Reinvention in Six Parts
Reinvention in Six Parts:
Meditations on Julie Koh’s Asia/Australia
by Hieronymous Baker-Smith
Intrigue continues to surround the emerging Australian artist formerly known as the author Julie Koh, who has recently made a sizeable splash in the backyard pool that is the Australian art scene. Much of this intrigue stems from the fact that the artist, who has famously changed her name by deed poll to Cockroach Koh, styles herself as a German cockroach and does not speak.
I have been granted an audience with Koh at a private teeth-whitening party in Woolloomooloo. I find her with her sister, Grete Whitehall, on the top floor of a lavish apartment complex. They are poolside, reclining in silence on rattan loungers, mouths hooked up by tubes to standing units. As in her publicity shots, Koh is naked, with her skin painted brown. In contrast, Whitehall—who acts as her interpreter—wears white silk day-pyjamas, with makeup and hair à la Kirsten Dunst circa Marie Antoinette (Coppola, 2006).
Koh recently made headlines for marrying her uncle, Randölfo Koh, after a nasty split from her dentist-fiancé, who left her to bleach her teeth by other means.
“She and Randölfo reconnected and hit it off immediately,” says Whitehall, finally removing her mouthpiece to speak after the first twenty-minute whitening session ends. “The two have a lot in common. They lived in the same house in Vaucluse in the eighties and have always had a deep affection for each other. The re/union was a long time coming but inevitable, as true love always is.”
The reconnection has lately been artistic as well as romantic. Randölfo, already an artist in his own right, suggested that the couple form an artist duo, Koh & Koh. Interestingly, the sisters are the only living individuals who have set eyes on the reclusive Randölfo. Rumours abound as to whether this mysterious artist even exists. Some have suggested that he is a complete fiction—a canny ploy by Koh to attract notoriety by forming a duo to rival Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, the art world’s seminal uncle-husband and niece-wife team.
Prior to the duo’s formation in April this year, Cockroach Koh presented her breakout solo show. It comprised a single installation, My Apartment—literally Koh’s entire Potts Point residence as objet trouvé. In this installation, the apartment is presented unfurnished or, as Koh likes to say, “defurnished”, in line with her “corresponding delearning of the destructive illusions of pre-cockroach life”. Sticky-taped to the walls are thousands of items of memorabilia from the artist’s childhood. Here, a torn school report records a D+ for Art. There, a photograph shows the artist as a young girl, standing on a superyacht in Monaco next to a friend whose face has been scratched out with black ballpoint. The whole scene recalls the abjection of Tracy Emin’s My Bed, and documents Koh’s recent trauma after returning from the wilds of China, where she sacrificed her identity—as a white, straight, cisgender, middle-class woman of the Anthropocene—in order to live as a cockroach.
In one corner of the apartment stands a startling embodiment of Koh’s odyssey—“found” trash that has been converted into a kinetic artwork reminiscent of a rotating compost bin. The arresting verisimilitude is suggestive of the close relationship between personal transformation and the myriad possibilities of compostable filth. Through this manifestation of dereliction, the work is simultaneously utopian and dystopian, eliciting from the viewer an overwhelming desire to shout and weep at the profundity, and tragedy, of it all. The viewer is left with a sense of desolation regarding whence an ardent saviour will materialise to disrupt the tangible despair of the absent woman-as-cockroach, activating within her a dynamic scaffolding on which she is able to recontextualise her emotional negative space in view of the infinite sublime.
At auction, conducted by Whitehall in her capacity as principal at G.W. Fine Art Realty, the installation—including the title to the apartment—was purchased by an anonymous buyer for seven million dollars. It was apparently a win-win for the buyer, who had been attempting to acquire an apartment in the building for several years.
Koh’s meteoric rise is no surprise, given her reputation for entrepreneurial nous. Not only is she an artist but she also writes a wildly popular wellness blog. Last Christmas, she made the Australian bestseller list with a self-help book, The Barefoot Cockroach, which provided instruction on managing finances derived from one’s trust fund. A gander through her social media accounts reveals an astonishing aptitude for climbing the social ladder. In one Instagram post, she is being petted by a sunny Iggy Azalea. In another, she crouches—lady parts pixelated—behind Malala.
