Cover American artist Kaws in front of his monumental sculpture at The Float @ Marina Bay (Photo: Instagram / @aiksoon)

Singapore is the seventh stop on the American artist’s Kaws: Holiday tour, featuring a 42m-long sculpture of his signature Companion character at The Float at Marina Bay

There’s a new addition to Singapore’s iconic Marina Bay skyline: a 42m-long inflatable artwork of Kaws’s signature character, Companion, has made its much-anticipated appearance at The Float at Marina Bay, as part of the American artist’s Kaws: Holiday global tour.

The iconic character, based on Mickey Mouse, with its trademark crossed-out eyes and skull-and-crossbones head, has travelled around the world since 2018, from the Seokchon Lake in Seoul, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong to Mount Fuji in Japan, before it was last seen on a hot-air balloon flight in the English countryside in Bristol. Companion also made it to outer space in 2020 in celebration of its 20th anniversary.

This is the first-ever Kaws showcase in Singapore, featuring the character in a reclined position embracing a miniature version of itself. “I’ve always wanted to come to Singapore. I was talking to SK (Lam, longtime collaborator, and founder of Hong Kong-based creative studio, AllRightsReserved, which is the organiser and curator of Kaws:Holiday) and it seemed like such a great opportunity to have it in this location. It’s a great way to have an introduction to the city,” shares the artist, whose real name is Brian Donnelly.

In case you missed it: Kaws: Holiday in Singapore: Everything You Need to Know About the Ongoing Drama

But Kaws needs no introduction. He got his start as a street artist and has since become an influential figure in the contemporary art world, gaining international acclaim and commercial success, along with a diehard fanbase and huge social media following. Collaborations are also key to his artistic practice, from art, clothing to toys, with renowned brands the likes of Bape and Uniqlo.

His painting The Kaws Album, featuring The Simpsons characters on a mock-up Beatles album cover, sold for US$14.8 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. 

Kaws: Holiday Singapore is the last event at The Float at Marina Bay before it closes for redevelopment in March 2022. A series of limited-edition collectibles, including a 10.5-inch long Companion in brown, grey and black, is available only on the DDT Store.

We sit down with the artist, who is in town for the opening of Kaws: Holiday Singapore today, to talk about his first showcase here, and how he balances his art and limited-edition releases, with products or experiences that can be enjoyed by everyone.

The Companion has become one of your most iconic creations. How has its meaning changed or evolved for you in the past 20 years? What are some of the “new sides” we can expect from this character?

Kaws (K): For me, it always feels more of like a relationship, I don’t feel like it has changed at all. I mean, yes, the medium has changed, now there’s bronze, inflatable works, and the scale has changed. But I think when you’re young, that’s not all placed in front of you, you can’t just wake up and choose like, yes, I want to do a 30-foot wooden one; you have to kind of learn a lot and figure out how to get those pieces done. And once you make something, then you’ve gone through the cycle, and you kind of realise how you can build on it and explore other sort of executions of it. I use the Companion as sort of a way to communicate my observations, the things I see, the things I noticed, it could be the way somebody is sitting, and I feel like I bring these touches into the work.

For Kaws: Holiday Singapore, why did you decide to place the Companion in a reclined position, while embracing a miniature version of itself?

K: I don’t know if it’s hugging, or just kind of keeping it from falling off. It’s just relaxed, another form of relaxation. With Kaws: Holiday, I’m trying to project the idea of relaxation. And like the first one [in Seoul’s Seokchon Lake in 2018] sitting in the water where it’s just like lying down and looking upwards, in my mind, that’s one of the most relaxing things you can do when you’re swimming: to just stare at the sky. I feel, at this time, you need to put this type of energy into the world.

You are one of those artists in the contemporary art world who has received international acclaim, commercial success, a diehard fanbase and huge social media following. What is most important to you as an artist?

K: I think it’s just important to be honest with yourself. I make work that I want to make. I always think about when I was younger in my bedroom in Jersey City like how things enter my life. Was it a magazine? Was it a graphic on a skateboard? I feel like I’ll never outgrow those things, they always exist, I always want to communicate within those mediums. I think it’s important not to exclude or deprive somebody of having an art experience. I try to think of how to make work that’s inclusive, thinking about communities that I might not necessarily understand, like say, the gaming community. I’m not a big gamer, but I understand just because it’s not in front of me, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I want to learn about that and make work within that realm. And it’s the same thing with learning about augmented reality. At the same time, I really love doing exhibitions, or responding to spaces like museums. And so, I just approach it all on a sort of a level playing field and try to just do the stuff I want—and do good work within those spaces.

Any plans to do NFTs?

K: I know more information about it than I probably would ever need to, but there hasn’t been the pull for me to make something in that realm. I like the idea of things existing on blockchain and using it for authenticating works. I think it’s definitely not going away; it’s going to exist. But personally, I just haven’t creatively felt the drive to make it. It doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it; I do. It’s fun seeing everything that’s happening. But I don't know, I’m not going to do it just because there’s a lot of money.

Read more: Singapore’s First Large-Scale NFT Exhibition Featuring Andy Warhol and Beeple Kicks Off

You did two museum shows this year at the Brooklyn Museum in New York and Mori Art Center Gallery in Tokyo, following your last museum show at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne in 2019. What were the focus of these exhibitions?

K: These have all just been surveys, showing what I’ve been doing from early works to present. I feel like it’s a great way to be in a country and to really have a body of work where somebody can understand your trajectory.

It’s just that having the Brooklyn and the Mori exhibitions be two 25-year surveys that were overlapping and featuring completely different works was a task to pull together, but it’s great. It’s a different thing to have a show in your hometown. I live in Brooklyn, so to have something where the kids from the school that my kids go to can see it—I’ve never had that. That was special, but also having a show in Tokyo, a city which I have such a long relationship with. That show focused more on my relationships with people or companies in Tokyo.

The exhibition I opened last week in New York called Spoke Too Soon features all new paintings and new sculptures. A lot of times that happens in the gallery. With the museums that I’ve done shows with so far, it’s been their interest to sort of introduce me to an audience and contextualising my path, from graffiti to the works on the street, to paintings and sculptures and kind of how that kind of grew.

Collaborations are key to your artistic practice. Tell us about your most recent one with Reese’s Puffs.

K: I grew up looking at cereal box graphics, it’s just something you grew up with in America. You go to the grocery store, and you are suddenly hit with this wall of imagery. I’ve always loved that. So, for me, it was a great opportunity to work with General Mills. All the Reese’s Puffs in America will changed to my boxes for a certain period and changed back later. For a couple of dollars, which is how much cereal costs, my work will enter people’s houses. There are two boxes: one limited edition and one that’s mass; it’s like four or five million boxes. With a project like that, there are so many people who really don’t know anything about you; they might just be buying cereal and have your boxes as a consequence of that. It’s a great way to sort of exist in a room in a very unpretentious way.

You are active on Instagram. What do you love about connecting with your followers on social media?

K: We’re talking about the cat videos, right? (laughs). I don’t always want to be showing where I am and stuff like that. But when I’m doing a public project of this scale, there’s no point in not showing it. I love having social media as an outlet. And sometimes I use it to communicate projects I’m working on, and other times I just vent or share humour for my own sake, really. Sometimes I forget that a lot of people might see it.

Kaws: Holiday Singapore runs from November 13 to 21, from 2pm to 9pm, at The Float @ Marina Bay.