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Koh heads to sacred graveyard for Luminato

Luminato has commissioned two works by Terence Koh for ths years’ festival.

Hugh Lippe

Soft! What sound from yonder cemetery was breaking earlier this week? It likely was Robert and Signe McMichael rolling in their respective graves upon hearing that one-time art-world enfant terrible Terence Koh is presenting two new works on the bucolic grounds of the eponymous gallery they founded northwest of Toronto.

In fact, one of the works, titled a way to the light, will be installed this June at the very cemetery site on the grounds where Robert has been buried since 2003, and wife, Signe, since 2007. As visitors to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg know, the small cemetery also is the final resting place of six members of the Group of Seven – A.J. Casson, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and Frederick Varley – and, in four instances, their wives. If there's a sacred grove of Canadian art-making, this is the place.

Reverence, by contrast, is not something that's usually associated with Koh. Ten years ago, the Beijing-born, Mississauga-raised, Vancouver-educated artist scored international headlines when he installed in London's trend-setting Saatchi Gallery a giant chandelier covered in hair (human and horse), vegetable matter and his own blood and feces. In 2007 at Art Basel, he caused another fuss by exhibiting and selling, at $500,000 a pop, sculptures of his own excrement covered in gold leaf. There have been other exploits since, including collaborations with Lady Gaga, but you get the picture: No bodily fluid, precious or otherwise, has been alien to Koh's multidisciplinary practice – a practice that has earned him, in addition to controversy, berths in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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Urging calm the other day at a media conference at the McMichael was Jorn Weisbrodt, artistic director of Toronto's annual Luminato Festival. He commissioned the two Kohs – the other is a performance piece called tomorrow's snow – as part of Luminato 2014. Indeed, the Koh project is the first in the festival's eight-year history to occur outside Toronto's municipal boundaries, and the first solo showcase in Canada for Koh, who graduated in 2002 from what now is the Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

Formerly calling himself Asian Punk Boy, Koh has mellowed, Weisbrodt insisted – "really, completely shifted gears and become much more interior." Now 37, the former self-described "Naomi Campbell of the art world" has left his residence in New York's Lower East Side to live in rural upstate New York, where he's severed all Internet connections and adopted an organic diet. Gone, too, are the all-white outfits he once favoured; now you're just as likely to see him in plaid shirts and brown overalls. "I think it's important for me to be as immaterial as possible," Koh remarked recently. "Maybe in this immateriality there's spirituality, and maybe in this spirituality there is humanity."

Weisbrodt, a friend of Koh from his own New York days, has long wanted to work with the artist. A year ago, as he was about to mount his second Luminato as artistic director, he received a note from Koh in which the artist told of his desire to realize a scene he says he read at age eight in Margaret Atwood's 1988 novel Cat's Eye. Eight is regarded as the luckiest number in Chinese culture and, in the note, Koh envisioned a scene taking place in a public square surrounded by trees where two white-clad eight-year-olds, a girl and a boy, would make snow angels for eight minutes. Of course, there would be just eight performances, one per night over eight evenings.

Weisbrodt was intrigued, and enchanted. But where to find such a space in Toronto? He got his answer a few months later when he accepted an invitation from Victoria Dickenson, McMichael executive director and CEO, to visit the collection. A Luminato fan, Dickenson had for several years harboured a desire to host one of its events, "to use the grounds as an extension of the gallery space." When he mentioned the Koh idea, "she immediately leapt at it," and two months after that, Weisbrodt was wandering the McMichael site with an enthusiastic Koh.

Besides tomorrow's snow, they agreed another project ought to be done there, this one at the cemetery. Eventually, they hit on an installation honouring West Coast painter Emily Carr. An exhibition of Carr's at the 2012 dOCUMENTA in Kassel, Germany, had made "a huge impression" on Weisbrodt. Though never an official member, Carr has been closely associated with the Group of Seven and was championed by them during her lifetime (1871-1945). The serendipity had to be embraced.

Details of a way to the light are still being worked out, but Weisbrodt insists whatever is installed come June 6 will be respectful and won't "disturb the peace of the actual graveyard." Details, too, still have to be worked out for tomorrow's snow, especially with how to make credible, lasting snow in early June. In his original proposal, Koh thought the boy and girl could make their angels out of tapioca powder. More recently, there's been talk of using the "warm snow" Toronto's IceGen manufactured for the Sochi Winter Olympics, "but unfortunately it is quite expensive," Weisbrodt says. More likely, he adds, is "this biodegradable paper kind of snow that comes, I think, from somewhere in B.C."

Even with all these good intentions, would Robert and Signe McMichael approve? Probably not. The contemporary, be it benign or aggressive, was never their thing. In 2000, the McMichaels got the Ontario government to appoint them as lifetime trustees on the collection's art advisory committee after convincing then premier Mike Harris's Conservatives that the gallery had strayed too far from "the spirit of its original focus" since becoming a Crown agency in 1965. Indeed, of the 6,000-odd works that made up the permanent collection in 2000, at least half violated that ethos, the couple said.

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One piece that especially drew their ire – Robert McMichael publicly described it as "an eyesore"– was Babylon, a multi-part outdoor sculptural installation by John McEwen, positioned alongside the driveway into the museum. Made in 1991, the site-specific work was removed from the grounds in 2003 and loaned to the MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie. There it stayed until new governing legislation, passed in 2011 allowing the McMichael "an unrestricted exhibition mandate," paved the way for the work's restoration last year in pretty much its original location.

Luminato Festival runs June 6-15 in Toronto.

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