On Sunday March 6th, 2011 a group of friends gathered at 4A in the heart of Chinatown to remember Emil Goh. Art Life editor Andrew Frost offered the following memories…
When I learned that Emil had passed away on Facebook I did something completely irrational. I sent him an email asking if it were true. After he’d left Sydney for Seoul that’s how we’d been communicating. I imagined he’d respond with a good natured, ‘no way, I’m still here!!!!!!’ followed by his customary half dozen exclamation points. But as more people began to learn of his death the outpouring of sadness and disbelief among his many friends only seemed to confirm the bad news that day.
And I still can’t quite believe he’s gone. There is a stack of DVDs and books and magazines I wanted to show him on his next return visit to Sydney, things I had been putting aside that I’m sure he would have loved. When he came to town we’d meet up for coffee or a meal and talk over projects and plans and art world gossip. That is how I’d met him, like many people, through an introduction now forgotten via someone who knew him – perhaps it was Jacqui Khiu when she was editing Australian Style – I can’t be certain, but after awhile it just seemed a natural thing to know Emil. Everyone seemed to. He was in the truest sense a connection between people – bringing together friends and acquaintances for some sort of project or exhibition who would then inevitably become real ongoing friends – and it was all down to Emil’s seemingly tireless energy and enthusiasm.
I lost count of the number of exhibitions that Emil had organised, or was in, and his work was always outstanding. I knew him first as a photographer and video maker. I remember a solo show of his at 4A that was a remarkable achievement, a completely personal take on video art making. Emil’s work had a very refined and reflective aesthetic that was also playful and humorous. I remember saying to him that if nothing else his work stood out because it was so short – some of his video pieces were only 30 seconds long. Emil had a theory that if someone walking into a gallery didn’t get your idea in 30 seconds then it wasn’t working. He was an intelligent artist who had a grasp of subject and technique, something that is rare, but even more unusual was that Emil’s work was beautiful too, something he attributed to his love of Asian cinema.
Many people remember Emil for his simple love of living. When you saw him at an opening or social gathering it was always a high point of the night, with plenty of jokes and fun. But there was another person too. I recall visiting at his place in Surry Hills where another Emil emerged, a more private person of doubts and career anxieties, someone who like everyone else, had his worries and problems. This revelation of another side of Emil made me realise that this public person had a deep emotional life, a passionate involvement in living.
Which made his death all the more shocking. I had high hopes for Emil’s art career in Australia and tried to do whatever I could to help him – I wrote articles and reviews about his work and talked to gallery people, but for reasons that remain unclear Emil never quite got the break that he deserved. And so after his departure for Seoul, which at first was temporary but as the years went by became a permanent relocation, it seemed from Sydney that he had achieved that deserved recognition. He is held in high regard by the people that knew him, or had their lives positively changed by the experience of working with him.
My father said to me once that people never really die because so long as people remember them they are alive. But I often wondered what happened when those people too pass away. I think of Emil and realise that what he has given us is this social network of friends, the people that he brought together in ways that would simply not have been possible without him. That is his legacy to us, a reminder that he was among us, something we can savor and enjoy, and remember.
I was writing a book on video art and asked Emil if he wouldn’t mind sending me a DVD of the work he’d done since his move to South Korea. A package duly arrived with the DVD inside, but there was also a note that just said HI! plus a small gift for my daughter Lily, who was three at the time. It was a plastic tray that you pressed egg yolks into to make the shapes of farmyard animals. It was Korean and covered in bright stickers. She loved it. Emil didn’t know her really, but the thought of family and friends was always on his mind.
Emil Goh’s mother Sylvia Lee has created a tribute web site appropriately titled Emil Goh First Memorial.