The art in our surroundings

Germaine Koh in the middle of Fallow. | Photo by Ian Verchere

In the stage-like display window above the entrance of Vancouver’s Howe Street Studios in Vancouver unfolds a set of theatrical curtains made from everyday materials: one of the many works of public artist Germaine Koh.

“The nature of the piece arose from my longstanding interest in trying to pay attention to the unnoticed activities and patterns that shape the spaces around us,” says Koh.

Materials from familiar activities – domestic life, offices, construction, theatres, recreation, industry, and of course, the new art studios – are formed into curtain-like layers.

“I hoped that as the piece plays across the large display window, it would evoke the changing rhythms of the city over the course of the day and evening,” she adds.

The significance of public art

“The rationale for public art, as I understand it, is to ensure that new buildings provide some kind of cultural benefit to the neighbourhoods that they land in, and I think that’s a worthwhile principle,” says Koh. “The richness of the public space that is potentially created is extremely important.”

Koh started making public art because of its availability to others. “The way that one encounters public art is more accessible to many people than, for example, going into an art gallery,” she explains.

In addition, Koh knew that she wanted to do work that intersected with architecture and construction.

“Doing public art ends up being as much as about navigating administrative processes and negotiating with stakeholders as it is about coming up with interesting concepts and producing the work,” she says.

Koh creates her art by being invited or applying to available commission opportunities; and in the shortlist stage, receiving time and a small budget to develop a concrete proposal for a particular site.

“The commission is awarded by a group that usually includes representatives from the building, the architect, and members of the local arts community and neighbourhood,” she says.

Koh’s story

Pushing the Erratic. | Photo by Germaine Koh Studio

“My family came to Canada from Malaysia in 1969, when I was two,” starts Koh. “I grew up in small towns in Alberta and BC, and studied art in Ottawa and New York City.”

Koh has been a practicing artist for more than 30 years, living in Ottawa, Toronto, Berlin, and as a nomadic for a couple of years before settling in Vancouver about 12 years ago.

“I started doing public art shortly after I arrived in Vancouver, and that came about because a lot of my work had started to move outside of the gallery to be integrated into the real world,” says Koh. “I worked on many site-specific installations, works that integrated into the built environment, such as my Fair-weather forces series, and unannounced urban inventions.”

Over the years, Koh has worked in a wide variety of media, including objects, monumental process-based work, community-based activities, construction, interactive electronics, and more. Some of her favourite works include Erratic (2011), Fair-weather forces (water level) (2008), and League (ongoing since 2012).

Erratic was a performance in which I and three others rolled a granite boulder down Yonge Street in Toronto to add to the engineered waterfront, in a tribute to the labour that goes into building cities,” says Koh.

Fair-weather forces (water level), was an installation of a line of velvet ropes that move up and down in relation to the changing tide in a nearby body of water, and League is a community-based project that gathers people to play invented games and sports as a form of collective creative problem-solving.

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