At around 6 p.m. last Thursday evening, visitors swarmed in and around Andrew Edlin Gallery, sipping on homemade flower tea from compostable cups. They were chatting with each other enthusiastically in the building’s cramped front space, their heads brushing against human skulls and dangling rocks. The gallery’s tiny front room had been transformed into a cross between a pagan shrine and a hoard of pro-LGTBQ and anti-war buttons (“Queer, Muslim, & proud!”), anthropological relics, handwritten poems and signs (“God is love”), ant farms, dead birds, books, a plastic newborn baby on a quilt, and more along these lines for Terence Koh’s “Bee Chapel.”
Recent additions—a reflective antenna resembling a kaleidoscope funnel, a black and silver panel, and an instrument with a plastic tube on the end—waited outside the gallery. They were brought on as part of the night’s performance, during which Koh would honor the 49 victims of the recent shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando—the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in American history. With their futuristic aesthetics, the new equipment stood in stark contrast to the content of the actual exhibition. The funnel, which stood propped on a tripod, bore a single rainbow sticker. Koh would be using these instruments, as well as a microphone, to transmit the names of the 49 victims into outer space.
The exhibition continued in the next room, lit only by a single red light bulb, which was suspended from the branches of an apple tree that lay on the dirt-covered floor. Nearby on the ground was a spacesuit. Separated by a thick dark blue curtain, the next room, also covered in dirt, featured only a pair of flaming candles facing each other on the ground. In the fourth room, the dirt floor rose in large steps up to the eponymous bee chapel. A sign nearby instructed visitors to remove their shoes before entering the chapel. When I entered the small, honeycomb-colored room, I was surprised to see actual bees buzzing energetically behind a fine mesh. It would have felt more peaceful if I hadn’t been aware of the line waiting behind me.
At around 6:20, the performance began. One man blew on a blowing horn, a sound that seemed to activate Koh, who had been standing quietly in the front room. In denim overalls and bare feet, Koh took out a Tibetan singing bowl. Hitting the bowl with its striker, he silently walked deeper into the gallery, followed closely by a cameraman who held up a videocamera on a long handle, which, in this context, resembled a cross upheld in a funerary procession. The crowd obediently followed Koh all the way into the room containing the bee chapel. Once there, Koh climbed up the steps to the chapel, still beating the bowl, and went inside. There, he began to chant, though it was difficult to make out what he was saying. (I later learned that Koh was chanting the names of the victims here; I assume there were microphones installed inside the chapel that transmitted the sound to the antenna outside.)
I began to feel hypnotized. A long clear plastic tube connected the bees in the chapel to the rest of the hive outside of the window, and I watched them hurrying back and forth, mesmerized. Their patterns of movement appeared to repeat themselves interminably. At last, Koh exited the chapel, looking a bit weary, and continued to beat while chanting “namu dai bosa,” a Buddhist mantra. He moved past the dark room and into the red one, where the audience accordingly assembled themselves in a circle. He circled the room again and again, chanting and stepping over the tinier limbs of the branch that lay on the floor.
Sound is integral to “Bee Chapel.” Wall text outside of the middle, red space explained that the “apple tree room” contains six vibrations: a livestream of sounds from the cosmos, the sounds of the bees in the bee chapel, the sound of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away, vibrations of the flames burning in the candle room, the apple tree’s “anti-phase energies,” and the general vibrations transmitted from the tree and the ground through EEG (electroencephalography) wires, which are normally used to record electrical activity in the brain. A pair of headphones nearby transmits all of these sounds simultaneously. To me, it sounded like several low-pitched hums overlaid with a loud buzzing.
As they watched Koh chant and pace around the red room, the audience was split the fascinated and the bored. Coughs and sneezes punctuated the eerily devout spectacle, and the red light was periodically infiltrated by blue—either from the light emanating from phone screens, or the light that briefly flooded the room whenever visitors would push aside curtains as they wandered in and out of the different spaces.
About three-fourths of the way through his chant, three rumbles of thunder were heard, along with the sound of bees buzzing. Koh dropped to his knees in one corner of the room as his chant began to wind down. When it stopped, the same man blew the same horn and announced that the event had ended, and that there would be a 20-minute break followed by a film screening.
While the ritualistic nature of the performance was simultaneously charismatic and cathartic, its intended subject—the victims—was at best vaguely established, and it’s far easier to see how the Koh’s exhibition, rather than the tragedy, inspired his performance. A Bruce LaBruce film screening that followed, which featured graphic sex scenes, raging invectives against capitalism, and many guns—including scenes in which guns were used as a masturbatory aid—only further added to this disconnect.