FEATURE: Subverting pop culture

Taipei (The Nation/ANN) - Designed as far more than a place to shop, art makes its presence felt from floor to ceiling in the recently renovated Siam Centre. Visitors are greeted by two gigantic wooden horse sculptures by a group of Thai artists from the north while hovering above an entrance linking the mall to Siam Discovery is a commissioned reflective installation by Japanese artist Hirotoshi Sawada.

The first floor also has a pop-up room showcasing selected screen prints by pop icons Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein from the private collections of local art collectors.

Joining all these works at Siam Centre are two three-metre-high sculptures by American pop artist Brian Donnelly, who is better known by the name Kaws. "KAWS Accomplice 2010", a freaky pink bunny-like figure and "KAWS Companion (five years later) 2011" with his signature mark "X" over a wild character's eyes, will be installed at the entrance that connects to Siam Paragon's Parc Paragon and are just begging to be photographed and appreciated.

These two sculptures, which will stay in Bangkok for six months, are on loan from Taiwanese collector Joseph Chen who owns the J Chen gallery in Taipei.

"Kaws' work is simple but has great impact. It's defaced pop culture yet is easily identifiable because it plays with characters like Snoopy, Mickey Mouse and the Simpsons. Street artists always make art complicated, but you won't get tired of Kaws' works. That what I like about him," says Chen during an interview at his gallery in Taipei.

Kaws began his career as a graffiti artist in the 1990s by drawing over bus stop and phone booth advertisements. At the end of that decade, he began to design and produce limited edition vinyl toys that gradually became a hit with toy collectors. His talent was later recognised by the Japanese company Medicom Toy and together they launched the collaborative Original Fake brand in 2006 with a line of limited edition vinyl toys and clothing with Kaws' funky graphics.

"His products are instant hit among the trend setters in Urahara - a sub culture of Tokyo's Harajuku and the most influential sub culture of Japan. Galerie Perrotin in Hong Kong, which closely follows Urahara's trends, finally signed a contract to represent him in the international art scene and among top collectors. It hasn't taken him long to become famous globally as collectors pass on information about him and his works by word of mouth. People have come recognise him as an artist, not a street designer," says Chen, who has been collecting Kaws' limited edition toys for more than 15 years and displays some of them at his office in the gallery.

Kaws' creations are now widespread and he is recognised for his signature works that deconstruct popular cartoon characters like the Michelin Man and the Smurf in his original style. Many top designers want to work with him and he has participated in various collaborations with, amongst others, A Bathing Ape, Nike, and Comme des Garcons.

From vinyl toys and a clothing line, Kaws also extends his talent to creating paintings and blowing up some of his signature toy characters into gigantic sculptures, which are increasingly sought by art collectors.

"Kaws is a bit lazy. He doesn't create many works. But compared to other famous artists, his works are still cheap. A painting may cost US$100,000 while a sculpture goes for $200,000. However, it's very difficult to get his works and you have to be on a long waiting list. I wanted a colour painting by him and had to wait 18 months. Not many of his works are available for sale. You have to bid in an auction," says Chen who now owns three Kaws paintings and three sculptures.

To Chen, Kaws' path to fame writes a new chapter in art history, as it blurs the line between high and low art.

"Takashi Murakami, an internationally prolific contemporary Japanese artist, works in the 'high' art of painting and sculpture but ordinary people only started to know him when he did commercial media for fashion, merchandise and animation with his key anime figures. Kaws, on the other hand, made his start in street art and later become famous in high art. It's totally different and interesting," says Chen.

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