Singapore Artist Jonathan Leong Crafts Sold-Out NFT Artworks Inspired By The Power of Memes, Myths & Machines

Jonathan Leong (aka ZXEROKOOL)’s first Solo exhibition features his signature art style, inspired by memes and the internet culture of today’s world, Jonathan’s works present a commentary on our behaviour, likes and dislikes, and what we consume on the internet without even noticing.

Tell us about your solo debut show, and what do you feel about it.

It took about 10 years of persistence and countless trials, failed projects, detours and tribulations to get to this point. The reception for this show has been so positive I could not be more thankful for all the support I’ve received from both new and old collectors, friends and @theculturestory which was kind enough to put up the show & make a bet on an untested artist who hasn’t had any major showings before this.

All the major pieces have sold out, which is pretty surreal considering I’ve previously only had success with collectors and commissioned projects outside of Singapore. I think Singaporeans are finally embracing digital art, the rise of NFT technology has definitely helped my art practice.

Why are dogs and cats featured in your works?

Cat and dogs are the rulers of the internet, you can’t scroll through social media without seeing them. I wanted to make them appear as religious pop icons in my artworks, often with a digital sea around them – they rule our cyber seas afterall.

Also, I’ve always wanted a cat, although sadly I have very persistent eczema and sinus allergies, so I would say I fulfil my fantasy around owning pets via my artwork.

ZXEROKOOL, The Meme Machine, 2022. Edition of 3.

What made you choose to start creating NFT art?

The most common struggle for digital artists such as myself in the past was getting recognized properly as ‘serious artists’. I remember someone telling me “oh so you just printed this from the computer’ and ‘what if the printer gets the file?”

NFTs solve this because the value is no longer in the print but in the digital proof of ownership. All owners of my NFTs gain access to my colour calibrated files and advice on how to print the physical manifestation of the works.

This means if one day (touch wood) if their house burns down, as long as they can prove they still own the NFT, they can have it reprinted for a new location. This way they are able to unlock the benefits of digital art as an undying medium.

As an artist, I also get royalties from every sale of my artwork on the secondary market online, so this makes my long term art practice more economically sustainable. With NFTs I’m not really concerned about the work being printed and propagated in the real world , because nobody reproduces things they don’t like – so in a way the more people see the work the better it is.

Which work do you like/enjoyed making the most?

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed making all of them, but if I were to chose one it would be The Tower of Stonks, which is my reinterpretation of Pieter Brugel’s Tower of Babel which is a depiction of mankind trying to reach the Heavens. So in a way, my piece is a contemporary retelling of it but for our internet fuelled, meme stocks and technologically obsessed age.

ZXEROKOOL, The Tower of Stonks, 2022. Edition of 3.

Where do you get your inspiration from? Tell us about your artistic process.

All of us are the sum of our influences and all the visual things that bombard our consciousness. In this digital age it can be easily swept up in doing mindless stuff and neglect deep work, which is why I’ve chosen to base all my main pieces for this show on large influential masterpieces from art history – and reinterpret them for our digital age. It’s kind of like imagining if these artists were alive today what themes and topics would they work one – which is why I’ve chosen Memes, they are the cultural signifies of our time. Clara Peh, an arts researcher articulates this better than me in her essay (which accompanied my show) you can read it here:

Who are some of the artists and creatives you admire?

Andy Warhol once said “in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”, I feel great artists and creatives are those who are able to hold our attention and continually create works over a long career that really impact the audience.

Recently I’m really digging the digital paintings of Petra Cortright. Locally I’m a big fan of artists Shen Jiaqi and Marla Bendini, both of whom I’ve been fortunate to buy paintings from, for my own humble collection. I should really be doing prudent stuff like saving money but I love art so much, so I get my hands on whatever I can afford at the moment.

Other than art I watch a lot of movies, some of the creative masters in this field I admire are film directors such as Denis Villeneuve, Quentin Tarantino, James Gunn and David Fincher. Great Anime directors such as Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira), Hideaki Anno (Evangelion) and Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke) also come to mind.

ZXEROKOOL, Meme Vangelion, 2022

Do you think NFTs are here to stay?

Anyone can upload an image and claim to make an NFT, but that’s not how one builds a long term art career or practice. NFTs aren’t a cure-all or magic pill to having a successful long term art career. I view them simply as a way for digital artworks and editions to be clearly certified electronically, which helps the market for digital art and enables digital creatives to seriously pursue making a living doing art.

I’m more concerned about making and creating good art projects in the long run, whether they are NFTs or whatever evolution of digital certification we will see in the future. NFTs solve the issue of provenance and help digital artists build their careers in the larger global ecosystem. NFTs also enable artists to have a longer dialogue with their supporters. I am working with some of the collectors who have bought my NFTs to customize the art they have bought to their individual physical spaces. I find it very exciting to see how my art lives in different contexts.

If we compare where NFTs are now, in terms of phone technology, we are probably at the palm pilot stage.

ZXEROKOOL, Super Dodge Land, 2022

Why did you choose to host a physical show for NFT artworks that seem to mostly be hosted only on the digital realm?

I am just like any other painter, except my paintbrush is digital. While digital technology has enabled me to create crazy landscape and plan huge pieces without the physical burden of having a large space to work, I’ve always wanted to see them blown up to become larger than life. There is something hypnotic about looking at a piece in the physical realm.

The strange paradox of digital art is that when put in a physical space it takes on another dimension – the viewing experience is richer and a lot of my collectors tell me they discover new details they didn’t previously encounter when viewing my work on the screen.

Also, this physical show is meant as a live demonstration as to how I envision the scale and size of how I would want my digital creations to be enjoyed in the physical world.

If you could say one thing to your younger self and young aspiring artists out there what would it be?

Persist and never compromise on your artistic vision of what you wish to create, one day you will find your audience and they won’t ask you to change a thing about who you are or what you make. It might take time, but if you keep creating and putting work out there it will all work out. It’s a marathon not a sprint.

I gotta tell myself this too, as I want to keep making stuff till the day I die.

ZXEROKOOL, The Garden of Internet Delights, Edition of 3.

Complete the following sentences:

If there was a zombie apocalypse my weapon of choice would be: Really good running shoes.

If I were a colour I would be: Green, something calming about it.

Name the next Singaporean creative(s) we should interview: Sole Machina

Your dream creative project is: The one I’m going to do next, and probably my own comic book in the future.

What the world needs now is: To chill and not take everyone on the internet so seriously.

The internet is one big: Beautiful mess

Art is: Whatever you want it to be.

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