Toys in the Freeport

The mysterious forces ensuring art-world serendipity have not dropped the ball this pandemic. Just as I arrived in beautiful Bangkok, with its strong tradition of satreet art, I found an article on the artist KAWS in the New York Times. It would be sixteen days before I was allowed onto the actual street, so I had some time to think on it.

The gist of the article is that KAWS, who got his start as a street artist, has been very successful and yet still has not been accepted in the serious Art World: none other than Gagosian is rumored to harbor personal disdain for KAWS collectors, a group that is said to include a lot of musicians and media personalities. The author strongly implies that the Art World is right, KAWS is unserious, and selling toys is a way of self-selecting for Juxtapoz instead of ArtForum.

But here’s the thing: Takashi Murakami also sells toys, and KAWS also went to a fancy Art School. I happen to think Murakami’s factory makes more interesting stuff than KAWS’s factory, but it’s also the more brazenly commercial of the two, and the depth of the work itself is not the subject of the Times article.

A year ago, just as the strange new plague was creeping across Europe, I attended two simultaneous art fairs in Madrid: ARCO and Urvanity. While there was plenty of overlap in the crowd and a bit in the art as well, it would be fair to say ARCO was from Planet Gagosian – massive, rich, conservative, establishment – while Urvanity was from Planet KAWS: somewhat younger, in-your-face, irreverent, a bit disorganized.

Both fairs were fascinating, both had really great art, and while you’d need ARCO to buy works for over a million Euros, you’d be surprised how much both fairs had to offer in the four-to-five figure range.

I probably don’t have to tell you which fair was more fun. Which one had more energy. Some of that was down to the venue, with ARCO out at the edge of town in a massive, soulless exhibition space that would just as happily showcase the latest contenadores for INMEX while Urvanity was, well, urban.

It was almost like a parallel universe, but not really. With a little repackaging, 90% of the Urvanity art would have felt right at home in ARCO. In the other direction, I’ll generously say 20%. I’m sure most of the artists at Urvanity would love to have the acclaim, and the cash, that comes with the highbrow, big-ticket scene. But my overwhelming impression was that they and their gallerists and their collectors and the viewing public were just fine with Urvanity instead of ARCO: the living downtown instead of a temporary boxy dystopia; with enough money, and a whole lot more fun.

This, I think, is where the Art World experiences a certain disconnect about so-called “urban” contemporary art. Street Art isn’t about doomed romantic Basquiat figures anymore; and your toy is someone else’s collectible is my multiple is yet another person’s start in the wonderful world of art collecting.

I really don’t think the people who collect KAWS do it because of some complex identification with his outsider-insider status, nor because of the Kardashians. They do it because they don’t need anyone’s permission to collect what they want. The force is strong with Larry Gagosian, but I’m not sure Jay-Z cares.

There is certainly a conversation, perhaps an argument to be had about the place of any artist in the culture, in the museums, in history. Commercial galleries are an important, if largely feudalist part of that.

Increasingly, and especially outside the bubble of New York, this conversation includes free and autonomous street art; artists showing on Instagram; and alternative modes of production ranging from the risograph to the 3-D printer to, yes, the toy fab.

The Singapore Freeport arguably houses one of the greatest art collections in the world, or rather several. We’ll never know exactly, and that’s the point. But I guarantee it’s got a few monumental Murakamis hiding in its climate-controlled, tax-free vaults. Does it also have a Companion patiently watching the wall, waiting for a well-off garagista to pull a card-key from her Murakami bag and let in the salt air? Will the Companion be led out and allowed to mingle with the other artworks on the superyacht? Or will she blow it a kiss and close the thick steel door until the critics catch up to the market?

Here, have a drawing!

An Artist to Watch

This week’s linked artist is SHOK–1, whom I shall dub The Artist with the X-Ray Eyes.

I just discovered him a few days ago: serendipitous Bangkok! It turns out Goldie – yes, that Goldie – has a gallery here, appropriately called Aurum, and SHOK–1 is one of the featured artists.

His work is fun, interesting, and on a technical level sort of freaking insane.

I don’t own any SHOK–1 pieces yet, but I have a feeling I will before too long. For any child, or for that matter student, of the 80’s it’s borderline irresistible.

Check out his Insta, his online store and his Aurum bio.


Another show I saw in Madrid: Drawing Room, a charming house-sized exhibition of works on paper, mostly but not entirely drawings. This kind of thing is a perfect starting point if you are interested in collecting art.

Fairness requires me to point that ARCO is plenty disorganized in its own way. They had no coat check! In winter. In Madrid. As you enter a massive hall full of expensive and fragile art on display. As you queue up in the teeny tiny wine bar with fifty other collectors. No effing coat check!

Which reminds me that as late as December 2020, Barajas airport had no hand-sanitizer dispensers. None at the gate, none by the food stalls, none by the bathrooms. Zero. Madrid is wonderful, but the higher up the ladder of wealth you climb the less it gives a shit.