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Interdisciplinary artist Jireh Koh on art education, throat singing, and learning from Tang Da Wu

Jireh Koh performing a solo opera aria of Vieni, vieni o mio diletto at the Esplanade Recital Studio

Jireh Koh and I met on a Wednesday evening at the end of a long, tiring day. Nudging him absentmindedly, I asked him if he had eaten. Koh had apparently not had a bite all day due to fasting for Ramadan. Despite not being religious, he tells me that he fasts to support his Muslim friends and colleagues.

As we walked from Nex to a nearby coffee shop, he began sharing about his day job as a teacher, how he enjoys teaching and supervising A-level art coursework, and how his students inspire him.

A cursory survey online would reveal Koh’s formal training in painting, prior to his current role as an art educator and a multidisciplinary artist whose practice has since branched out to incorporate visual art, music, movement, and performance-making. You’d also see his extensive involvement in managing, organising, curating, and directing arts events, at both nationwide and grassroots levels.

Wanting to delve deeper into what Koh does and what exactly informs his practice, our conversation led us through multiple seemingly unrelated tangents that included topics like Western esotericism, Abrahamic faith, mystery cults, and even Patanjali yoga sutras. Koh also spoke heartily about Raymond Lau, an artist with Tourette’s syndrome, whom he feels deserves more exposure, as well as Zai Kuning’s Pagan Hymn performance series (2022-) that recently inspired him.

Somewhere between all these twists and turns, I found myself wondering what drives Koh towards such various pursuits and how his unique perspective towards the wider world has shaped his practice and journey. Read on to learn more about this intriguing artist.

In your interview with Dr. Saleema Hadia, you mentioned you were always a curious child, one that indulged in different interests like psychology and the natural sciences. However, you saw art as the discipline that could bring all disciplines together. What was your first encounter with art like and what sparked this realisation?

Although I did not think of it as art at the time, my brother and I would stay up ‘illegally’ at night, drinking whole pots of tea just to ‘moonlight’ and draw comics. Besides comics, I would staple papers together into a book and make my own encyclopaedias, with text and drawings, referencing content that I had read in actual encyclopaedias or my observations in life.

When I was younger, I was just interested in a lot of things–science, art, religion, theology–perhaps due to my childhood diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

My interest in psychology started when I was trying to deal with my ASD, as I wanted to learn about how the human mind works; how to manage my condition; and figure out how people think, feel, and communicate.

The human mind is where everything comes together, just like how art reflects our meaning-making processes. Art has the power to rupture certain constructs of meaning, and art has the power to jolt someone out of [previous] conditioning.

Could you describe and share a little more about your art practice? Your works are hard to put a finger on, as they span abstract paintings to the performative.

Interdisciplinary and intercultural. But there’s a trap about intercultural and interdisciplinary work: sometimes, there is no rigour or respect for the original forms. 

I once watched a contemporary theatre piece in which a Chinese opera singer sang a children’s song. The traditional opera rendition of the children’s song did not do the singer’s voice or the particular vocal style justice. There was also an ethnic dancer in the item who was mostly a body enacting some gestures. 

Attempting to fuse two cultural forms without coherent juxtaposition or blending, without sensitivity to the unique differences and similarities, results in a tokenistic and superficial outcome. You’re just smashing everything together into one rojak (a mixed fruit and vegetable salad of Javanese origin) that tastes like nothing! 

When someone asks me what I do, I say that I’m a multidisciplinary practitioner and that I advocate for mental health, and interfaith and intercultural understanding. It also depends on who I’m talking to. In the arts? Performance artist. In the music scene, opera singer. In my spiritual communities, I say that I chant Hindu mantras or do throat singing. It’s hard to write my whole practice off in one line.

I’m interested in big ideas, such as meaning-making, philosophy, biology, anthropology, and seeing connections between things. They can manifest in so many ways and forms, like performance art, installation, somatic movement, sound, and more.

Do you think all these “big ideas” might get lost in translation when you create the actual work?

My works are manifestations of these theories, not representations of them. You actually identified an issue that I have, which is linking all these theories and research and bringing it up in an actual artwork. It’s always a struggle for me. 

