Germaine Koh is taking apart a telephone.
Its guts — brightly coloured wires and electrical boards — are spread around the table of her workshop, surrounded by pliers and a few hefty tomes on electrical engineering.
The bright midday sun streams in through long windows at the Ted Harrison Artist Retreat as Koh, the artist-cum-mad-scientist, touches the exposed wires.
“I get stopped a lot at airports,” she says with a laugh.
Koh, the Canadian conceptual artist, has been holed up at the beautiful log cabin retreat on Crag Lake the past two months.
She’s taking a break from a busy exhibition schedule by building snow forts, cross-country skiing and skating on a patch of ice she has shoveled off the lake.
And she’s making new work.
Today it’s the telephone.
When complete, the telephone will be left in a public place like a shopping mall with minimal instructions telling the user to pick up the receiver.
Then, automatically, the phone will dial one of a series of numbers pre-programmed into the device.
And the user will be connected with a complete stranger.
The rest is up to chance and human behaviour, says Koh.
“What is created and what is left is the connection between two people,” says Koh.
She takes everyday situations and gives them a twist.
“It’s about agreements between strangers,” she says. “I’m interested in what kind of things happen in a set-up situation.”
She takes art outside the art world, like the gallery space, and puts it into the real world.
And her pieces reward the curious. A person walking by the phone can choose to follow the directions and pick up the receiver, or keep walking.
“I didn’t always want to be an artist,” says Koh with a smile. But she was won over by the versatility of the career, she adds.
One day she could make art about the economy, the next about sports or science.
But many of her pieces are about forming and fostering human connections.
She starts with an idea of something she wants to make — like the altered telephone — then learns the skills to do it.
Her work runs the experimental gamut from making ball bearings rain down in an empty room; to installing a bus shelter in an office building; to minting her own copper coins; to hand-knitting a blanket with the impossible dimensions of two metres by infinity.
Knitwork, begun in February 1992, is a life-long piece made by unraveling old sweaters and re-knitting the yarn into a single continuously growing blanket.
The piece sits in the Art Gallery of Ontario on condition that Koh can come in and add to it when she wants to.
Sometimes she sits in the gallery knitting, adding performance to the sculptural piece.
It’s a monument to everyday work, she says.
“If you could have a visual record of a lifetime of work what would it look like?”
Koh maintains a studio space in Toronto and she just bought a chunk of land south of Whitehorse, but refers to herself as a bit of a nomad.
She spent the last year in Berlin, Germany, under the Canada Council for the Arts’ international residency program.
Before that she showed in Amsterdam, England and Australia to name a few places.
Koh is a leader in the conceptual art field; her work is being taught in art school and she has an arm-long list of national and international exhibitions on her CV.
Although Koh currently has no plans to exhibit in the Yukon, she will open the retreat’s doors on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. for an open house.
She will speak about her current and past projects at 3 p.m.
For more information or directions to the Crag Lake haven phone 867-821-4885.