Urban artists in Singapore like ZERO are sought after by advertising companies whose intentions are to speak the lingo of a younger consumer market. The moral dilemma behind what is relatively known to have started on the streets to becoming a recognized trend in the mainstream market leave different impressions. On one hand, the success of what is still considered an illegal act in Singapore is contained and utilized on a larger platform and participating in capitalist markets forms a loose affirmation that graffiti artists can go commercial and actually earn money from their craft. While another group would condemn the decisions made by graffiti artists to take up freelance assignments with corporate brands whose intentions are to monopolize the youth markets and well, make young people spend exorbitantly. These graffiti artists then change their style to become an ‘urban artist’ instead, in order to reflect the works they make that engage multiple stakeholders (corporations, governments etc.). With this, they leave the realm of street art/graffiti whose identity they know of but do not want to insult now that their ideologies have changed.
ZERO is a Singaporean whose real name is Zul and he’s been a street artist for a long time. His second solo show, The Spectacular Spectacular, which launched this week at The Substation in Singapore, is displayed complete with a red carpet, blinking lights and famous retail brands like Nike and Nokia. On one side of the space, he sets up a makeshift shop selling limited edition t-shirts silkscreened with the icon he has used in all of his canvas works. Basically, ZERO wants to make use of the idea of branding. When asked about the icon which appears often in his canvas works, ZERO talks about how this icon is deliberately designed in such a way to appear tired and detached from its surroundings. This amorphous icon is an illustrated projection perhaps many can relate to because it is the quintessential person you would meet who is weary and exude a care-less attitude, but naive of the negative impact of his or her choices.
The theme of detachment resonates in ZERO’s practice and with his first solo show. This similar theme has carried over from is previous exhibition. The first solo show he’s held at Wheelock Gallery which was on Scotts Road, a bustling commercial district in Singapore popular for brand shopping, was performative and process based. Here he’s painted five murals in a public open space where members of the public can watch and follow the progress of each mural. From the start, it looks normal, however the artist paints over each mural with white paint as soon as it is completed, leaving many puzzled and almost agitated with the transience of the image on the murals further disturbing the visual display. To the amazement of many, ZERO was asked why he painted over a finished mural with white paint, “I tried to relate to them the ephemeral nature of the kind of art that I did while trying to relate it to the nature of materialism where the process of buying and consuming at such a rapid pace leaves no space for attachment, be it personal or emotional.”
Topics of consumerism like ZERO’s latest show is not uncommon in developed countries. Singapore exemplifies a capitalist (and often smugly indifferent to cultural values) modernity through the use of English as a first language while other languages like Tamil, Malay and Mandarin are tagged as the republic’s national languages. A multicultural potpourri of Hollywood movies, Japanese themed shops, F1 race contests and constant drive to attain international attention through the Youth Olympic Games, the prosperous country marks a distinct and cosmopolitan urban experience of consumption. The government’s official rhetoric which one can feel flipping through the pages of state-owner national newspaper, The Straits Times, is anchored in economic rationality which have come to embody and narrate national culture. As a nation whose globalism is eminent in neighboring Asian states, the nation’s politicians reiterate the 5 Cs – cash, car, condominium, credit card and country club – as the main pursuits for a fulfilling life. It is not totally off-putting for ZERO’s work to talk about branding and material culture condescendingly with a handful of salt. The critic of consumerism that leads to consumer disempowerment in this show could be fleshed out more. There is only a small few in Singapore’s art scene who examine critical topics unique to Singapore, for example, freedom of speech. In 1987, 22 young professionals were detained under the Internal Security Act by the government and labeled ‘Marxist’. They were condemned to detention without proper trial and subjected to physical as well as verbal abuse. Could artists like ZERO talk about these things that would capture the attention of local Singaporeans and also speak to an international audience who most likely know Singapore just as a cosmopolitan city, possibility of profit-making ventures or the Singapore Sling?
In 1966, the Parliament of Singapore introduced the Vandalism Act statute. The Act dictates a fine or jail term for individuals found to have damaged public and private property as well as a mandatory corporal punishment of between three to eight strokes of the cane for persons who are convicted in subsequent times.
Originally passed to curb the spread of communist graffiti conveying anti-government rhetoric, the Act made worldwide news when a young American student, Michael P. Fay was charged and caned for pleading guilty to vandalizing cars in addition to stealing road signs. Similarly, Swiss national Oliver Fricker and British national Llyod Dane Alexander broke into the local subway depot to leave their marks on a train carriage. Unlike Alexander who left Singapore after the midnight heist, Fricker was caught in Singapore and slapped with a five-month jail term as well as three strokes of the cane.
Of course not everything seems doomed and gloom, tourists who visit Haji Lane on Arab Street (popular with Western tourists) would notice the number of street art left behind by graffiti artists. However this only brings about questions of control and demarcation of spaces where street art is ‘allowed’ which makes street art then look acceptable when the craft itself was started as a way of speaking on social injustices.