Recently, I’ve been trying to let go more. Instead of focusing on producing work that links all these theories together or endeavouring to say something through my work, I take a step back and allow the work to emerge organically. 

I focus on mastering the fundamental techniques of the art forms (be it different artistic mediums and singing styles) that I’m dealing with. So when inspiration strikes, I can naturally translate the ideas through whichever form(s) feel most appropriate.

Despite not being religious, you partake in religious traditions such as fasting during Ramadan and Navratri, and engage in indigenous singing practices like throat singing. How do you navigate the line between personal and artistic explorations and respecting other cultures without appropriating them?

[For context,] I taught myself throat singing during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m more involved in Tuvan throat singing, particularly the Kargyraa style (super low drone) and Sygyt style (whistle-like overtones). I also practice Tibetan throat singing, mainly for chanting mantras in liturgical and ritual contexts. 

I actually discovered throat singing accidentally during Circuit Breaker while exploring the Octavist technique in Russian Orthodox Church music, where the basses go super low. I found the subharmonic register in my bass voice and realised it was also used in Tuvan throat singing. I started playing around with it and slowly branched out to more styles of throat singing such as Khoomei and Sygyt.

Similarly, with opera singing, I taught myself by watching Youtube videos of Philippe Jaroussky and Andreas Scholl, reading articles on vocal pedagogy, and later finding a teacher. There’s a lot of self-education in both throat and opera singing and the issue with that is that you may actually appropriate without knowing.

But there’s a way to check ourselves. [I recommend] starting by finding communities or a teacher. There’s a limit to how much you can learn on your own. I can explore the full range of possibilities when I’m in my bathroom singing, but when I’m engaging communities and presenting work, I have to have the rigour. Rigour in terms of research, understanding, and enactment, which extends to the ways we work with others. There’s space for experimentation, but that has to be made clear. 

I also try to understand the defining essence, characteristics, context, and sensibilities of the material I am working with. This is so that any exploration and experimentation remain within the structure and spirit of the traditions, and respect the lineages they come from.

Looking back on your personal and artistic journeys, was there an individual who profoundly inspired you?

Tang Da Wu. There is this saying in my friend group: “You don’t find Tang Da Wu, Tang Da Wu finds you.” One year [you don’t] talk, then he suddenly messages you.

Why I want to bring him up or thank him, rather, is regarding the specific period I came back to Singapore in June 2017 after studying in London. I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t know what was going on [in the visual arts scene]. Somehow, a friend who was working with Tang Da Wu roped me into the performance-art group, Stitchen Haus da Opera (now La Tristesse Opera), that Tang Da Wu was creating at the time. 

That was how I met a lot of people in the scene, like Your MOTHER Gallery’s Jeremy Hiah and Seelan Palay, and how I connected with Independent Archive (iA) and met Lee Wen. 

Tang Da Wu is a very giving person. He inspires me. He’s damn old, but he’s still damn strong—he can carry all his sculptures! He actually gets his hands dirty and makes his work. He’s very generous with his time and advice, and he wants to pass down what he has to the next generation. So I really respect him.

Lee Wen is another one, but I only knew him towards the end of his life.

Speaking of Lee Wen, the late performance artist and Cultural Medallion recipient, how does iA—a platform that he initiated—differ from other alternative art spaces in Singapore?

When Lee Wen created iA, he said, “Y’all come just use the space. Whatever project y’all want to do, I support. But y’all have to help me.”

In iA, the way we do things is more DIY. We build a community around resources and practices, and we provide a space where artists and researchers can gather. The community is very porous. We are looking to start an incubation residency programme, but right now it’s just people who come to chill. 

We also do regional collaborations. As part of iA’s collaboration with TheCube Space in Taiwan, I’ll be doing a performance art piece there around June for an art exhibition curated by Jason JS Lee called Body and Place: Performance Art in Singapore Since the 1980s.

So, as a multidisciplinary practitioner, what’s keeping you busy at the moment?

I teach visual arts at an international school in the day, and do my arts stuff at night. Every hour of the week is packed full to the brim. Currently, I’m doing an artist residency at the community space L’Observatoire; co-producing a contemporary Peranakan play with Alvin Tan; organising my music recital as well as an intercultural performing arts show for Teachers’ Day. 

