Brian Donnelly, more commonly known as KAWS, has become one of our culture’s most storied artists and designers. From his graffiti roots and re-appropriation of art in public spaces, the New-York based creative took a slow and calculated route towards his work. With increasingly large projects under his belt in a more mainstream realm, he has still maintained a notable degree of humbleness through it all. While most of his public image may be that of a serious individual, beneath it all lies a truly interesting and fun personality who has come to make his mark through painting, fashion and toys.
In his recent exhibition in Hong Kong titled “PassingThrough”, he unveiled a massive 5 meter version of his popular Companion character, as well as showing a collection of all-new artwork. As an artist first and foremost, we spoke with him regarding his artwork and the planning of the event, as well as interviewing a major cornerstone of the project, SK Lam of AllRightsReserved.
The “PassingThrough” exhibition will run until October 24th, 2010.
3 – 27 Canton Road
Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon
Interview: Eugene Kan
Photography: Edward Chiu
Interview with Brian Donnelly
How long ago did you start planning and working on the “PassingThrough” show?
I think we really started working on it about 4 or 5 months ago. We were talking before extensively but the real work of taking drawings and going into production was around then.
Was there a reason you picked the Companion sculpture in the particular sitting pose and having his face in his hands?
The Companion is one of my main characters that I like to do in many different ways. I thought with this being the first time I had an opportunity to do something on such a large scale it seemed right to use him. I don’t really think of him as a ‘proud’ character, so the face in the hands was a fitting pose. In our initial discussions I was told that the height was restricted to 5 meters, which I later found out was due to building restrictions. So having the sitting pose, it gives you the impression that the Companion is much larger.
Were the works of art displayed within the exhibition space created especially for the “PassingThrough” exhibition?
The Companion sculpture was the main focus for the show. The exhibition space was more for the toys as I figured the demographic would probably be a younger crowd. But for the cloud drawings, I don’t usually do them. But with the concept of “PassingThrough” and things happening momentarily, I thought it was an appropriate theme.
Seeing as this Companion is your largest work to date, was there a particular reason why you chose Hong Kong or why you felt it was a suitable location for this sort of project?
I think Hong Kong chose me. [laughs] It was the concept of SK (of AllRightsReserved) to put this project together. It just happened to be here in Hong Kong and I think it’s a perfect fit. My first trip to Hong Kong was in the late 90s and it was around the same time as the development of the Companion character.
The whole concept of “PassingThrough” is to present art in an easily accessible format for the public. A way to share it with everybody you could say. What sort of satisfaction do you get knowing your art will be seen by a greater audience rather than say your work only hanging in somebody’s home?
There’s way more satisfaction knowing I’ll reach people in a way similar to my beginnings as an artist. 99% of the people seeing the sculpture will probably do so randomly rather than deliberately coming to check it out. I think that’s the best way of communicating and hopefully I can reach out to others to explore my other work.
If you go further, do you find a different feeling when creating both authorized/commissioned works such as this project versus random art you did in the past such as switching up posters in bus shelters?
Fundamentally it’s the same. But working with SK, they didn’t put up any real restrictions on my work. They allowed me to make the work I wanted to make. But looking back at the advertisements, it was roughly in a similar manner of trying to show my work, I just wasn’t given an invitation such as this.
Are there things you miss doing now that you simply can’t engage in based on your profile and popularity?
Absolutely, for me to do posters or put up advertisements they would be stolen and put up on eBay in a minute. The reason I did that in the past was for communication and reaching people. But now that it’s gone, other opportunities have filled its place.
When you approach your art many of them begin as two-dimensional works before making its way into three-dimensional piece. Is that the ultimate goal for your work?
No, I don’t think that’s true. It just depends on what you see. A lot of things that get reported on blogs are toys and have a commercial aspect to them. People looking at those platforms are sometimes looking to buy. I make a lot more paintings than I do toys so that tends to be the final medium.
Do you find that certain concepts are better suited for flat, 2-dimensional pieces?
Yea probably about 90% of my paintings I would say are suited for that, for example the wall I did at The Aldrich. Some things I see and I think about form but others I think about just that flat space.
Are there any other creative platforms you’d like to explore?
