The artist and designer Brian Donnelly’s first studio of sorts was located back at a corner in his childhood bedroom, a space he remains eternally grateful for. Growing up in Jersey City, he also had many opportunities to paint on freight trains and under highways. And as it is with any other workspace or studio he has had, “all were places of comfort and none were taken for granted,” he tells me by email.
Better known to the world as KAWS, the American artist’s work riffs on famous pop culture characters. His signature motifs, the XX eyes and cauliflower ears, are both seen on his most recognisable character, Companion, a slightly off-kilter spin-off of Mickey Mouse. Having worked with various fashion brands, produced numerous cult-status toys and auctioned off his artworks at multimillion-dollar price points, the 45-year-old street artist is now taking his work literally out of this world.
Writing from inside his Brooklyn studio, where he has been working on new paintings for the past month, the 45-year-old opens up to me about his pandemic woes. Having fallen very sick during the quarantine period, “It took a while to get comfortable working again... I didn’t feel like doing much at all,” says the 45-year-old, who also resides in Brooklyn and bikes to his studio and back, some 10 miles, every day.
Yet our correspondence happened a day after the release of KAWS: HOLIDAY SPACE, the next step of the KAWS: HOLIDAY tour that has planted giant sculptures of Companion in Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong and Japan. On the Instagram accounts of KAWS and AllRightsReserved, a visual series — comprising a video and images — documents the widely recognised Companion sculpture rising 41.5 kilometres up into space for its 20th anniversary.
And it was truly magnificent, despite only getting to observe Companion from our screens this time.
Watch how KAWS’s Companion sculpture gets launched into space.
A panoramic video camera follows the gradual ascent of Companion, dressed in an astronaut suit. Most of the hours-long footage is sped up or trimmed away, but in this short film we do get many gratifyingly long views of Companion’s perspective, guided by calm space music. We get a faintly clouded aerial view of the grassy landscape it had taken off from on the way up. Its reflective suit glistens in gold against the setting Sun; as it drifts, radiant lens flares perforate the scene.
Companion’s glittering outfit intensifies as it passes through the atmosphere into the stratosphere. Behind it, the horizon drives a thin, glowing blue wedge between the outer space and Earth’s cloudy expanse. The journey climaxes in its “zero-gravity walk in uninhabited space.” The background music grows thicker, more ominous as Companion’s ascent draws to a halt against the distant, luminous Sun.
Courtesy of KAWS and AllRightsReserved
Companion’s silver astronaut suit glistens in gold and reflects warm hues of the setting Sun.
Before we know it, the sounding balloon responsible for lifting Companion bursts — along with the established bubble of calmness. The atmospheric tune flips into one dominated by a trilling electric guitar. Companion free falls, propelling downwards. With its hands covering its eyes, seemingly bashful before, it suddenly appears rather fearful. With that, Companion brings us back to Earth.
“I felt so confined the past few months that creating a project like this has really given me a chance to escape.” Donnelly shares in the press note. Yet the idea of flying Companion into space, according to him, was not entirely born out of the fact that Companion celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Rather unexpectedly, this project was pandemic-made, coming about largely because every other project had been cancelled due to global shutdowns.
Although Donnelly had the backing of the Hong Kong-based creative studio AllRightsReserved, which has been responsible for orchestrating the KAWS: HOLIDAY series of destination installations, the project largely depended on chance. “We weren’t sure what would happen to the sculpture when we sent it that high into the atmosphere,” he says. “We kind of just did the project and kept our fingers crossed, hoping for some usable footage.”
Courtesy of KAWS and AllRightsReserved
Companion's journey culminates in a 2-hour, zero-gravity drift in space.
From preparing for take-off to Companion’s eventual landing back on Earth (a relief to Donnelly, who confirmed that his sculpture launched and returned safely), the whole process lasted just around eight hours. Yet it seems like a sizable challenge for Companion to top this spaceward vacation.
Moving forward, though, Donnelly refrains from projecting too much into the future for any of his public exhibition projects. “We are living in such uncertain times that nothing can be assumed going forward,” he says. “I’m just taking things day by day in hopes of returning to a place where people can safely gather.” And while refraining from anticipating much, Donnelly looks to what’s happening in the present: “I feel strongly that art is the thing that connects all people from all backgrounds and that might be what’s needed most right now.”
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