As far as contemporary artists with work that is instantly-recognisable go, Brian Donnelly, better known as Kaws, is high up on the list. In particular, his original character Companion—a moody, grayscale Mickey Mouse-inspired figure with crosses for eyes—has become something of a pop culture icon since its inception by Donnelly in late 90s. Companion and many of Kaws’ characters have made their mark on television, fashion and have even travelled to some of the world’s most prominent monuments through Kaws:Holiday, a global tour that has brought Companion to Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, the United Kingdom and even outer space. Its latest stop? Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, of course.
Donnelly’s first visit to Singapore has been eventful, to say the least. There is the now-dismissed injunction filed earlier this week against Kaws:Holiday organiser AllRightsReserved, which brought the exhibition to a grinding halt on its very first day. Discharged by the court on Monday night, it reopens tomorrow. Set against our cityscape on The Float @ Marina Bay is a colossal, 42-metre tall model of Companion—adorably hugging a miniature version of itself for the first time.
Mishaps aside, Donnelly is enjoying his time in Singapore despite pandemic-restrictions. “It’s interesting entering a place right after a pandemic occurs. I’ve always wanted to visit Singapore, and before I came I assumed it was completely open. And then we’re going to dinner and you can only sit in twos,” he laughs. “But it’s been fun. I’ve gotten the chance to visit the museums and the STPI Creative Workshop and Gallery to see their print shop and everything. We visited Gardens by the Bay too, which I can see from my hotel room. I was FaceTiming with my kids and trying to show them my view. And they were like: ‘What are those shells?!’”
Here, the acclaimed artist opens up to Vogue Singapore about his relationship with fashion, the evolution of his work and what he really thinks of NFT art. He clearly has a keen eye for the future, but for now, he’s excited for Singaporeans to see and enjoy his work. “Hopefully, people get to get out there and view it, and take something from it that’s their own.” Finally, the show can go on.
In this latest iteration of Kaws:Holiday, Companion is in a position never seen before. What inspired that?
I think the holiday project in general has to do with relaxation, in all these peaceful settings. I was thinking about how I constantly have a kid or another hanging on me. So it’s just a nice, relaxed depiction of hanging out. It has to do with family, siblings, relationships. I also particularly like doing work like this because I like the shifts in scale between the two figures.
“Everyone’s talking about inclusion—its the first line in every press release. But what is inclusion? Are you really thinking about what else is out there and how to bring people into your space?”
How has KAWS:HOLIDAY grown as a project over time, and how has the role of space in your work evolved?
Very organically. When we did the first one I just had this opportunity to go to Korea. And then we went to the Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, and suddenly the scale changed. It became bigger and super complicated because of all the restrictions and the different waterways. It also made me realise that you could do these projects that are so short—just 10 days—and they can have such a big impact. So it’s been great to find these different locations globally, and then put a work into the architecture and the landscape.
Tell us more about your choice of location in Singapore.
I knew that if I came Singapore, I wanted to do a location that’s very iconic, like Fuji in Japan, and so we did. The accessibility was very important to me—this is clearly such a centrepoint. You can see it from so many vantage points in the city, and, to me, that’s ideal. I like the idea of people riding their bikes past it. They might take this path every day, and suddenly there’s this thing that’s the size of a house. I was just thinking, how do you reach people and what can you do that’ll be super impactful?
What, for you, is main message behind this iteration of the project?
Having the project happen now is interesting because it’s kind of getting people to gather again, but the scale of it allows us to do it in a way that’s very comfortable. It’s a step before going into museums again. I did the show at Brooklyn Museum early this year, and that was the first time I saw a lot of my friends since the pandemic. Being in public spaces is new again. If this could bring some energy into a city or community, and bring people out to look at something, then I’d be happy.
You’ve had an incredible stamp on the fashion world. How did your relationship with fashion start?
It’s something I started doing in mid 90s—I always felt natural just making T-shirts, or making print patterns. It’s fun for me because I have a lot of talented friends in that world. I get to jump into their universe for a moment and see their interpretations of my work. Sacai recently just did a bunch of graphics and patterns and put it on our silhouettes, and it kind of took on a different life. I’m pretty open as a collaborator, and I love seeing the process of someone re-interpreting my work.
What is your personal style like?
(Laughs) My personal style? I’ve been wearing this thing for 20 years now, or maybe 30. I’m not joking. It’s funny because I enjoy making really outgoing stuff. I love street wear that communicates visually. Look at the Sacai stuff—the patterns are really out there. The Comme des Garcons stuff was even louder, maybe. But in the same way that I feel about my art, I prefer that the objects I make have the attention, rather than myself. So I keep it pretty uniform, and that makes it very easy.
What is inspiring you in 2021?
I feel like I’ve always stuck to painting and sculpture, but I guess in the last few years, I got a bit into working with alternate reality. It got thinking a lot more about the digital space and the metaverse. I just did a project with Fortnite where suddenly you are putting your work in front of millions of people that were probably not aware of your work before. I find it fascinating.
“I like the idea of people riding their bikes past it. They might take this path every day, and suddenly there’s this thing that’s the size of a house”
Ever since I was young, I realised that the circle around you is really important. But you also have to understand that there are other circles that do not know or care about what you’re doing. They are doing equally interesting things and you should try to get a look into that. I use my art to navigate and jump into different things. It’s been the same with the digital space. Because of what I do, I get access to the top people in this world, and it lets me see behind the scenes.
How has your exploration of the NFT world been?
It’s all very interesting. I haven’t done any NFTs yet and like I said, I don’t really make plans ahead of time. But I think it’s a fascinating space. And I love seeing people’s feathers get ruffled. (laughs) It’s a fun thing to watch. I think the pandemic itself has shifted a lot of things, like the dynamics of galleries and institutions. And everyone’s talking about inclusion—its the first line in every press release. But what is inclusion? Are you really thinking about what else is out there and how to bring people into your space?
I don’t know the answers either, but I’m very open. I don’t want to be the smartest person in the room. I want to learn from people and not go into things with assumptions. I’d like to just go in, listen and learn.
Kaws:Holiday Singapore is running till 21st November at The Float @ Marina Bay.