Ordered to close on Saturday, the giant sculpture Companion is now viewable, up close
It is a sunny day, unlike most of the past two weeks. The sky is adequately clear, with wispy swirling clouds overwhelming the shy blue and the reserved sun. Way below, on the rectangular grass platform that is The Float @ Marina Bay, a very still KAWS sculpture, Companion, holding a smaller version himself, is lying on his back, seemingly enjoying the happy heavens. He and his charge are sun-bathing, taking up a substantial space on which the National Day parade is often staged, surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate on our island. Whether he knows what has happened these past four days, he isn’t letting on. The drama that unfolded last Saturday has ended, for now. The gloom cast over the anthropomorphic inflatable has lifted. The sunshine is a heavenly thumbs up.
Lying there for anyone who cares to see him IRL, Companion the colossus has brought the company of a rather curious case of alleged “breach of intellectual intellectual property rights and misuse of confidential information”. Last Saturday, during the unveiling and preview to special guests, the exhibition, officially named KAWS:Holiday Singapore, had to close. The organiser of the event AllRightsReserve (ARR), a Hong Kong company (described as a “creative studio” on their website), was served with a court order to immediately suspend the by-then-hyped-to-the-max solo exhibition of the artwork. According to a CNA report that afternoon, “an interim injunction” that Singaporean arts promoter The Ryan Foundation (TRF), applied for was granted in time. “It orders that the exhibition stop taking place, as it is in breach of the foundation’s intellectual property rights and confidentiality”. It was all rather vague, which unsurprisingly led to online speculations, as many waiting to go were disappointed that it would be a missed opportunity.
The timing of the injunction, for many, was rather odd. Some even thought it rather impertinent. Why on our scorched earth choose the launch day? The dramatic potential could not be dismissed. When it was revealed that there was an earlier failed negotiation that began in 2019 between ARR and TRF to bring KAWS:Holiday here, some suggested that the halting of the display was a “revenge” move, beautifully planned to gain maximum exposure. Did ARR do something sneaky to TRF, even if the former partnered with the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to let Companion lie here in the sun for eight days? Was it payback time? Or, as many Netizens suggest, “a case of sour grapes”? One of the earliest to report on the halt was South China Morning Post (SCMP). It stated that “a large group of VIPs in Singapore were attending the official unveiling… but at 4.30, a court injunction ordering both the immediate suspension of the artwork’s display and the accompanying sale of merchandise was delivered to the event’s Hong Kong organisers” at the very site. In attendance was the American artist of the sculpture Brian Donnelly. SCMP added, “all this attention would be enough to give any public artwork an inflated sense of its own importance”.
And attention was inevitably cast on The Ryan Foundation too. Until then, few outside the business of art have heard of the non-profit. “Similai?” was repeatedly posed on social media. A YouTube video of a CNA interview of its founder Ryan Su started circulating. In a follow-up report yesterday, CNA wrote that TRF promotes “arts awareness in Singapore”, and that it was established nine years ago by Mr Su, “a lawyer and prominent art collector, who had studied Art Law in the UK. Mr Su is known for his art exhibitions” and, according to online publication High Net Worth (HNW), “no one holds an art exhibition like Ryan Su”. It began with 2016’s Andy Warhol: Social Circles at the Gillman Barracks, which reportedly saw over 2,000 visitors on opening night. The last exhibition in 2019, Unhomed Belongings, featured the works of American actress Lucy Liu and Singaporean artist Shubigi Rao. Mr Su was bestowed Patron of the Arts Award in 2017 by the National Arts Council. Two years later, he sat on the Asian Art Circle of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York.
On TRF’s birth in 2012, Mr Su told HNA, “I started it as a joke. I said, let’s donate $10 to something and just call it The Ryan Foundation, instead of all the art in the warehouse. We weren’t serious”. “We” include partner Adrian Chan, who is also the director of TRF. The “joke” turned into an entity that contributed noticeably to the art calendar of our city. But, following the stunning injunction, stories emerged of the unconventional working methods of the foundation, even as far as Kuala Lumpur, where the Andy Warhol exhibition travelled to after its SG debut eight months later. Those with less than desirable experiences with TRF are saying how not surprised they are by the way things turned out for the exhibition on The Float. Which makes the KAWS:Holiday stop here more notable since the travelling display has been to at least five other countries prior, without a hitch.
In an introduction on the Court for Arbitration website, Mr Su is described as “a mediator and arbitrator… a specialist in disputes involving galleries, artists, dealers, exhibitions… (in a list of more than 30 items)”. Curiosity was piqued: why did he not apply his many skills to his dealings with ARR? Was there no mediation before going to court? Yesterday, Mr Donnelly posted on Instagram Stories, “Ryan Su talk to us! Why did you do this lame action?” In a statement quoted by the media here, TRF said that the interim injunction was a “temporary court remedy”. What it was remedying, it did not say. But, according to Mr Chan, the spotlight isn’t just on TRF, it is also on the community of the self-employed. “This long case that will be fought for all freelancers and creatives whose ideas and pitches and work has been stolen or used without authorisation,” he maintained. It is not clear how long TRF intended to go with the matter. But, as announced yesterday evening, a court has lifted the injunction and TRF was ordered to pay the legal costs.
With KAWS:Holiday Singapore now allowed to open, ARR has said in a statement to the media: “The court further ordered that there will also be an inquiry into the damages sustained by AllRightsReserved by reason of the injunction.” It appears that we may not have heard the end of the case. ARR added that “When our exhibition at The Float @ Marina Bay was forced to shut its doors, we felt wronged and frustrated… This is not what our company, or the world, would like to see.” While the decision to halt the access of the display is reversed, some observers wondered how the entire episode involving an exhibition that has garnered international publicity would impact our city as a venue for large-scale installations or, indeed, any promotion of the arts, or the arts awareness that TRF is keen to advocate. Who, in the end, really gains?
Ironically, the news has aroused tremendous public interest in the project. It is an hour before the 2pm opening. Many passers-by and cyclists are converging on the Raffles Avenue side of The Float, taking snapshots of the companionable 42-metre long installation, as well as wefies with the inanimate object. According to AccuWeather, the temperature is 32℃ and humidity 95%. There is no breeze. It would take some fortitude to bear with the searing heat. Yet, behind the barrier that surrounds one side of The Float, under no shelter nor shade, the KAWS sculpture has lured the young and the old, locals and foreigners, fans (at least two wearing the KAWS X Uniqlo tee) and the simply-there. The gathering seems to meet what Mr Connelly had hoped for: “to give more people access to art” and to allow the installation to be “a door to inclusiveness”. Across the sea, on the Helix bridge, a man has set a drone, ready to take an areal view of the exhibit. The small flying machine eventually takes off, its small body soon becomes too tiny to see from a distance. But Companion and his small self, held close to the bosom of the larger are totally visible and occupy a large part of the platform. Amazing how a sole object can make you forget, for a moment, that The Float does, in fact, accommodate all the participants of the National Day parade.
KAWS:Holiday Singapore opens daily from 2pm to 9pm, until 21 November. Photos: Chin Boh Kay