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Germaine Koh’s ... at CAG

Kimberly Phillips

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On ... and . (or, Things That Stay Behind)

Installation shot of Germaine Koh’s …, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, 2001. Photographer unknown.

I learned of Germaine Koh’s errant ball bearings on my first day of work at the Contemporary Art Gallery in 2017, though I must have installed at least five or six exhibitions before I encountered one myself. They were a vestige of . . . (2000), a work in Koh’s eponymous solo exhibition from 2001, which inaugurated CAG’s new home on Nelson Street. To experience . . ., visitors stepped into a gallery that was entirely empty save a continuous shower of ball bearings falling from tracks in the ceiling. The diminutive steel balls would bounce, roll and organize themselves into mesmerizingly fluid (and slightly hazardous) patterns across the concrete floor, before being mechanically fed back into the ceiling tracks to rain down again.1 Despite the fact that the exhibition had closed sixteen years earlier, ball bearings had been re-appearing periodically during exhibition installations ever since, and as a result, had become objects of endearment for CAG staff. So small as to remain nearly unnoticed, the peripatetic spheres nevertheless seemed to have their own agency (and often a humorous sense of timing) in gently asserting their decision to stay behind. I loved the idea that this artwork—the very first installed in that gallery—had taken up a sort of permanent residence there, and was not quite finished with any of us yet.

The conceptual beginnings of . . . was a small quantity of chrome pachinko balls Koh encountered in the collection of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre (JCCC) in Toronto. The artist had been invited by Gendai Gallery to consider an object in the JCCC’s holdings that might inform a new work of art. Koh was drawn to the pachinko balls precisely because they did not possess the cultural capital of other works in the collection and were entirely unassuming—humble elements of a beloved, low-stakes gambling game. To the artist, their everydayness spoke of the constant “slipping-away of things,” and the passage of time through the exercise of everyday habits, compulsions and play. To create . . ., Koh recast the pachinko balls as tens of thousands of ball bearings. In their collective movement, they created a formidable weather-like force, transforming the gallery into “a space of slippage, fluidity and of forgetting rather than remembering.”2

I sometimes think about the way that . . . might be interpreted (perhaps cynically) as an analogy for the work we do in visual art galleries. We bring project after project before our audience communities, culminating months, if not years, of close and careful work with artists. The kunsthalle model CAG follows, with its endless cycle of temporary exhibitions untethered to a permanent collection, requires repeated acts of material erasure: while there is always an archival trace of that labour, matter and time in the form of installation documentation and perhaps a publication, each project must be wiped thoroughly from the space to make room for what comes next. The gallery remains in constant flux, like the weather, and our focus as curators is on the complexities of the exhibition ahead. And just as ball bearings exist to ease friction in mechanical systems, ensuring the smooth and continual motion of their parts, I think of all the procedures we develop in our arts organizations—all the meetings and emails and checklists—to ensure further easing of that kunsthalle model’s execution.

But while the continual movement of . . . might indeed suggest the endless slipping-away of time, Koh’s ball bearings, especially in their singularity, will for me always be about the possibility of subtle interruptions to our perpetual motion paradigms, and about the startling propositions that unintentional residue can offer, if we are attentive enough to regard them.

That first ball bearing I collected from the floor of CAG’s Alvin Balkind Gallery—it had rolled out of some corner seam—came to live in a small tray on my desk for a time and, along with my paper clips and other random ephemera, kept me company while I worked. It was a tiny anchor, a portal, a worry point, a comedic punctuation mark, a reverse switch. And then one day I noticed it was gone.

The ball bearing wasn’t mine to halt or hold onto, and I quite like the thought of it plotting a future reappearance, for whomever might have need for its message . . . . .      . . .       .    

Kimberly Phillips

Kimberly Phillips is Director of SFU Galleries at Simon Fraser University. Over the past 15 years, in her roles as gallery director, curator and teacher based on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and səlilwətaɬ peoples, she has worked to create meaningful and unexpected ways for contemporary artists and their publics to find one another. Phillips’s curatorial practice maintains a particular interest in the spectral and the resistant, as well as the conditions under which artists work. She has curated over 60 exhibitions and public projects, and has contributed to and edited numerous publications. Phillips was Director/Curator of Access Gallery (2013–2017) and holds a PhD in art history from the University of British Columbia (2007), where she was an Izaak Walton Killam Doctoral Fellow. From April 2017 to July 2020, Phillips was the Curator at CAG.


1 The artist relayed to me some entertaining stories about visitors’ encounter with ... , including one about a group of teenagers who arrived at the gallery with skateboards, wheels removed, to skate the exhibition.

2 Description of on Germaine Koh’s website.