Whitehall’s input has undoubtedly accelerated Koh’s ascent. After all, in conversation, Koh presents as an enigma. Eyes blank, she gives no indication that she is attempting to communicate, although she does occasionally scurry in random zigzags while Whitehall “interprets”.
Whitehall vehemently denies speculation that she is the true artist of the family—a provocateur improvising the speech of a sibling who is no longer entirely lucid. She is swift to shift the conversation towards the current preoccupations of Koh & Koh, whom she says are intent on moving with the zeitgeist. Their first collaboration is focused on an in-depth consideration of identity.
“As you know,” says Whitehall, “my sister currently lives as a roach but the journey has not been easy. After her return from China, she went into intense therapy for six months, unable to bear her full psychological transformation into insect. For her, the loss of her previous identity was a metaphorical death. But with this death came rebirth.
“On the strength of having spent time in China, my sister now also identifies as transracial, and will soon be painting herself yellow—an additional coat on top of the brown. She intends to explore her layered, hybrid identity as German cockroach and Asian woman incest survivor, and the consequent struggles that come with the experience of existing in this society as a double minority.”
Cockroach Koh says that in the duo’s collaboration, they pay homage to the obscure Asian-Australian conceptual artist Leah Jing.
Those who viewed Jing’s 2015 installation, Australia, at S-Space in Chippendale, would recall that the artwork consisted of an empty white room. Wall text positioned at the threshold to the room described its imaginary content.
The text specified an installation measuring “7,692,024 km² x ∞ km”. It explained that the invisible work was “Australia as imagined community”. According to the description, “[e]ach visitor to the installation is provided with a blindfold. They then enter the room, only to find themselves stepping into a bottomless sinkhole, never to be seen again.”
The installation bemused critics such as Donagh Daniels, who covered the show as part of Cringe’s one-off, single-essay series dedicated to finding and reviewing the work of a diverse creative, especially one of the more palatable East or Southeast Asians. In his words, “[a]fter surveying the installation for a full six hours, I could only conclude that it is difficult to know what is being said by this artist.”
With respect, this was an unfair and—dare I say it—culturally incompetent assessment. What Daniels clearly missed was that the work was intended to be a visceral interrogation of the artist’s Chinese heritage, her strained relationship with her tiger mother, and the dark secrets within her family post-Cultural Revolution. Daniels also failed to recognise that Jing—as a culturally and linguistically diverse woman still emerging from her artistic chrysalis—was simply not yet in full command of the language of her art, unable to communicate her intentions with elegance and precision. As many unfortunate artists through the ages have discovered, what is imagined as perfection becomes mediocre in its execution.
In hindsight, one might have expected Jing to have set her sights on a more achievable concept with resonance for Australian audiences. She could, for instance, have chosen to produce a more profound work riffing on John Brack’s Collins St., 5 pm—the famous representation of office workers walking along Melbourne’s well-known thoroughfare—replacing the figures with various Asians. Alternatively, she could have tried her hand at painting unpopulated Australian landscapes as proxies for the massacres of Chinese and/or First Nations people. The possibilities are endless.
Thomas McCaffrey’s review in the revered Static Nation hit the nail on the head with just a single sentence: “Jing is clearly no Whiteley.”
Koh & Koh’s collaboration, Asia/Australia, is a lesson in reinvention. It represents a radical reinterpretation of Jing’s Australia, addressing the missed opportunities of her work while also remaking and subverting her impenetrable output.
The installation, located on a floating platform in Circular Quay, has been funded with $14.8 million in corporate sponsorships from lawyers, professional gamblers and offshore security contractors seeking significant tax deductions. On opening night, Cockroach Koh, newly yellow and with sister-interpreter at hand, acts as my guide. She wears a dress fashioned from shredded green plastic bags. It rustles charmingly as she crawls.
