Jay Koh

In "a summer fairy-tale", Jay Koh sarcastically reminded the public about the myth of happiness (1). The title was Koh's ironic strategy, as a curator, to the making of art in a cynical commercial art market system. "a summer fairy-tale" was a dark joke without happy beginning, middle or end. It was a group show consisting only of three artists due to lack of funding. A collaborator, curator, artist, father and scientist all wrapped into one, Koh is a culturalist in every sense of the word. His work and projects represent socio-political issues from the perspective of a man living in real exile. Koh was literally forced to leave his homeland in Singapore in 1978 because of what he refers to as his "oppositional activities".

Being a refugee, Koh's artistic practice has generally been restricted to Germany. However, in the last two years, he has been permitted to travel abroad to work in places such as New York, Europe and Thailand. Subsequently, Koh's works present recurring thematic issues such as the displaced element and in particular the placement of the displaced element (2). Koh refers to this as a concern for what he calls "the foreign value" (3). This foreign "value" or "virtue" or "ethic" is a constant in Koh's work. He creates an environment that represents the foreign value and presents it to the public in the form of a curated exhibition or a work of his own.

In "a summer fairy-tale" Koh also featured the work of the Dutch artist Johan Wagenaar and Takashi Soga from Japan. Together, the three foreign artists formed a mythological triad which intervened at Rudolfplatz in Cologne. The works by all three artists share a fragile temporariness that upsets the permanence of culture, (i.e. mono vs. multi cultural).

Wagenaar's plaster cast of a dead horse titled "...and a dead horse" was placed before the castle's gates at Rudolfplatz and ridiculed German chivalry from a Dutch perspective on European history (i.e. war with Germany). Takashi Soga's delicately balanced work titled "Gravitation Quality - Vessel - House" was situated before a large banking institution, and represented for Koh the "illusion of security" and a "mocking of greatness". Takashi Soga's work, however, was vandalised. Both of these works were vulnerable interventions that outraged the public, not because of animal rights activist or structural problems, but because of their "foreign" presence. Koh himself presented a work titled "The most Honourable Citizen", whereby he ridicules the hero prize system with its feedback within regional and national societies. Koh wrapped a chestnut tree in gold cloth to denote its otherwise unimportant function as "ornament and environmental janitor". Three small Japanese bells (Suzu) were also hung on one of the branches, a subtle way to bring attention to the work.

As the fabric twists, so does the logic behind Koh's work. The title "The most Honourable Citizen" or "Der ehrenwerteste Bürger" is readable to the German public. However, there are certain elements which are not. Use of the golden cloth communicates foreign codification in the work of Asian/Buddhist tradition. (The cloth may not be at first (if ever) understood by the German Euroburger who experiences it. The golden cloth can symbolise intellectual enlightenment with respect to Buddhism (a common sight in Asia), or it can refer to Asian nobilities, or Asia itself or "something" Asian, but in particular it symbolises the foreign.

The tree, however, is a universal symbol for most cultures. For many the forest was the first temple or holy place. This is Koh's second work involving the use of a tree. In 1993 he presented "Zustand" ("Situation"), whereby the cut remains (5m) of a giant oak tree which included root system bound in the middle with steel cable was exhibited at Halle Kalk in Cologne (3). Koh found the oak tree in the Westerwald which had been blown down by a storm in 1992. Hence, Koh's work spans beyond political sarcasm and at moments tends to sway into poetic romantic (sometimes sentimental) cultural sacredness. However ideals exists only in fairytales. According to Koh, the honourable citizen was stripped bare when someone stole the cloth, or as he more generously phrases it: "The cloth was just taken away".

Yvonne Parent



  1. Mythology can be defined as a traditional narrative usually involving supernatural or fancied persons etc. and embodying popular ideas in natural or social phenomena etc....

  2. The Art of Placement, Feng Shui or "Geomancy" is an ancient traditional Asian practice whereby the influence of the natural elements is considered in a residence or business.

  3. "Refugium of Foreign Value" (Schutzraum für Fremde Werte) is also a small edition that Koh produced and exhibited in public spaces for the project "Timeout for Democracy" (Auszeit der Demokratie) in 1993 with his installation "Situation" ("Zustand") in Halle Kalk. "Auszeit der Demokratie" was an art project curated by Jay Koh in 1993 during the height of the racial prosecution in the early 90's in Germany where about 40 German artists and artists living in Germany show their opinion in public spaces and in Halle Kalk, Cologne.