In many ways, Steve Lawler AKA Mojoko shares similarities with the cross-cultural clash of influences found in his art. On the surface, Lawler’s Caucasian appearance and thick British accent suggest he could’ve been plucked from any bog-standard London pub and plonked into the tropics of Singapore. But when you dig a bit deeper, there’s much more to the man than meets the eye. Born in Iran, raised in Hong Kong, and educated in Europe, before moving to Singapore and founding kult Magazine, Gallery & Studio, Lawler’s atypical background unravels itself slowly as he describes the passions that fuel his works, in the same way that the camouflaged features and messages of his chaotic collages become apparent once you look hard enough. While the artist’s body of work has paid homage to Singapore with humorous verve in the past, his new exhibition, Psycho Tropics, serves as his most focused love letter to the island-state yet. We sat down with Lawler to dig deeper into the visual jungle of his latest works, while learning about the filmic muses and murderous classical music that fuel his inspiration.
Hey Steve, tell us what spurred the idea for Psycho Tropics.
What I love about Singapore is that it’s a hyper-productive tropical island – there aren’t many places that have as many escalators as they do palm trees, and that’s what’s unique about it and why I live here. I’ve always liked idea of paradise gone wrong, this idyllic place that has sort of sinister undertones. It’s a premise for a great movie or B-movie.
It sounds a little like the movie, The Island.
Exactly! You know how everyone’s talking about a ‘smart nation’ and a gaga approach to being digitally accountable for everything and anything, and basically your whole life is being monitored. That, for me, is classic sci-fi. It’s always a trigger for my work, especially Psycho Tropics. I take all these old postcards of Singapore with lovely, idyllic, perhaps even naïve imagery, and inject this sinister, sci-fi, over-the-top warning. I think ’80s films like Escape From L.A. or Escape From New York were reflections of the time; they were mirroring people’s fears, people’s fantasies. So what I would kind of like to say is, “Why can’t Singapore be like L.A. in the ’80s, with decriminalised zones and gangland-ruled areas?”
When you dig a bit deeper, Singapore has quite a checkered past. There’ve been kidnappings, double murders, heads found in duffle bags and all sorts of amazing crime. It’s like it was out of a film, it’s surreal. I just really get attracted to that dark side of Singapore, and a lot of my friends and peers also enjoy that idea of flirting with danger. It’s to get people excited, or re-excited, about their own city. It’s my crazy take on the place.
"When you dig a bit deeper, Singapore has quite a checkered past...I just get really attracted to that dark side of Singapore."
Speaking of sci-fi films, overseas production companies are making more films in Singapore because of its aesthetic, like Hitman: Agent 47 and Equals.
I’ve always thought that there are so many great locations here. You’ve got gritty Little India, yachts in a Bahamas-like backdrop, mansions, industrial ruins…for sci-fi it’s brilliant, but for other films as well. If you’ve ever seen the opening of Miami Vice, there are horse races, and then there’s the beach, and then inner city crime. I love that, and I like how, in my mind, it works here in Singapore as well. If Singapore was packaged differently, and you played up Mas Selamat escaping with “doof doof doof” titles, it’d be like what the Yanks do [laughs].
It’s reinterpreting things people see on a daily basis; taking little facts like the Red Hot Chili Peppers went to Chomp Chomp in Serangoon Gardens, or Nirvana at Plaza Singapura. That, to me, is such a cool T-shirt in my mind – I can see it already. Or things like turning “The Golden Mile” into “The Golden Child”.
The Golden Child with Eddie Murphy?
Yeah, that’s the stuff I grew up on! I’m currently hating the world because there are no more video stores. Now you go to Netflix or Amazon Prime, and you’re confined by whatever just came out, or what everyone is watching – mainstream gash. There’s no ‘alternative’ section. If you look really hard there’ll be like one film that looks weird that you want to watch, but the things they suggest are still so mainstream. So what you have to do is go to some nerdcore site, find the films you want to watch and torrent them, because there’s no legal way of watching this sh*t. I think you could argue the same of music stores now.
What kind of music are you into, by the way? We pick you as a punk/alternative guy.
When I was young, I was really into hardcore rave, happy hardcore and hardstyle in the UK – that was nuts, but that’s just because I was a townie and that’s what everyone was doing. Then, as I got older, I got into real music with instruments, and started appreciating things like tango, Brazilian sounds, world music. That was great because there were no words, so it was easy to work to. Then I started madly getting into classical; I guess I liked the psychotic-ness of it. It had a kind of American Psycho type vibe. I think it was A Clockwork Orange that got me into it. That transformed classical music for me in a new context, and it changed my work.
I started getting more conceptual and ‘out there’, and having ideas that aren’t just putting images together. It was like, “Okay, I need to be saying something.” So some of these artworks are messages, whether it’s critiquing genetic modification or animals getting their revenge. I love the idea of the Chinese eating tiger penises, and then the tigers hack up the Chinese – again, an epic movie premise.
Like films, artworks need concepts and, if it is tangible and easy to communicate, then I’ll do it as a poster. It also taps into feelings that are current. If you take serious ideas and deliver them in this way, people are either tuned in to it or not – if they’re not, it doesn’t matter – but I feel like I’m not wasting time and that I’m doing something that has some sort of value in it.
Do you feel your work following a more serious trajectory?
I think so. Unless it’s for kids, in which case you want to have ideas that drive their interest and education, by giving them lots of little tricks and observations to increase their mental capacity and enjoyment of an artwork. There’s that element of hide-and-seek and Where’s Wally?. My son loves it, and he helps me out sometimes. Maybe I’ll be more dark and macabre as I get older and more miserable, but right now I’m having fun with it.
Also, in Singapore, like lots of other places, people aren’t really that bothered by art. Unless they see stuff that gets them really excited, it’s never going to appeal to them. I know a lot of people grapple with questions like, "Are you playing to the crowd?" or, "Are you doing stuff just because it’s popular?", but the reality is, I’m doing art this way because it’s how I would express ideas to my friends. My cynical, art-hating friends. A lot of these ideas are just an exploration, not really having a fixed point of view.
Your works definitely feel like Where’s Wally? on adrenaline, where each time you look at one of your posters, you’re looking out for little cultural artifacts.
Ideally when people have stuff in their home or their office, the idea is longevity. If it’s a one-liner and it’s singular, there’s a chance that you’ll get fed up with. The idea with my work is that each time you look at it, you see new things in there, or there’s interplay between this and that which you never really thought about. All those pairings are conscious; some of them I had to force them together. It’s all constructed with purpose, more and more especially now.
What’s a key piece of advice that you could give to young artists wanting to pursue a path similar to yours?
You should only really refuse work if you don’t agree with what the client is trying to sell. Research whoever it is you’re working for; it brings a healthier conscience and educates you on your client. There’s a lot of bad design and crappy graphics because there’s no effort put into understanding whatever the brand is trying to sell; they’re just trying to do their own style. There’s stuff for other people, and then there’s stuff for yourself; they’re two clear, distinct things. And, if doing stuff for other people helps you find your voice, then you have to do that.
Is that what you experienced in your career?
I think it’s a combination of experience and that, working over the years, you realise what inspires you and what doesn’t, and that also changes. Find as many different things that get you excited as possible, and try to get excited about really boring sh*t – and then you’ll be f*cking laughing.
Psycho Tropics runs until November 20 at The Refinery, 115 King George’s Avenue #01-02.
Text Trent Davis