How Do You Create Art In A Pandemic?
In 2003, design collective Phunk created an artwork post-9/11 and after the global severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic. Nearly two decades on, the group finds themselves in a strangely similar setting whilst updating this very artwork, entitled Control Chaos.
“It’s kind of surreal to think that fast forward from then to today, we’re doing this,” says Alvin Tan, one of the founding members of Phunk. “We did this work during the Sars (outbreak), and it survived 18 years till now. It’s like a cycle; and now that we’re doing this again, it just might survive till the next big thing that is going to hit us.”
Phunk, founded in 1994 by Tan and fellow creators Melvin Chee, Jackson Tan, and William Chan, is one of the most recognisable names in Singapore’s art and design scene. The internationally-acclaimed collective has collaborated extensively with international brands and artists such as Herman Miller, Nike, Rolls Royce Singapore, MTV, Levi’s, and The Rolling Stones.
As Phunk enters its 25th year, the strength of this collective still remains steadfast and strong. “We learned through our ups and downs, and we also had our pivotal moments where we argued,” says Tan. “But we’re also able to catch each other’s thoughts quite well. Before we speak, we can sort of pre-empt what the other person will say; thus we can also pre-empt how we work with each other in a harmonious sense.”
Besides launching an exhibition and an exclusive robot collection at The Artling in celebration of their 25th anniversary, the homegrown design collective has also released a monograph that offers an arresting insight into Phunk’s works over the years. Authored by Justin Zhuang, a local design writer and researcher, the book allows readers to gaze into Phunk’s perspective via their works and in-depth interviews.
The artistic monograph is divided into three main themes. The section Collective Consciousness explores the collective’s early days, while Criti-Cool lends insight to the collective’s perspective when it comes to the challenges of practising art and design in Singapore. The third and final section, Connecting Worlds, examines Phunk’s works with a global impact.
The book, titled Control Chaos: Redefining the Visual Cultures of Asia, obtained its namesake from the 2003 artwork. The pivotal artwork, which represents Phunk’s “history, ideology and experiences”, was first created as a silkscreen print for a New York gallery exhibition.
“I think for us, Control Chaos is probably not the most difficult or biggest piece that we’ve done in terms of size and technique,” Chan muses on the artwork. “I think it’s more significant because of how we started from there.”
In 2020, the collective set about updating the iconic artwork with modern-day context and inferences. The updated print reflects the spirit of current times through icons of Chinese mythology, heritage landmarks, social media, as well as political protests. Besides being available for viewing at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, Phunk has also brought the 2020 artwork to life through an animated digital version.
Here, Tan and Chan chat with us on their process when creating this artwork, as well as plans for the future.
At the end of the book, you mention events such as the dot-com crash, Sars, and 9/11. This strangely reflects our time now. Were there any similarities in terms of feelings, when you were creating the 2003 artwork compared to the 2020 artwork?
Alvin Tan (AT): In terms of nostalgia, no. In terms of emotions, yes. But this just teaches us that the world goes in circles, and history repeats itself. We can never fathom or predict what the future is going to hold, but we know that humans go through these cycles. We must adapt to it and make the best out of it.
William Chan (WC): We’ve been around for 25 years. I think one of the things that we always think about is relevancy—are we still relevant to the younger generation? In regards to this subject matter, we looked back at the last 25 years and realised we’re still relevant. What we talked about 25 years ago is still talked about now. So creating this artwork is almost like déjà vu. We look at it now in a reflective sort of way because of our age and slight differences, but in a way, it’s still sort of the same. Same but different.
We can never fathom or predict what the future is going to hold, but we know that humans go through these cycles. We must adapt to it and make the best out of it.
— Alvin Tan, co-founder of Phunk
Was it tough going back to the art style in this piece (Control Chaos)?
AT Funnily, it’s actually simplified; our current illustrative style is more complex. For us to think the way we used to as teenagers was in a sense tougher, but we still managed to get back to our (younger) mentality. The style (for this piece) is about injecting a sense of relevance and updating the work to its present moment in terms of everyday life.
WC The challenge for us was to re-create the exact same artwork. A lot of the technique that we worked with on silkscreen was to actually try to replicate the colour (in the 2003 version). That was tough, because the materials and papers that we used to use are different from now.
