Koh Kai Ting finds discomfort in the tug and pull between the internal and external, in finding what gives her personal pleasure amid societal pressures and the hidden weight of moral expectations. She questions how to bridge her interior and exterior self, embracing the conflicts that come along with it head-on. The fruits of embracing this particular discomfort will eventually, to her, bring an unconscious sense of pleasure. She believes that looking past the pains of discomfort leads to a kind of liberation, in which one will no longer be “tied down by the chains he set for himself”.

2018, Watercolor on Polyester Mesh, mounted on Wooden Panel 80 x 96 cm

This idea of breaking free from metaphorical ‘chains’ is provocatively captured in her haunting depictions of animals, seamlessly blurring the line between hyperrealism and surrealism. In Tangled, a goat is stripped from its natural environment and rendered as if it were suspended in air, against a hazy, abstract grey background. Its four legs are wrapped in a thin white cloth, suggesting that the goat had been tied down, restricted from roaming free.

Yet, the cloth’s loose ends indicate a sense of fresh release—placing the goat in that ambiguous, limbo state of grappling with newfound liberation after a long period of suppression. Standing out amid the pale and muted colours of the painting, a strange, satirical detail sparkles: the goat’s two front feet are wearing bedazzled high heels, subtly opening a discussion on the glossy, banal facades we wear to navigate society, and mask darker realities.

Nonetheless, the heels offer only a brief respite, as a deep psychological tension is detected in the goat’s eyes: communicating a fraught sense of freedom, wherein the internal wound of being chained down, though not visible, persists to exist.

2018, Watercolor on Polyester Mesh, mounted on Wooden Panel, 90 x 110 cm

Golden Rain captures the same anxiety innate in these images of tied up animals— this time, in the form of four plucked hens, ready to be cooked and devoured. Grotesque yet poignant, the work evokes the same urgent, visceral feeling found in British painter Francis Bacon’s depictions of raw meat, breathing with life, character and drama.

Like in Tangled, a disarming detail adds surreal satire to an otherwise haunted scene: at the upper portion of the painting, a piece of silver ornamentation dangles from the beak of one chicken. The other three hens appear hypnotized by the sight, all turning their gaze towards this silver charm—as if desperately holding on to any trace of banal beauty as they await their doomed fate.

Understood against the artist’s incisive reflections on discomfort and pleasure, Golden Rain articulates a tense truth about the human condition, and the questionable ways we try to survive in the face of our inevitable mortality. Kai Ting’s lifelike animals communicate profound yet invisible human pains and longing—transcending time and space.

Nonetheless, the heels offer only a brief respite, as a deep psychological tension is detected in the goat’s eyes: communicating a fraught sense of freedom, wherein the internal wound of being chained down, though not visible, persists to exist.

2020, Watercolour on Polyester Mesh, mounted on Wooden Panel, 63 x 70 cm

In this work, Kai Ting’s recurring goat motif is contorted into a constricted, grotesque position, as one of its legs is lifted and uncomfortably—almost painfully—bent near its face. This leg is tied tightly by thin white cloth, in which two sharp black sticks pierce through it—indicating its movements are controlled by external force, akin to a puppet. 

The painting’s close-up, cramped composition within the rectangular frame heightens the tension of the scene, focusing our attention on the meticulously rendered, carnal details of the animal: the texture of its thin, frail hair; the rich shadows contouring its muscles and bones; and perhaps most unnerving, its haunting face. As if subtly communicating that it is not a lifeless object to be restricted, the goat’s eyes peer menacingly towards the sticks controlling its leg—a sly glimpse into the goat’s psyche, and a provocative detail moving us to contemplate how the goat will reclaim its agency.

2020, Watercolor on Polyester Mesh, 86 cm

In this surreal painting, an obese goat is awkwardly squeezed into a tight, circular frame, as white threads are firmly tied around its neck, torso and legs. Its limbs are unnaturally bent against each other to fit the claustrophobic space, alluding to a deep, disturbing discomfort. Yet, contrary to the goat in Sacred Violence, this goat’s face is expressionless, almost lifeless. Rather than being sharp and menacing, its eyes roll languidly and hazily above, as if surrendering to its confinement. 

The title of the work, I’m Fine, similarly communicates a kind of ironic, satirical resignation: while the goat is visibly not fine, it appears to tell itself so, the same way humans desperately cling on to any sign of absurd optimism during times of overwhelming, uncontrollable trial. Yet simultaneously, it is this very phrase of irrational hope that brings life and autonomy to the almost unconscious goat, still indicating a faint cry, a will to survive.

(b. 1996, Batu Pahat, Malaysia)

Koh Kai Ting’s practice focuses on creating visual narratives that explore the conflict between individual happiness and the expectations of society. Looking at the source of pleasure and its psychological trajectory through philosophical texts and her observations of society, Koh’s works question the importance of importance of happiness to one’s life and how much of happiness is under personal control. 

Her work is influenced by the sociological and psychoanalysis theories of Spinoza and Freud. Juxtaposing the gratified emotions with bondage and animal as metaphors for human desire, her recent paintings highlight the destructive instinct as part of the unconscious structures of pleasure, hence gaining pleasure through pain.