Giant Kaws artwork pops up on The Float @ Marina Bay

Singapore is the seventh stop in the Kaws:Holiday tour.
Singapore is the seventh stop in the Kaws:Holiday tour.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN, BENJAMIN SEETOR
Singapore is the seventh stop in the Kaws:Holiday tour.
Singapore is the seventh stop in the Kaws:Holiday tour.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN, BENJAMIN SEETOR

SINGAPORE - Something new has sprung up in Marina Bay: a massive inflatable artwork by the popular American artist Kaws.

The 42m-long work resting on The Float @ Marina Bay is his signature Companion character - a Mickey Mouse-like figure with crosses for eyes and crossbones sticking out of its head, this time lying on its back and hugging a miniature version of itself.

Singapore is the seventh stop in the Kaws:Holiday tour, which since 2018 has gone to Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, the United Kingdom and even outer space, where the Companion was sent out on a sounding balloon before returning to Earth.

The showcase, open to the public for a week from Sunday (Nov 14) to Nov 21, is organised by the artist's long-time collaborator, the Hong Kong-based creative studio AllRightsReserved, and supported by the Singapore Tourism Board.

Kaws, whose real name is Brian Donnelly, 47, is known for his toys, sculptures and paintings. He has collaborated with brands like Uniqlo and Nike's Air Jordan, done album cover art for rapper Ye, previously known as Kanye West, and redesigned the Moonman trophy for the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.

He has more than 3.6 million followers on Instagram, and American singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams and RM of South Korean boy band BTS are just some of the celebrities who have collected his work. This year, The Guardian dubbed him "one of the most unfamous famous artists around".

The pop artist tells The Straits Times in a video call: "You can picture the platform as a giant towel or something, that he's lying on. In the first Holiday project (on Seoul's Seokchon Lake), the figure was reclining in water looking straight up. I was trying to think of the most relaxed situation I could possibly be in and I imagined swimming and just staring up into the sky.

"We want to create these spaces for people to come and enjoy."

Kaws visited Singapore to launch the work, his second long-distance trip since the pandemic.

"In 2019 I think I was on a plane every month, going to a different country. And then it went completely silent and I stayed at home.

"That's fine too. I have two young children and got to spend a lot of time with them. You get to recharge and think about things."

Donnelly, who was born in New Jersey and has a fine arts degree in illustration, came up with the name Kaws when he was doing graffiti on the streets of New York - he had found a way to unlock the casings of advertisements in bus shelters- and felt the letters worked well together. The Companion character was born in the late 1990s.

"At that time, I'd been painting over advertisements a lot, doing different work on the street, and I kind of approached toy creation in the same sort of way. Companion came about, and I thought it would be something I'd make, and move on, but over time it just kept recurring in my work."


Kaws' Companion character is a Mickey Mouse-like figure with crosses for eyes and crossbones sticking out of its head. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN, BENJAMIN SEETOR



The Companion showcase on The Float @ Marina Bay is open to the public from Nov 14 to Nov 21, 2021. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

He speaks fondly of the character, which "kind of became almost like a sibling".

"I use it as sort of a muse to communicate different ideas I have, different feelings or observations. It just sort of became this vehicle for me to create ideas and put them into the world," says the artist, who in the mid-2000s, before he had any gallery representation, opened a store in Tokyo called OriginalFake. It has since closed.

Donnelly, whose work has been variously labelled as "fine art" and "commercial", has not always been viewed kindly by the institutions and critics within the "serious" art world. In 2019, The Art Newspaper published a article dismissing Kaws and his work's "sheer conceptual bankruptcy". He laughs when this is brought up.

"I think maybe those writers are bankrupt. I'm not accountable for them. If that's how they want to represent themselves in print, that's totally fine. I'll still continue to make the work that I make."

One thing is clear: the people have been paying attention. In 2017, when New York's Museum of Modern Art released limited supplies of the Kaws Companion action figure, the surge in traffic caused its design store website to crash.