No, I’m content with what I’m doing. I feel like I’m just scratching the surface of painting and sculpture. One of my main interests with art when I was younger was that it wasn’t something that you could ever finish and master. You could be an 80 year old dude feeling like you haven’t done a fucking thing.
How do you balance out everything that falls under the KAWS name without earning the title of “sell-out”?
I know I can’t go out and please everybody. I go out and pick projects that fulfill me and fulfill my goals as an artist. If I don’t follow those rules, then I feel lost. I can’t go out thinking “oh that project may make some people unhappy.” I’ve seen people get in to and out of the work, I’m the only person that lives with the work.
What’s the goal of your work then?
Looking at your work, how much of the concept or theme is superficial and seen immediately? How much of it is seen within deeper layers?
I would say a lot of the work I do is a reflection of where I’m at in a certain point in time, or how I’m feeling. I can look back and see where I was at in a certain point in time. For me it’s highly personal and I don’t expect to translate visually. But I hope that my work has a visceral feeling that evokes emotion.
Who are some artists over the years that have come to inspire you?
Tons, I look at so many different painters from classical to contemporary. Artists such as Peter Saul and H.C. Westermann. I definitely think Jeff Koons is fucking raising the bar more than any artist right now based on his production and the quality of the work he puts out.
If we look at OriginalFake as a brand, how much of it is your personal input versus being an extension of what you represent?
I definitely think that OriginalFake is another extension and outlet for me. As for designing the clothes, cuts and shape, (Tomohiro) Konno of NEXUSVII takes care of most of that. We talk about what kind of stuff we want to put out. It’s definitely a collaborative effort.
Interview with SK Lam
What was your role within the whole project and how did it begin?
SK: I’m the Creative Director of AllRightsReserved. A few years ago we did an artist project with Harbour City. It was a successful project so fast forward to the present, they wanted us to put together another project. We were thinking who would be an appropriate artist this time around. Having met Brian, we felt he was a good fit.
What are your thoughts on KAWS and how is he generally received amongst the Hong Kong public?
SK: I’ve collected a lot of his work, from the Bounty Hunter Toy to a previously released book and I was impressed with his work. His art and visual work has been extremely well-received in Hong Kong.
KAWS: We also did a charity project for Harbour City back in 2009.
SK: Yes, on a recycled bag and the response was really great.
All along, was it planned to have a massive Companion outside to greet shoppers as they entered?
SK: Yes we wanted something big. But of course if Brian wanted to do something different we would have considered it as well.
KAWS: That’s not true, I wanted to put a giant sculpture of my head outside (similar to sculptures seen at KAWS’ exhibition at the Gering & López Gallery in 2008). I was just kidding, but I wanted to do a sculpture of a similar height just lying on its side. If you said yes I would have been like ‘oh shit’ and I would have done it. [laughs]
SK: I remember Edison (Chen) mentioned you wanted to do a giant poo (Warm Regards). And I was thinking to myself… ‘He wants to put THAT there?’ [laughs]
KAWS: I’m pretty sure I was just messing with him too. [laughs]
Logistically, how did you guys organize everything from producing it, to transporting and building it? How much does it weigh?
SK: The most important aspect was understanding this was Brian’s work and to get it right. For a sculpture of that size it’s not easy to make it accurate and scalable. That was the biggest challenge. The sitting pose of the Companion was difficult since there was no previous example to go by. We originally made a 1 meter tall version to figure out how the parts would be put together and removed since we couldn’t make a one piece 5 meter sculpture. We also had Brian come up to the factory for one day to ensure everything was up to spec. The sculpture took three times longer than usual since after the sanding process we had to apply fiberglass to it rather than go the route of molding it.
As I touched upon, one of the underlying themes behind the exhibition was to bring art on a more accessible level. As I see it Hong Kong needs more of these ventures. More often than not due to barriers such as high rent, you’re left bringing in really commercial work, do you think Hong Kong needs more of these initiatives?
SK: In general, we have a demand for the general population wanting more art projects. But as you mentioned the rent is expensive. This makes the exhibition so much more meaningful. There are no costs to viewing the show and it’s something we’d like to continue on with. Our goal is to how to overcome these difficulties. If you only worry about the difficulties, you’ll never move forward. There were some issues that we had to rectify as well on our end for “PassingThrough” but overall the project turned out just as we had hoped.