In graffiti artist Zul Othman’s (aka ZERO) latest solo exhibition of works entitled ‘Anthology of the Abysmal’, the linchpin of the street art scene has changed gears somewhat after 10 years.
Rather than making a statement about current affairs and issues plaguing society, his usual subject matter, the NAFA and Lasalle College of the Arts graduate has turned the looking glass on himself.
The series of paintings delves into his emotional being and makes use of traditional graffiti mediums such as stencils and aerosol paints.
In conjunction with the exhibition, ZERO has decided to make a bold statement about the street art debate – which has been fuelled by SKL0’s court hearing in recent months – by tagging Chan Hampe Gallerie’s showcase window.
InSing had a chat with the artist about the impact of his latest works and his stand on the state of street art in Singapore.
What aspects of yourself have you examined in ‘Anthology of the Abysmal’?
Being an artist, a father, a son, a brother, a lover, and all the expectations others and I have of me. Weaknesses and strengths collide within the visual language; irony and contradictions abound in plain sight. It is me in my most forgiving state, confessing to myself.
What would you like visitors to keep in mind while viewing the paintings?
Though we have different experiences, the emotions we go through actually mirror one another. We laugh, we cry, we hurt and we bleed all the same. As much as the works are personal to me, I would like my viewers to relate to each artwork. I painted them in succession one after the other with a story to reveal. Though the works are not installed to seem narrative in a conscious way, the viewer has to look at them closely and try to create a story of their own.
Are the works in ‘Anthology of the Abysmal’ any different from your usual style?
The first four paintings I did are the closest to my usual style, but the others are more experimental. My distinctive stylised portraits have been replaced with other anatomical subjects like hands, lower limbs and torsos. I had to force myself to abandon my typical style: I created my own nozzle extensions and used my fingers, carving tools and pretty much anything I could find to express what I needed to.
You’re one of the pioneers of using graffiti as a commercial branding tool in Singapore. How did you get into the idea?
Graffiti is known as the art of “getting up” – putting your name and style in as many spaces as possible, reclaiming them one at a time. The idea of painting on a subway train like those by New York’s graffiti artists in the ’70s and ’80s acted like a mobile exhibition. By the time their artwork travels from the Bronx to Manhattan, thousands of people would have seen their work. There needs to be some form of branding there, commercial or not. Even contemporary and fine artists need to brand themselves, but they sometimes forget or are too elitist to realise that they actually need to.
Do you feel street artists are misunderstood in Singapore?
I’ve listened to countless debates and arguments about the nature of graffiti art by people who don’t practice the artform, never did stuff with us on the streets, never had to run away from authority, and think they know and understand graffiti by judging it from their seats perched high in the heavens of art elitism. We should go beyond the legality issues and ask what the nature of our works are and what’s the message behind them. There’s never any malicious intent to deface public property on our part – we have ideas and stories to communicate to the public just like advertisements do.
Do you see the situation with street art changing in the next five years?
I always try to look at things positively and hope for the best. My collective, RSCLS (which also comprises SKLO [Samantha Lo]and Antz [Anthony Chong]), has just been awarded a seed grant from National Arts Council. This allows us to take on different roles within the street art and graffiti community, not only locally but in the region. Expect things to happen with RSCLS in charge within these next few years.
Any advice for young street artists?
Never give up trying. It is definitely easier for the younger ones now as they have legal walls to practice on. For those who paint on the legal walls, don’t fret if someone paints over your work. It just means you need to paint over it with even better artwork. This is how you grow. Graffiti and street art are ephemeral by nature and that’s the beauty of it.