written by Eunice Lacaste
A feverish muse may visit an artist during their pilgrimage. For instance, art groups shifted from murky Chinese watercolours to psychedelic shapes after they visited Bali in the 1960s; award-winning authors preferred to write in the provincial mountains of Baguio, Philippines in the 90s; French critics looked for visual camaraderie in New Wave Japan. There is a visual pluck from the indulgent change of scenery. At times, the muse bestows shamanic double visions. Few of the Impressionists’ artworks appear to be a pedestrian genre of a fishmonger peddling snow crabs along a dusky back alley, which are then painted as multiple floats of cataractous patterns.
Koh Kai Ting was born in Batu Pahat, Malaysia and studied arts at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore. A painter and printmaker, she has participated in residencies in China, Thailand, Singapore and around her home country, Malaysia. Koh’s regional experiences shape her young vision that emerges in her acrylic works.
These younger casuists are deftly able to cite Proust, Freud, Spinoza, or Nietzsche while slurring their names. As they layer such patriarchal references, seldom would they be able to localise the semantics of these texts, and this is not necessarily a detrimental feature. Memes are their lexicon with blind intertextuality. According to folklore researcher Lynne McNeill in 2009, memetics had been studied in anthropology, philosophy, psychology, and linguistics. But only recently after the virality of internet memes in the late 2000s did communication researchers develop meme theory. As grafts of myths and legends were never similar to their origin, internet memes (often stereotypical caricatures) were never faithful to their initial content.
Koh Kai Ting’s new series of works titled Pasang Surut is exhibited online at the Gajah Gallery website from 5 August 2022. It is a rupture of the visual as memes. The artist mostly draws from images during her time at an art residency at a fishing village, barnacled to her mind, portraying them as cautionary zodiacs of a new schism.
The bioluminescence of Koh’s works is more apparent when viewed in person than on the web screen. Framed by a disco portal, one of Koh’s pieces titled Cosmic Dance alludes to a many-armed deity. This painting’s entangled orientation follows a playing card or a tarot card. Its embellishments and the dualistic figures ensure that no matter how it is positioned, it is always the right side up.
The piece Carnal Desires has the same spiritual overtones. It is a glitzy suggestion of the tale of Adam and Eve and the fall of humans as narrated in the Bible. Similarly, the piece Gethsemane is about a handful of panicking crabs in a current of paint. The title mentions the garden of anxieties where the prophet Jesus was praying the night before he was betrayed.
However, these resources are lost in Koh’s memetic psyche. Gethsemane could also be a description of the pandemic in the last two years in Singapore: a garden of isolation, rupture, death, dismembered realities, tattered social mesh, unrestrained wants, and unfulfilled needs. Rather than interpreting pandemic desires as sinful, we can accept them as the opposite in our own liquid religion. For instance, snakes are different in Asian contexts; They are not necessarily the antagonists or antitheses of godliness in Asian epics. They could be considered water deities that protect the Mekong River and its dwellers, including humans.
Another folklore researcher, Trevor Blank argued in 2009 that meme scholarship is the incarnation of folklore studies—which also relate to many fields such as geography, linguistics, theology, economic history, popular culture, and more. Cultural researchers S A Krishnaiah and William Belcher contributed a number of entries regarding animal tales in South AsiaFolklore: an Encyclopedia (2020). This book described snake charmers, bull tamers, and parrot fortune-tellers who roamed along ancient trading routes between India and China for centuries. Travelling along merchant streets, circus acts circulated tales in exchange for coins and their stories were absorbed by other populations across the region. At times, their trained animals carried altars of deities or even contemporary Bollywood celebrities. Other myths promised the reincarnation of both gods and late loved ones to supernatural carps, phoenixes, and monkeys. And so, such performing cattle would be attributed and named after venerable and celebrated beings.