AT The first paper that we bought (to use in the 2003 artwork) is the normal cardboard that you often see people use to transport water and more. Because the second one (in 2020) is a museum piece, we had to buy certified restoration corrugation boards that we didn’t even know about until we took on the project. These corrugated boards are different from the normal ones. They’re acid-proof, weather-proof, and water-resistant, so the humidity level can be controlled. So, the new artwork is actually updated with that board itself. In terms of the artwork itself, the materials, conceptualisation, it’s just basically gone to a different level.
Do you have a preference between mediums?
AT We’re quite neutral to the mediums; I don’t think we have a preference for the medium we work with. I think collaborating with people on different mediums also helps us to learn more about the art itself. For example, our collaboration with Keiichi Tanaami. Some of the silkscreen work that we did with him was done with a master Japanese silkscreen artist, who’d also worked with legends like (Yayoi) Kusama and other Japanese greats alike. Collaborating with a master on the silkscreen process helped us understand the process and craft a lot better. It’s that kind of medium and collaboration that we appreciate a lot.
WC Mastering silkscreening is just as difficult as doing a good animation. Luckily, we have four people. Despite the fact that we’ve been doing work for Phunk in a similar art direction, we’ve developed different interests in different fields of mediums. We’ve done silkscreening, painting, 3D sculptures, animation, and more. Over time, we just develop (our skills) as it goes, and naturally applying it back to Phunk. As long as we’re interested, we’ll try it.
AT When it comes down to where it comes from, it’s usually about going back to basics—back to the aesthetic sense, the direction, and the creative thinking behind all the works that we do. So it doesn’t matter the medium that we use; usually, the thinking is more important, it comes out regardless of the medium.
WC Despite our age, the good thing about Phunk is that we still remain quite curious in terms of how we can express our work. Whilst displaying our work through silkscreen prints in a gallery or a museum, we always wondered: 'What if people don’t visit a gallery or museum? How can they see our work?' Therefore (creating an artwork) as an animation (shown) on a digital space or platform is another way for people to appreciate it.
This book reflects so many of your past works and projects. Is there a particular project that stands out?
WC Because there are four of us, I’m quite sure each of us has different favourite projects. But, I think one project that all of us that can sort of definitely agree on is Control Chaos. Even though it was done when we were much younger, it sort of encompasses the thinking, the approaches, and the narration that sets the direction of what Phunk is. Therefore, at 25 years, the book, the exhibitions, they’re all called Control Chaos.
Phunk has been a steadfast collective for 25 years, through thick and thin. Do you have any advice to share for young artists who are starting to work together as a group?
AT Individually, it’s very different for every collective. The general advice is to stick with each other long enough to ride it out if anything happens. If you’re a family, you’ve got nowhere to run, you just have to stick with it through everything that happens.
WC I realise that when we were younger, we would always think a lot further and higher than we were capable of doing. Our goals are actually very, very high. That sets all of us to keep on forgetting about the differences too much, and to instead keep on reaching for our goals. We’d always felt that back then, when we were younger, we had nothing to lose. We were always reaching for our goals; that is the one thing that has kept us going, even now.
AT We also keep our interests up by looking forward to something else that we’ve not done before, so it breaks the barrier of monotony and boredom for us. Maybe the keyword is that we don’t like to be bored; we’re always finding things to do.
WC To summarise, I guess for us you just have to do it and have nothing to lose.
AT So, going back to your previous question. When people ask us “what’s your favourite project?”, we’d always say “the next one”, because we usually like to be challenged or to do something different.
We’d always felt that back then, when we were younger, we had nothing to lose. We were always reaching for our goals; that is the one thing that kept us going, even now.
— William Chan, co-founder of Phunk
Moving forward, how do you feel about the next 25 years and what do you hope for years ahead?
WC I guess for us it’s really to see how we progress from what we are now. And how at our age, we can perform the work that we do, and to do something that’s not necessarily bigger or better, but something that keeps us curious. I think that’s the most important. It’s not about how big or spectacular it is; (we think about) how interesting it is for us to do it. Maybe for the next 25 years, the key is to just keep our interest going. Because at the end of the day, what drives us is our interest and our curiosity.
AT We have two favourite artists—one is Keiichi Tanaami, another is Milton Glaser, who designed the ‘I love New York’ logo, and who passed away recently. But the two of them, they’re masters in their own field. They have lived through life till they’re 80 and more, but they’re still honing their fields of work and challenging their own craft in very different senses—one in design and one in art. I think we probably will see ourselves that way. We’re quite old; getting older but still honing our craft, and hopefully, we embrace more of different kinds of techniques and push out further work in that sense.