Aundraj Jude Zachariah or @assthrownot is not an artist you’ll come across in a white cube art gallery in Singapore.
Yet, if you’re on Snapchat, TikTok or a user of Adobe software, or indeed a resident of Japan or Germany, you might be quite familiar with his work.
So what gives?
Aundraj is part of a new generation of artists who seem to have bypassed the traditional route of art school, government grants and brick-and-mortar exhibitions to reach a level of acclaim that few practitioners in Singapore (new or established) have achieved. His list of accolades is impressive – member of Snap’s Augmented Reality Creator Residency program, Adobe Global Creator, NFT creator and international artist. Continuing his collaboration with Snapchat, he’ll be taking part in an Augmented Reality (AR) accelerator course in conjunction with Hyper Island, acting as an official Lens Creator who will run the hands-on aspects of the programme, teaching participants how to create AR lenses.
For this 31-year-old computer science graduate, the artistic journey has been a relatively short but exciting one.
We first met Aundraj earlier this year at the super trendy Chivas I Rise, We Rise event, where his NFT work was on display.
After a quick introduction to his art, it became clear to us that Aundraj inhabited a world quite different from the one familiar to many local artists, and our curiosity was quickly piqued. Why had we never seen him at gallery openings, or at the museums and art conferences? Why was our first meeting at a press event run by an alcohol producer?
There were just so many unanswered questions in our minds that we had to meet him again after the Chivas party. Over a laid-back drink at Stickies bar, he told us more about himself and his practice.
How does a computer science grad turn into an artist?
One of the most striking things about this artist is perhaps the fact that he is not art-trained at all. Right off the bat, Aundraj is frank in his thoughts about his experience with the Singapore academic system.
“I hated school all the way from my poly days, for the longest time, always thinking of myself as someone who was very average. I feel like I was taught to think that way because I was just this average guy and average student. In school, they would always focus on, like, the fastest runner, or who was the best in art and everyone else was just average. It felt like if you were here [gesturing to a higher level], you would just sail through life, and this was just ingrained in my system for a long time,” he muses.
Post-graduation though, the young creative started to find his groove.
He explains, “(After I graduated) I remember watching a bunch of videos with really cool drone shots zooming in and out, and slowly I realised it wasn’t just about the (footage), it was about things like creative editing and storyboarding. I had never experienced anything like it before and I wanted to get into it. I told myself I would give myself six months and if I failed I would just go back to computer science. I worked about three part-time jobs, in the morning, afternoon and at night, and in between, I would learn about video editing.”
This progressed to making some small videos that he’d post on Instagram. They didn’t get any traction but he was trying to build a portfolio and “put himself out there.”
“I felt like I was missing something, and that I wasn’t ‘in the know.’ What were the trends? I couldn’t tell, and I felt like I was growing in a very small pond,” he reminisces.
Upon the advice of friends and his partner, Aundraj put together a collection of his video work and started approaching production houses.
“No one replied to me, except for one,” he laughs, “so I joined them.”
He started out as an intern, later progressing to become a full-time editor. From there, he moved on from “normal video editing” to working with special effects and learning about how different markets worked.
“It was like a hunger,” he says, “I wanted to do more and I just asked for more and more and more and more, and things just progressed all the way.”
An artist is born?
After a while though, Aundraj started to get restless again. Feeling like he had hit a plateau, he began requesting for opportunities to “do his own stuff.” This evolved into freelance work for about a year and a half.
“In that period of time,” he explains, “I was quite lucky to be able to work with some major brands.”
Leaving the security of the production house, however, was no easy task, but it suited him in other ways.
“The only thing I couldn’t do was join another company, which worked brilliantly because I didn’t want to join another production house. I wanted to work on my own, on projects that interested me.”
Still, Aundraj speaks honestly about the mental struggle of having to unlearn the things that had been taught to him, including the need for a steady paycheque to survive. “I was lucky though,” he explains, “when I left, a lot of people started recognising me on social media, and when they found out I was on my own, started approaching me to work with them.”
On the delineation between his video work at the production house or for brands, and his current ventures into NFTs, Aundraj is adamant – “it’s all still art!”
His leap into the world of NFTs has been successful but as with other aspects of his artistic journey, it was not an easy one at first.
He explains, “I when I first read about it, I remember speaking to quite a lot of artists. And everybody was like, ‘bro, this is a scam. This is horrible.’” He likens the phenomenon now to that of internet banking and how what was once viewed with much suspicion is now commonplace in society.
“It’s just a medium and every medium has positives and negatives. Artists just have to think about what they want to do with it.”