Bestiary is a common motif in folktales, which correlates to tribal identity, mapping of trade, geographic nomenclature, and more. Civilisations named rivers and mountains after dragons, horses, turquoises, and elephants. For one, the merlion is a definitive symbol in Singapore, though there is no possible existence of such a creature on the island. In anthropology and archaeology, oral literature is an important material and could be supported by excavated animal bones, which become geographical markers that reveal the corresponding dietary consumption of ancient societies. Tribes designed their tools, regalia, and architecture with animal cadavers. When carved or decorated, these age-old bones were also indicators of nomadic movements or breadcrumbs to international trade networks.
Animal talismans like horns, teeth, and claws promise good fortune. Superstition guarantees that eating organs from certain creatures promises good health, healing miracles, and improved sexual vitality. Many regional beliefs associate water animals with curative attributes. In some Asian cultures, seafood including eel and oysters are aphrodisiacs to boost libido. Certain species of jellyfishes are rich in collagen.
This improves strength during pregnancy and aids in foetus development when consumed. Political scholar Jie Gao described these food parables while politicising how these superstitions gag the role, gender, identity, and power of women in Republican China. They are to act, speak, think, dress, and eat as decreed by traditional beliefs propagated by political policies like the one-child program. This arguably illustrates how folklore and memes can shape sexual and gender identities when politicised.
The painting Ribbon Eel could possibly comment on gender fluidity. It evokes the double image of Caduceus, the snake rod of the Greek god of healing. The eel coils in a convoluted figure eight that obscures its start and end. At this stage of its growth, the ribbon eel has a medical blue colour, which is rare in natural flora and fauna. Much like the androgynous Greek gods and non-gendered shamans, eels and jellyfishes are sequential hermaphrodites, which are common in many sea creatures. The eel’s jet black and yellow shades indicate that it grew into a male and will eventually take on a yellow female form.
It is very unusual to paint on polyester mesh, however, it establishes a visual connotation to fishing nets from Pulau Ketam. In painting practices, silk canvases would seldom be able to uphold the weight of oil paint but offer more translucency for mediums like watercolour and sumi ink. Mesh screens (sometimes stretched on metal frames) would be better associated with papermaking or screen printing that dates to the Song Dynasty and was eventually adopted globally. The screen frames themselves can be masterpieces of high value. For Koh’s work, a layer of neon acrylic benefits from the mesh ground, such that light breathes through the colours.
Yet some works are monochromatic. The paintings Gluttony, Floating World, Till Love Do Us Apart, and the Corpus of Symptoms are a handful of lacerated delicacies. To reproduce, some species of fish use all their energy to return to upstream breeding grounds. After spawning, they become a sea of grey zombies and eventually die. Their rotting flesh floats along for other animals to feed on, or they decompose to become nutrients for the riverbed. Both Floating World and the Corpus of Symptoms balance each other in this continuous circle of life energy, despite the desaturation.
Besides zombified flesh, Koh also painted a cyborg crab. A Chinese classic text that existed around the the fourth century BC titled Fantastic Creatures of the Mountains and Seas (translated by Jiankun Sun, Siyu Chen, Howard Goldblatt in 2021) lists many hybrid creatures similar to the painting Gundam Crab. The text is filled with hermaphroditic wildcats with wings and scales, goats without mouths but with nine tails and four ears, and of course, flying unicorns with dragon tails. Hybrid strangeness was never strange to Asian cultures and even inspired contemporary societies. Japanese pop culture celebrated cyborgs and aliens in manga and anime. Unlike in Western literature where humanoid robots and Frankenstein creatures were depicted as bloodthirsty enemies, there are Asian narratives that depict strange creatures and mechas as protagonists protecting all living beings and as sources of good fortune and health. Considering this, nothing is bizarre about an animated pop tart cat defecating a rainbow.
The juju archetypes exhibited at Pasang Surut have travelled through countries, maybe as idols to protect us during these turbulent times, as reincarnations of people and places we lost over the past years, or as memes with neither agendas nor elucidations. The glocality and non-contextuality of memes and folklore in Koh Kai Ting’s paintings demand uncuffed interpretations. Their signifiers are bloated and the viewer must toil to extort particular meanings. Their fluid interpretations mutate from one viewer to another in eternal flux. This exhibition essay, then, loses its function and the artist’s authorship over her heroes and heroines offers its death and new life to the viewer.