What a perfect title in Covid19 times …

Elizabeth Harris  |  Ed: Francesca Gransden  |  4 April 2020

KAWS Companion 2020 NVG in Melbourne
KAWS “Gone” (2020) at NGV entrance. © Courtesy of the artist and the Museum.

Swirling down from a bleak nothingness towards what looks like an architectural plan of the National Gallery of Victoria, the virtual visitors to the biggest KAWS’ exhibition in Australiafind themselves deposited at the feet of Gone.

Commissioned by the NGV for this exhibition, Gone is KAWS’ largest bronze piece to date, weighing in at 14 tonnes and standing seven meters tall. Even in a pixelated form, the immensity of the piece still overwhelms.

Like a Colossus of Rhodes for a more lonely, consumerist time, the piece shows one of KAWS’ ‘Companions’ – his iconic cartoonish characters identifiable by the crosses where their eyes should be – cast in black, holding the apparently deceased body of another Companion which looks eerily like Sesame Street’s Elmo. The sense of loss and absence is palpable even when you can only view the work digitally.

Forced by COVID-19 to move the exhibition online, the NGV has made Companionship in the Age of Loneliness – which is the largest retrospective of KAWS’ work so far – publicly accessible on its website.

KAWS “Exhibition Tour” with curator Dr Simon Maidment. © Courtesy of the artist.

Entering the display space with a click of a mouse, you can journey through KAWS’ career: from the fashion advertisements he took from bus shelter advertisement shells and modified in the 1990s, to his larger than life, half-dissected Companion (Resting Place) created in 2013.

But perhaps the more notable shift in this exhibition is not from refashioning DKNY posters to casting monumental sculptures, but that from physical intervention to digital visualisation. Street art is the physical manifestation of a desire to make a mark on the world.

The street artist becomes part of the social landscape, and therefore the social imagination. Saying ‘I was here’ in this way is a longstanding human impulse – at Pompeii you can still see graffiti reading ‘Gaius Pumidius Diphilus was here’ and one of KAWS’ first tags is still visible on a wall near Saint Anthony High School in Jersey City.

KAWS © Courtesy of the artist

Although KAWS’ work has shifted away from graffiti art to playing with consumer culture, his interest in street art is evidenced in the artist’s collaboration with Acute Art.

The platform – which is a self-described purveyor of ‘art that lives in three dimensions and none’ – has collaborated with the likes of Cao Fei, Jeff Koons, and Marina Abramović to use virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed realities to transport art from the white box to the streets.

Using Acute Art, you can place KAWS’ Companions wherever you are, or see them transported into unlikely locations around the world. Digitally embedding the sculptures into our world in perhaps a more lasting way than traditional graffiti (even Pompeii was buried in ash for nearly two millennia), you can proclaim ‘It’s not just that I was here, I am here’. Indeed, you could venture that these floating, monolithic companions are just as much a manifestation of street art as any of KAWS’ early works – it is art placed at the volition of the artist or user in a public place, leaving an indelible mark. Although the user may lack the renegade character of the underground graffiti artist, their desire to interact with the imaginative landscape of the physical world they live in is the same.

Although both the NGV exhibition and Acute Art were operating long before COVID-19 caused the art world to move online, both experiences are highly adaptable to socially distant enjoyment. Like many other institutions around the world, the willingness of the NGV to move a paid exhibition online for free access is another brick to the wall of solidarity for the public during the lockdown.

KAWS illustration of the AR app by Acute Art (2020). © Courtesy of Acute Art.

Although the irony of viewing street art when the streets are empty is obvious, it is understandable that we want to continue to interact with public spaces. It may have been easier for the NGV to curate a slideshow of the exhibition, but the fact that they created a virtual exhibition, one which allows us to move through the space, to view pieces in the round and in their curated context, underlines the fundamental importance of viewing art in a physical environment.

Acute Art’s project is similar in the sense that it transports digital art into a quasi-physical environment. KAWS’ Companions and broader oeuvre engage deeply with the sense of alienation many feel in the modern world – despite the fact we are saturated with shared (consumerist) experiences, isolation from a deep connection is real. We may not be able to physically be together but placing a Companion on Acute Art offers the opportunity to have (as the name suggests) companionship.

You can access KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness online until 13 April 2020, and access to a floating 45cm Companion is free of charge on the Acute Art app until 15 April 2020.

One of the reasons why KAWS’ Companions draw the eye is that they are so immediately recognisable as engaging with visual tropes from popular childhood culture – Mickey Mouse ears, Muppet fur – but their crossed eyes knock them slightly off kilter. Much like our world at the moment, they are familiar but slightly different. But that difference is what engages us, which might be a thought worth holding onto in these strange times.

About the Artist

KAWS is a multi-faceted artist straddling the worlds of art and design in his prolific body of work that ranges from paintings, murals, and large-scale sculptures to product design and toy-making. His iconic “XX” signature has its roots in the beginning of his career as a street artist in the 1990s, when he began altering found advertisements by incorporating his own masterful paintings. Evoking the sensibilities of Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, KAWS possesses a sophisticated humor and thoughtful interplay with consumer products and collaborations with global brands. He often draws inspiration and appropriates from popular culture animations to form a unique artistic vocabulary and influential cast of hybrid cartoon and human characters.

  • Exhibition: KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness

  • Date: 20.09.19 – 13.04.20

  • Location: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and online

  • Curator: Dr Simon Maidment

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