At the entrance to the inflatable structure, Koh hands me an Augmented Reality headset and asks me to step inside. I immediately fall, to my delight, into a giant pit filled with red balls that have been created by a team of one hundred and seventy-three Chinese village children who have been promised school fees in return for their services. I lie on top of the balls, gazing up through my headset at the ceiling of the structure, where Michelle Yeoh lookalikes in cheongsams and red lipstick stroke the necks of green dragons, whispering “Lei ho ma?” on repeat. Upon leaving the ball pit, I am serenaded by a troupe of lion dancers, who proceed to wrap me in a red and gold patchwork quilt embroidered with the words “WHO AM I”.
To minimise the triggering nature of this challenging work, white women visitors who “feel attacked” are invited to crawl through a tunnel into their own “yarning safe space”, where they are able to respond to the installation by participating in workshops. Activities include knitting socks in diverse yarns, making zines about Japan, and debriefing concerning microaggressions directed at them by self-appointed “people of colour”.
Asia/Australia has been an undeniable smash hit, with box-office sales rivalling 2018’s Israeli Tanks Through History LEGO exhibition. Its popularity is no shock to this critic, given that Koh & Koh are artists who make us think and look, and look and think, and think and look again.
How does Cockroach Koh herself articulate the duo’s approach to art?
“I never like to explain our aesthetic,” she says, “but when people think of us, I want them to think: ‘Adorbs.’ In particular, my place as an Asian woman within the artistic ecosystem is to project madness and/or adorability. I have the rare ability to encapsulate both. My career success serves as a beacon for Asian artists everywhere, beaming the message: ‘Give the people what they want.’ And, obviously, what the people want from me is to be able to engage with my life journey, from Anglo-Australian author to German cockroach to Asian artist.”
She explains that she and her husband have always been outsiders, and that they see no better way to channel this than to embrace a style of performance art in which they can perform their adopted Asianness. This strategy extends to their new side hustle.
“Our child workers in China produce replicas of classic works of art for private buyers,” says Koh. “People have called them forgeries, but that’s merely semantics. Our goal for this ongoing project is to fully embrace the fact that, as Asians, we are even better at copying than creating.”
When asked about her future plans, the cockroach is coy.
“I am a great believer in positive psychology, which advocates playing to one’s strengths. My key strength is that I am an empath, and have therefore decided to continue to inhabit the Other. I have approximated a successful grifter through our side hustle, but I believe I can only fully achieve this lifestyle as a mediocre white man.
“Misogyny is the final hurdle for the art world. My next solo project is to perform an affable, good-looking but troubled white male grifter—a distant relation of Patrick White and fourth cousin of Jack White, with an elite private-school education, a background in competitive rowing and a tragic addiction to nicotine. I am excited about the immense prospects for my future.”
Leah Jing, however, has no such strategy. In relation to her career, Australian art historians will be forced to record a classic case of sour grapes. Having failed to garner critical acclaim for her dismal oeuvre, Jing founded an underwhelming literary journal, filling its pages with large photographs of unremarkable Asian acquaintances in order to compensate for insufficient text. She reportedly ignored the mass email invitation to the Asia/Australia opening night, preferring to use that time instead to step into an actual bottomless sinkhole of her own creation.
The sinkhole in question had opened up in the sculpture wing of an abandoned psychiatric-facility-cum-art-school. According to the local ghost-tour operator, Jing lived there as a squatter and, while digging her final artwork, had developed an unusual dependence on bottles of Coles-brand Italian passata. A scrawled note left at the edge of the sinkhole read: “The definition of crazy is attempting to break ground in a society that pursues perfect mediocrity.”
Sadly, Jing’s gauche last piece of performance art was delivered in vain. It failed to match the enduring appeal of the work of Cockroach Koh, who is, in the eyes of this male feminist, on track to produce the greatest art of all time—by an Asian-Australian woman insect. ◯
Hieronymous Baker-Smith is chief art critic for Antipodean Wank. He has been asked to acknowledge that Rachel Ang and Claudia Harley provided minor assistance in researching this essay.