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  • Source: Vogue
  • Date: December 21, 2017
  • Format: DIGITAL

Artist Terence Koh Is Giving Free Scalp Massages in a Secret Room Inside the Plaza Hotel

Koh Island

Photo: Courtesy of Terence Koh

“This is the most expensive suite in the Plaza Hotel,” Terence Koh says with a smile, pulling back the cardboard curtain to welcome me into his secret hideaway tucked behind a neglected storage space. During the last week, Koh—a one-time art-world provocateur who has taken a contemplative turn in recent years—has been holed up in the Manhattan landmark as an unofficial artist-in-residence (squat isn’t quite the right term when there’s an Instagram account as proof). In the ground-level gallery space, a trampoline strewn with roses echoes the shape of the moon and its buoyant gravity; a winter solstice event takes place there tonight. Upstairs, accessible only through a thicket of back stairwells and locked doors, is Koh Island. Here, above the murmur of lobby chatter and passing taxi horns, he is offering free scalp massages and tea, flipping the commercialism of the season for a gift that is all about human connection.

“Are your shoes easy to take off?” Koh asks gently, wearing a royal blue sweatshirt with a snowman over the heart. Bing Crosby croons softly from a portable record player; in one corner, a fallen bough from Central Park is taped to a makeshift stand and decorated with colored lights. “I made this space almost like a Japanese tea hut,” he explains—only instead of tatami mats, the floor is tiled in Amazon Prime boxes scavenged from the East Village. “I wanted the room to be just scattered materials of New York City as much as possible.” That’s where the Beijing-born Canadian launched his career, with a diverse body of work that has included zines, monastic performance pieces, and his own gilded waste. After relocating to a mountaintop in the Catskills—a utopian dream that proved too isolating—he and his boyfriend have settled north of Los Angeles; hence Koh’s recently acquired mustache (“I’m living in California now, so that’s what we do there”). The word chill now dominates their vocabulary, he adds with a laugh. “After the first month, we were like, ‘Why didn’t we move sooner?’ Everything was easy; nothing was a struggle.”

Returning to Manhattan for this project, the latest in the Art Capsul series curated by Stacy Engman, has reintroduced some of those struggles (trolling sidewalks on recycling day being one of them). But the opportunity to create an installation at an iconic hotel during peak holiday season had a special charge. “With all the chaos and violence and political turmoil that we have today, I thought that it was just the universe opening up a door,” he says, positing that one-on-one interactions can effect real change, even in a quiet, hands-on way. As for the massage? It was a case of art imitating life: He’s the masseur at home; his boyfriend is the cook. “I’m not a professional, but I think I’m better than average,” he says with wry humility.

That easy, nurturing take on domesticity plays out on Koh Island, where a fragrant pot of beeswax warms amid a cluster of apples (one bitten à la Eden) and a garden of living and artificial plants. “In a way, it’s the world we have today: You don’t know what’s real and what’s fake,” he says. A stacked lineup of Campbell’s soup cans doubles as bunker provisions and an homage to Warhol; there’s also a facsimile toilet and wood-burning stove. A tiny solar panel soaks in the light coming through the arched window overlooking Fifth Avenue—a sign of Koh’s global awareness echoed in the images of islands, moored polar bears, and refugee boats (islands unto themselves) pasted on the walls. “And that’s Sunrise, our turtle!” he exclaims, pointing to the rectangular tank beside the Christmas tree. “Eloise had this famous turtle called Skipperdee, so we had to have a turtle at the Plaza Hotel.” He grins. “And a turtle is as chill as could be.”

Koh’s interest in well-being has deeper roots than his move to health-obsessed L.A.—though he admits enjoying being surrounded by like-minded people who don’t balk “when you talk about having crystals in your house to divert energy.” (He’s no expert, he tells me, but there’s a crystal hidden somewhere on Koh Island.) He counts the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti as a longtime influence, and is deeply interested in finding ways to break free from the mental conditioning that traps people in a cycle of past and future. “It’s extremely difficult to still your mind, to be able to be receptive to these almost invisible channels of energy, which I do believe exist,” explains Koh of his quest for the present moment. Which brings us back to the scalp massage. “It’s really quite intimate—almost like caressing a baby’s head, for some reason. It’s this fragile thing,” he says. (The week’s encounters with strangers and friends culminate today; the gallery works remain on view until January 15.)

Koh sees the relaxation work as a small measure to counteract the ways that “humans are losing touch with each other—we’re on our Instagram islands, we’re on our text islands.” He sets a pillow at one end of the black body-length cushion, and I sink back, gazing up at the exposed ceiling, where a serendipitous figure seems to be clasping a branch. “Is tea tree fine?” he asks, rubbing his hands together before massaging my temples, gently rotating my head left and right. The whole thing is more oceanic than vigorous, better than average, I agree, but more than that: attentive, generous. I recall him stressing this point: “When I do this, I’m not giving a performance. It’s actually life itself: your life and mine.” His hands slowly glide up over my forehead as we overhear a phone call in the vestibule; Adrian Brody is downstairs, waiting his turn. As I slip on my shoes and duck under the cardboard curtain to head back out into the jingle-jingle night, I find myself reconsidering just what makes the present perfect.