In 2019, his 2005 painting The Kaws Album sold at a Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong for a record HK$115.9 million (S$20 million) - almost 15 times the estimated price.

The piece, which had been commissioned by Japanese streetwear icon Nigo, is a parody of The Yellow Album by The Simpsons, who appropriated the cover of The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Donnelly in turn replaced The Simpsons with his signature characters, calling them the "Kimpsons".


The Kaws Album is a parody of The Yellow Album by The Simpsons PHOTO: SOTHEBY'S

He knows who the mystery buyer was - "they sent me a text two minutes after", he says - but cannot reveal their identity.

Was the person, as some have speculated, pop star Justin Bieber?

"No, that's just something silly someone wrote, and someone else rewrote it. I guess that's how media works. But I can confirm 100 per cent that it wasn't him."

He laughs again. "Sorry, did I crush anything for you?"


Kaws, whose real name is Brian Donnelly, was born in New Jersey and has a fine arts degree in illustration. PHOTO: AFP

Donnelly, some people might be surprised to learn, did not get a cent from the sale - visual artists generally do not receive resale royalties from their works.

"One of the funniest parts about that auction was I'd get all these texts congratulating me, but I don't think people realise that the artists receive zero per cent of that."

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs), the latest catchword in the art world, offer the possibility for artists to get a cut of the resale proceeds.

But while Donnelly has been following the phenomenon with interest, he has not dabbled in NFTs, which serve as unique digital certificates of authenticity that can be linked to assets such as digital art.

"I feel already beyond fortunate being able to make and sell my work. It doesn't bother me that it gets sold afterwards to somebody else," he says. "I find (NFTs) very fascinating, but there hasn't been a thing that's made me want to take part."

Donnelly is based in Brooklyn and has a staff of eight - a full-time painter, a part-time one, administrative staff and assistants for his design projects.

He turns down the vast majority of the numerous offers he receives, but one recent project he said yes to was a collaboration with Reese's Puffs cereal, which involves two different designs of the cereal box and augmented reality (AR) gaming experiences.

"I grew up looking at cereal boxes, being really interested in that graphic world and I just wanted to exist within it. That's why I did the project. It's fun to think that suddenly there's a few million (of the cereal boxes), all across the US. I imagine somebody who just has five dollars walking into a shop and suddenly having a work."

Donnelly also collects art, including works by Chicago imagists such as Karl Wirsum, Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson, and has previously listed artists like Swedish-born American sculptor Claes Oldenburg among his influences.

But he adds that the people who left an impression on him also extend well beyond the visual arts realm, ranging from Nigo to James Jebbia, founder of skateboarding shop and clothing brand Supreme New York.

"You look at different people and the paths they create for themselves."

Donnelly, who flies back to America this weekend, last year collaborated with virtual and augmented reality production house Acute Art to make virtual versions of his works available on an app.

Currently, he has several other projects on his radar - a 20-year survey of his print projects with Atlanta's High Museum of Art and "another institutional thing" taking place in January he says he cannot talk about yet.


Kaws visited Singapore to launch the inflatable Companion artwork, his second long-distance trip since the pandemic. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN, BENJAMIN SEETOR


The showcase is organised by Kaws' long-time collaborator, the Hong Kong-based creative studio AllRightsReserved, and supported by the Singapore Tourism Board. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN, BENJAMIN SEETOR

Love him or hate him, Donnelly intends to keep going.

In 2019, after the Sotheby's auction that sold the Kaws album, he posted on Instagram: "Do I think my work should sell for this much? No.

"Did I arrive at my studio this morning the same time I always do? Yes."

He tells ST: "I really try to be honest with myself about the work I want to make and the work I want to see in the world, and focus on that, and if at one point it aligns with someone else's thinking, then that's a plus, and that's great.

"But if it doesn't, I'll continue to make it all the same."