What’s an artist without a gallery?
Aundraj is candid in his thoughts about the local art scene which, to put it frankly, has not given him much love.
“For me, I never had a proper platform to be an artist or to sell art. I never had a chance to be part of a space where collectors would come and purchase art. Before NFTs, it was impossible to get my works out unless they went viral. I always felt like there was a huge gap between the artists that I knew — people my age—and those who were going up in galleries and getting several invitations to be a part of different things and have (access to) the money associated with all that,” he says.
“At the end of the day, all we’re trying to do is solve this whole, ‘starving artist’ issue. And it’s very naive to believe that (the problem) doesn’t exist, because it does. The people who don’t believe it are the people who are not doing it full-time. NFTs offer an opportunity that is unlike anything else. Because if I sell something, I have enough (money) for the month, and I get exposure, and I get to meet other artists who are doing the same things as me.” he continues.
He laments over flawed approaches to NFTs in more mainstream art circles, “Right now it’s all about the novelty, and it’s always the same thing — let’s give out NFTs (as if they are) goodie bags! There’s no change and there seems to be very little widening (of the understanding of art).”
He wishes for example, that the National Gallery Singapore would bring more interesting digital art into its space.
“You can do so many things with AR now, all you need is a screen and a phone – which everyone has because they are so connected digitally now.”
Practitioners like Aundraj raise many important questions about the notions of art appreciation and connoisseurship. What are the dividing lines between a beautifully-made TikTok video and a museum piece – is it simply a question of scholarship and the ‘snob factor’? Does the pervasiveness and enjoyment of the work factor into this evaluation at all? It’s a hard concept to get your head around unless you’ve encountered his fantastical video works, which immerse viewers in exhilarating environments brought to life by the intelligent and thoughtful use of technology.
Aundraj’s NFTs offer a trippy mash-up of virtual and physical worlds, melding the best elements of the technology with real-life emotions and experiences. We particularly loved his Flight of the Turtles which turned Singapore’s stressful Central Business District into a magical space aquarium, complete with bestial bellows:
This rendition of the difficulties and struggles of urban life made us pause for thought, with its stark and painful imagery of an exhausted character who looks like he’s just gone up in flames, or is about to combust. Around him, the birds of Orchard Road continue to chirp and traffic charges on, a powerful contrast with the troubled figure lurching solitarily across the road:
In The Struggle to the Weekend, we are confronted with a zombie-like man fighting a wind tunnel in the MRT. The slightly shaky camerawork and stark, sterile lines of the train station add to the sense of tension and bleakness in the work. Why is the platform devoid of people? Is it late at night, or too early in the morning? Or has there been some kind of apocalypse? What is the figure fighting against, and where is all this invisible wind coming from? As the video file continues to play in a loop, the viewer too gets swept into the endlessness of the figure’s struggle.
These are such tiny mp4 files — which are, quite frankly, freely downloadable for the world to view — but they sure pack a punch. We found ourselves wanting to watch them over and over again, and wanting to find out more about these curious planes of existence on which Aundraj’s mind dwells.
Forging his own path
Here’s another thing that makes Aundraj stand apart from most local artists – he’s never been the recipient of a government grant for funding.
“There are such things?” he asks, semi-incredulously.
“And I have to write reports? Hell no!” he laughs.
When asked about advice he might have for aspiring artists, Aundraj turns somewhat sentimental, saying:
”Oh, I don’t know, I suppose it’s about finding your niche. To make it in Singapore – and I mean really make it – you need to find something that you actually love doing. I meet a lot of artists who complain, and I get that many do have valid things to complain about, but then I see their work and it looks like they are producing work that’s being done by other people and not things that actually make them unique.”
The inaccessibility of the local visual arts scene is something that Aundraj keeps returning to; an issue that he clearly feels strongly about.
“We are all fighting the same fight (myself included),” he says.
“Sometimes we just want to be part of shows and we just want our works to be seen, we want to be able to bring our parents or our friends. But even that is so difficult with the hoops that you have to jump through and the people that you have to know… that should not be the way. It should be based on talent and there should be more people coming out there to find this talent. If there is so much money in the art scene, it should be given to people to go out there and scout.”
Fighting words indeed, but perhaps a view that should be given some credence given Aundraj’s runaway success in the digital art world, and outside of conventional pathways. In spite of his overseas success, the artist clearly maintains deep connections with the artistic community here, none more so apparent than in his closing quip:
“If I ever do get any work here (in Singapore), it’ll now be less about me than how I can get other artists into the system.”
All images and videos courtesy of the artist, unless otherwise stated.