The intimate and the infinite
October 18, 2006
Growing up in suburban Sinking Spring, Pa., where a trip to “the city” was a reference to nearby Reading, Ben Koch had a narrow perspective on virtually everything: time, space, history. Koch’s early years at the Rhode Island School of Design went a long way toward broadening his sense of possibilities; it was there that his affection for art “erupted into a lifelong passion,” as he puts it. But it was in his junior year, spent in Rome, that Koch developed the sort of huge-scale thinking that characterizes his work.The year in Rome, said Koch, a Snowmass Village resident whose last name rhymes with duck, “turned my whole life around. Because growing up in Sinking Spring, my notion of what history was maybe 50 years old. When I went to Rome, the history there, the idea of time, was so physical that it transformed my way of seeing the world.”That expansive sense of things is expressed in Koch’s art, which is featured in the Aspen Art Museum’s current Colorado Biennial, Part I. The four pieces – part of a larger series that Koch, in a bit of long-range planning, expects to complete in 2010 – reflect the enormous range of perspectives available to human consciousness. One piece is focused on as narrow a subject as the human body (Koch’s own, as it happens). Two others stretch out to take in the entirety of planet Earth. The fourth extends even further, inviting contemplation of infinity – and beyond.
“So, you have these three points of distance,” said Koch, whose appearance – tall, scruffy and gentle, reminiscent of Shaggy from “Scooby Doo” – is a counterweight to his heavy thinking. “I like to think of this circle where you begin with yourself. Then zoom out of the museum or wherever you are; you leave your state, your country, your continent, your planet, and you’re flying through out of space, past a multitude of galaxies and stars, flying onwards and onwards and onwards and onwards, until eventually you loop back to yourself.”Much of the point of such work is to get a perspective on oneself, for both the viewer and for Koch. One piece, “Untitled (All the images of outer space taken from my comic-book collection),” is a print made from a collage of all the celestial images found in Koch’s childhood comic books. This also has an element of the personal; Koch says working from his comics brought him back to his childhood, “a time when I was enveloped around wonder.” For the viewer, however, it invites thoughts of how an individual fits into the universe. “The Dalai Lama was asked what he thought of Western civilization’s space program, and how it related to the Tibetans,” said Koch. “He said he was impressed that for the last 50 years, the West had been exploring outer space. But for centuries, the Tibetans have been exploring inner space.”That represents my curiosity about the relation between outer space and inner space, or imagination.”At the other end of the spectrum between inner and outer realms is “Untitled (My body marks – scars, moles, blemishes, and veins – hand-embroidered onto a T-shirt),” a T-shirt featuring representations of every mark on Koch’s chest and back. It is the epitome of the personal perspective; Koch, whose open-heart surgery left him a literally marked man, was motivated by the apprehension he has felt when taking off his clothes. Koch says that, as he made the shirt, he examined the layers of reasons for delving into the issue of his physical being.
“There’s this quote by W.G. Sebald, a German writer, from his book, ‘Rings of Saturn,'” said Koch, reciting precisely. “‘If we look down upon ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end.'”It’s that great distance, that height that he speaks of, that I’m trying to create. In the sense where the viewer is hopefully in between two sensations: the sense of feeling insignificant and tiny, and on the other hand, momentously important. You’re humbled in how much you don’t know. But hopefully inspired by what we can do, and all the possibilities.”Koch’s other two pieces in the Biennial take a perspective in between the intimate and the infinite. “Untitled (The cities and towns from around the world)” is a collage grid made from the circles marking places in a world atlas; the piece uses every single mark from a $15 atlas. Koch says the work addresses how people are losing touch with the uniqueness and authenticity of specific places. As an example, he holds up Explore Booksellers, which is on the market and whose time as a bookshop may soon be up.”World Flag T-shirt” features the images of all the flags of the world, superimposed onto each other till they make a jumbled blot. The piece, which has been made into an edition of 250, (and is also being made as a life-size, hand-embroidered flag), was inspired by 9/11. “It came through [my] feeling that we lacked the understanding of our world, our political and social world. That the idea of seeing the world as one technologically may be easy to do. But socially, it’s as chaotic as the image appears,” said Koch.The larger series, as yet untitled, features three more completed works not included in the exhibit. Koch refers to them as “transformations,” and describes them as drawings folded into tiny three-dimensional forms, each memorializing a transformative experience in his life.
Koch’s actual experience in the art world – in the world, really – is somewhat limited. The 26-year-old considers the current Aspen Art Museum exhibition the first major showing of his work; his art was previously included in group shows in his native Berks County, Pa., and in Denver. After his graduation from RISD, Koch moved directly to the Roaring Fork Valley, where he has had a succession of positions – studio assistant in painting and art history, resident artist in painting, and now studio manager for the painting department – at Anderson Ranch. He lives in Anderson Ranch housing and has a weekend job at Explore.Unconsciously, however, Koch is making art that puts him at the center of a significant current movement. In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “The Long Zoom,” writer Steven Johnson says that the title of his story refers to the kind of broad perspectives, from the intimate to the immensely distant, that Koch takes. As examples, Johnson cites satellites that hone in on license plates, and online maps that zoom from a wide region to a single house in a few mouse clicks. Johnson, whose ultimate subject is video-game maker Will Wright (“The Sims”) and his work-in-progress, “Spore,” says the long zoom defines this era’s way of seeing the world.Johnson’s article includes the views of musician and artist Brian Eno, whose own term, the “long now,” mirrors the idea of the long zoom. Something Koch said while we sat in front of his work at the museum was strikingly similar to a quote from Eno in the article. “We can see much smaller things and much bigger things than we ever could before,” said Eno. “But we can also start thinking about much longer futures and much deeper pasts as well. … On the one hand it makes us realize that we’re very powerful in that we’re able to comprehend and see all of this universe. But it also makes us seem much less significant. We’re a tiny blip on a radar screen. I think this is a feeling that people are trying to come to terms with, the feeling of where do we fit in all of this.”
Koch hopes his art prompts such thinking. “Maybe what’s important is that each person goes on this journey and creates their own world,” he said. “And what’s important is that they communicate and share what they’ve experienced. That’s one of the joys of life.”But in surveying where he fits into the big design, Koch has come to the conclusion that art is not the be-all, end-all. Making art, he observed, removes him from the realm of social and political interaction. So Koch has developed other interests. One is researching and developing, in collaboration with a group of other artists, an ancient mythology called Spaceman’s pocket. The other is opening, sometime in the future, with his girlfriend Christine Van De Merwe, a café.Which doesn’t mean that Koch doesn’t put a lot of stock in what big-issue art can do.”Generally speaking, doctors are here to take care of our physical bodies. Plumbers are here to take care of our toilets,” he said. “Artists are here to take care of our imaginations.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s address is email@example.com