On the music side, I am in three different choirs and vocal ensembles—the Singapore Lyric Opera, the Consonance Collective and the VocaSong Ensemble—as well as in a few collectives involved in ethnic and sacred music (shout out to Jungle Flow Music). Besides rehearsals, I also have other ongoing projects with iA, The Artists Village, and International Art & Culture (Singapore) Federation.

Besides juggling teaching, my art practice, and different art forms, I am involved in arts management, organising and curatorial work, such as running and maintaining iA. I also recently directed A Winter’s Journey, and curated the UCares Christmas concert for Singapore Kindness Movement.

Jireh Koh (in the centre, holding a bouquet) with collaborators from VocaSong Ensemble, Solace Art Psychotherapy, and volunteers from the LASALLE College of the Arts MA Art Therapy programme
Koh (in the centre, holding a bouquet) with collaborators from VocaSong Ensemble, Solace Art Psychotherapy, and volunteers from the LASALLE College of the Arts MA Art Therapy programme at the end of the recital and art exhibition, A Winter’s Journey, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.

How do you balance these various commitments and navigate the challenges that come with working with individuals from different disciplines and communities?

Sometimes I don’t think it’s a balancing act, it’s more of burning my candle on both ends, or rather, burning my candles on many ends. But I keep things interesting for myself and find joy in whatever I do, which takes off the stress that would otherwise cause me to burn out a lot faster.

Looking back, I can do many projects, not merely because I love what I am doing so much, but also because I care for the people that I do these things with and for. That is when I go deep into my reserves to draw out energy that I didn’t even think that I had.

The challenges are usually not within the making of the work itself, but in working with people. Beyond the formal aspects of each discipline, people in different disciplines have different biases, communication styles, ethics, and ethos.

[This means there are] various expectations for meeting deadlines and coming to a consensus before doing stuff. When these expectations are not met, sometimes because of a difference in understanding or lack of awareness, it could lead to unintentional disrespect and tensions arise. I take things in good faith, and I try to see that everybody has their reasons for what they do.

My experience working from both ends of the spectrum—from national-level institutions (from my bond with the Ministry of Education (MOE) HQ) to independent and ground-up organisations—has informed the ways I can bridge the gaps in understanding and needs of the different communities.

My experiences working with a diverse range of communities, institutions, and collectives meant that I am in a unique position to give back to the communities who have first accepted and nourished me.

How do these complications or misunderstandings play out in the contemporary Singapore art scene? Given the relatively top-down approach that the Singapore government applies in cultivating the arts scene, how do you think the arts grow organically and freely within such a structure?

I don’t agree with the gossiping, the gatekeeping, the ostracising, the cancel culture, and the “I steal your rice bowl, you steal my rice bowl” kind of thing, you know? We already have this common battle to fight, making a living as artists while fighting forces of commodification and gentrification. It creates more division and unwholesomeness.

When artists in Singapore all fight for legitimacy and relevance or even just the same, limited funding and exhibition and performance opportunities, it becomes about survival.

But I see [similarities in] what works across different art forms: even though we have our specialities, we share goals and aspirations. We need to work together. We need to be compassionate to each other.

It was way past midnight by the time we called it a day.

Though this walking “library”—a nickname given to Koh by his friends—and his discussion of many, many theories had left me mentally fried, I was quietly moved by the enthusiasm and compassion he brings to everything he does, and the openness (and sometimes angst) with which he expressed past struggles. 

I thought back to something the multidisciplinary artist had said during our conversation, “People can’t place what it is I actually do, so I confuse them.”

I too was guilty of trying to label and fit Koh into a specific category so that I could understand him better. Koh’s eclectic pursuits, however, really tie back to who he is at his core, with his compassion and relentless curiosity driving him to explore and connect different facets of existence.

After all, shouldn’t art be about breaking free from the limitations of neat little boxes and embracing the pathways that unfold from one’s own creative experimentation?


Keep up with Jireh Koh on Instagram and his website.

An earlier version of this article made a reference Koh being involved with New Age practices. The reference has since been removed and rephrased to “spiritual communities”.

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