience as an analysis of it.  Using unremarkable materials and means, Koh animates her sculpture and your mind at the same time.

It is easy to forget that art practice since Pop has largely been a project of denial.  In keeping with the legacies of conceptualism and post-minimalism, Koh makes art that maps fresh territory in a landscape colonized by the genres of popular culture.  Because pop culture has already got it covered, because it threatens to suck you into its supersaturated brand of the spatio-temporal, Koh endeavours to show you that other kinds of experiences are available in the world.

To do this she pulls back, turns the volume down, offers less than you had expected to need.  Pledge is characteristically simple. Pledge is a single-sided coin embossed with the words "I WILL."  Koh has done other currency works, all of which involve some kind of contract.  In an earlier piece, titled Change, Koh inscribed two coins, one with the word "Bien”, the other with “Bon".  Marked as simple tokens of value, the coins prompted social contact.  If someone gave one to you, you in turn were obliged to give it away and profit accordingly from this commerce-free incidence of social exchange.  Pledge prompts a more loaded interaction.  Whereas the text of Change was benign, Pledge implies a weighty decision, of what you will, and to whom you will it, and whether you can ever take it back.  Using the substance of the everyday, Koh vanquishes everyday habits.  Denied the gratifications of mediated experience -- of what money buys for instance -- you become attuned to the discipline particular to the artwork and its delicate nuance of meaning.

An even more minimal work is Counter.  Consisting of a numerical counter and a small black button, it performs a simple function; you push the button and the device counts it.  Because it cannot be reset, Counter will forever record the history of this basic interaction.  By installing it in a gallery that houses the Museum's permanent collection, Koh puns on the idea of permanence, jesting that through its feat of accumulation -- an ever-skyrocketing tally of additions -- the piece takes on significance.  But of course because Counter only records single actions, and because anyone can advance the counter as many times as they want, it guarantees to tell you nothing -- certainly not the number of visitors who have succumbed to its small temptation.  In this way the piece is melancholy, pointless.  Querying your expectations for the artwork by doing almost nothing, it parodies the idea of art's useless self-sufficiency.

Using materials and concepts that verge on the banal, Counter demonstrates that the desire for meaning is in itself a catalyst for it.  This gets to the crux of Koh's enterprise.  Because it can be visually unprepossessing, her art risks disappointment.  Holding out on meaning, it offers dividends equal to your investment of attention.  Overcoming what you initially think should be overlooked, your engagement with the work repositions what you thought you first saw.  In fact, seeing it is beside the point.  Rather, the work opens up a space of engagement, and in this sense Koh's practice has something in common with cubism, the prototype of a modernist art movement.  Through cubist analysis, the humblest of painting genres, the still life, was elevated to exalted heights of avant-garde experimentation.  By introducing advanced ideas about what cubist abstraction was thought to represent, cubism added complication to the formerly valued criteria of fidelity -- however stylized -- to the real in visual art.  Such was the success of the cubist reconfiguration of the picture plane, that the subject matter -- the picture - was, in effect, lost sight of.  Koh's work similarly values not the object but its ability to help articulate ideas.  In this way, Koh continues to work in the genre of still life, but within an expanded space of its realization, a space opened-up and given depth of possibility by the almost 100 year elaboration on modernism's original emphasis on the artwork as an instrument of analysis.

But of course the artwork does not analyze or articulate anything.  Rather it has a susceptibility to meaning, an ability to become something in addition to itself, encompassing possible interpretations within the circumference of its significance.  As it was modernism's project to make explicit, the viewer plays a role in this, bearing a responsibility, along with the artist, to articulate the work.

Koh's contribution to this tradition is an idea of a viewer who perambulates, who understands the contingent dimensions of the expanded space of contemporary art.  Who goes in search of art but is also prepared for a chance to simply encounter it.  This viewer finds agency as a result of the work:  takes the coin and passes it on; acts in the name of art, and finds within that act a small measure of what the self has in common with others; in other words, a person for whom the name "viewer" is a misnomer.

In its investment in the idea of the free and self-governing individual, Modernism carried within it the seeds of the Romantic tradition it had supposedly broken free from.  Koh's work positions the individual as equal to the work, its partner in crime, its ultimate frame of reference.  This means that Koh is not only a modernist but also a romantic, albeit a romantic who makes work within the register of 21st century social relations.  Rather than pitting the individual against the collective, Koh attempts to reestablish the terms of their mutual importance.  She claims no special status for herself as artist, nor does she claim special status for the work beyond its ability to facilitate connections between viewers and, perhaps more importantly, to reconnect the viewer with some hidden aspect of the self.  Far from being party to a cubist kind of formal intimidation, the work reduces form to a perfunctory element, a nodal point that connects viewer, artist and context.

Koh's work finds its relevance in its assumption of the need for this.  Partaking in neither the melodramatic pretense of romanticism nor the future orientation of modernism, Koh tries instead to reclaim the present.  She invests in democratic principles as if they were the last outposts of political viability.  The ambition to create a moment in which people stop to think and act and make connections, gives the work its political significance.  In reflecting on a larger lack of ambition or direction, not in art but in Western politics generally, Koh's work reverberates not through the avant-garde but through an ad hoc collectivity, allowing the viewer to reclaim moments saturated with the quiet of an unsuspected social meaning.

Rosemary Heather writes freelance, and  recently launched the website, which feeds the entire text of Moby Dick one word at a time continuously for one year.  She can be contacted at: