During my visit to Fort Siloso in Sentosa, for the recent wellness festival Zentosa, I found myself swept into historical underground passages that had been magically transformed into mental health-themed installations.
Some played host to interactive features, like motion-activated windchimes that tinkled as you passed by, and another section featured a quiz that provided steps to improve your well-being. In one section, you could even see your digitally-generated ‘aura’ project onto a wall.
With its hallmarks of vibrant aesthetics, entertaining interactivity and relaxed points of access, it was perhaps no surprise that these works were part of Kult Studio & Gallery’s offerings.
I was left mightily impressed by the technology-driven installations that viewers could easily participate in and interact with. This, combined with how much I enjoyed Kult’s Singapore Art Week 2022 show Joy Sticks & Rage Quits, made me keen to meet with V. Raja, the mind and man behind Kult Studio & Gallery.
Located on an otherwise quiet part of Race Course Road, Kult is split into a few areas. If you head up the chalkboard-walled stairway you’ll reach the main gallery space, and the Kult Studio office.
Heading into a reception room lined with merchandise, I spy Raja. At first glance, he looks well put together in a button-down shirt and jeans, with his salt-and-pepper hair being the only indication of his age. The large tattoo on his left forearm, he tells me, is an ambigram of both his wife’s and his own name–hinting at the underlying subversive energy that Kult champions.
Formerly called Kult3D, Kult has evolved from its humble origins as a design agency, to having its own creative studio coupled with a gallery space.
Kult has been around since 2009, and according to Raja, it’s primarily a design agency, but also one that also seeks to support the network of artists that it works with. This is reflected in how Kult has built a database of artists who feature heavily in its creative campaigns. With a reputation for working closely with creatives, clients often turned to Kult to find an artist for murals, or to contribute to their own brand experience events.
Eventually, Raja grew sick of being the middleman and also wanted to help meaningfully showcase the artists with whom he had established long-term working relationships. Thus in 2010, Kult Gallery was born as “a platform to identify and build relationships with new and exciting talent.”
This ethos aligns with how Raja sees the brand today, as a breakaway from the usual type of design and marketing company–“something with a bit of edge [that] ultimately creates a ‘Kult’-like following.”
Too Cool for School
“In the early days, we saw ourselves as a conduit for these artists that we were in touch with,” Raja says.
Kult worked with many artists who had urban and street art styles, which led it to develop an ‘edgy’ reputation. Its design projects also became known for being bold, eclectic, and subversive.
“People would say, ‘Kult is so cool’, but it’s a lot of pressure, to be honest,” Raja confesses.
That pressure, however, seems to have forged some diamonds, as he saw Kult Studio flourish with campaigns for large clients like Tiger Beer. The ‘Tiger Translate’ campaign, which ran from 2006-2013, saw the team select artists to respond to prompts based on the brand and the beer’s ingredients. The works were then showcased online and physically.
Raja tells me this project was his first big success that cemented Kult’s status as a company that worked cohesively with both clients and artists. And that in itself was enough to make it his favourite project.
“Fun or not?”
Since its inception, Kult Gallery has hosted exhibitions on toys, anime, 80s music, and even sci-fi.
“When we had an exhibition on Dune [the science fiction novel by Frank Herbert] for example, it was amazing… The people who came, we hadn’t seen before,” Raja exclaims, amazed that the exhibition had managed to tap into a subculture of sci-fi fans.
Kult didn’t set out to specifically attract niche audiences, but it seemed to have stumbled upon a winning formula. By appealing to small communities of fans and art enthusiasts, Kult saw a rise in the attendance of its shows and eventually gained credibility as an art space.
“It was fun and had the potential to take us in different directions, [both] visually and creatively,” Raja notes.
This quickly became the criteria for how the entity decided on exhibition themes, with members of the Kult team asking each other if something was “fun or not?”
Kult’s former creative director, Steve Lawler (a.k.a the artist Mojoko), curated many early shows at its former Emily Hill space, which it occupied from 2010 until 2021. Lawler’s experience as an artist helped bring those shows to life, but when he left the company, it was tough for Kult to curate shows as a team.
With the majority of team members hailing from design backgrounds, Kult was unprepared for the challenges of curating exhibitions. Having a dedicated curator meant that a single person could confidently supervise and develop the shows. The “post-Steve era,” as Raja calls it, was marked by a steep learning curve for the Kult team.
Challenges during this period included having to spend time and effort in finding the right talent, and ensuring that the shows were compelling and had a cohesive narrative. Then there were the issues of working with individual artists’ interpretations, and sometimes even dealing with late deliveries or the outright disappearances of artworks — all while juggling paid client work and learning as they went along. Seemingly unfazed, Raja tells me, “We’ve done this for a while — we just sigh, adapt and make it work.”
Overall, Raja is frank about the gallery’s mission:
“I don’t want to overthink art. My goal is to make art accessible, so anyone from the ages of 8 to 80 should be able to come here and have fun.”
And Kult seems to be on the right path towards fulfilling this mission.
Far from being the traditional ‘white cube’ art space, Kult is homey and personable, offering unconventional exhibitions that attract diverse audiences. It may not have had a traditional trajectory in its evolution as an art space, but it has managed to attract a specific set of art lovers and design fans who enjoy art shows that bridge both realms.
On what kind of work Kult looks to exhibit and the aesthetic that appeals to the team, Raja tells me,
“We want to be able to accept all forms of creative expression.”
The way Kult democratically scouts for new talent also reflects its open-mindedness towards different artistic mediums. It often holds open calls on Instagram, allowing the team to get in touch with artists who come from diverse creative backgrounds. One of them is local artist and sewing instructor Marilyn Lim, who goes by the moniker smolchet.
From what I’ve seen, Kult is one of the few galleries that gives ample space and consideration to animators and other digital artists who work with video games and augmented reality (AR) installations, such as designer and animator Ardhira Putra and artist and video game creator, Christopher Lee.
But how does Raja effectively balance all the different elements of Kult Studio & Gallery?
The short answer is that he doesn’t as it’s near-impossible to balance the two arms of the entity that have completely different functions. What Raja calls the consumer-facing parts of the business, like the gallery, generate very little income and strain their budget. Funds largely flow in from the profits generated by the design agency’s projects.
He fills me in on Kult’s previous consumer-facing projects. For example, the company used to produce a free-of-charge, self-titled magazine, which Raja deemed as “a good branding tool.” But due to the magazine’s production costs and the lack of patrons willing to pay for it, Raja put the magazine on hold.
Other projects included Kult Collab, an initiative where the Kult team worked with artists to create merchandise based on their existing artworks. The embroidered hats, printed bags, and even graphic shirts, which were produced are still available for sale, but lie in Kult’s inventory for the time being.
While Raja makes it clear that these projects are “loss-making ventures,” he sees them as necessary investments into the building of the brand, and as fun, creative outlets for the team as a whole.
In short, Kult’s art gallery supplements its creative agency business, as the latter draws in viewers and potential clients and establishes the studio’s branding. However, over time, Kult found that it simply could not put in large amounts of time and effort into running the art gallery and its creative projects. The creative studio, being the entity’s sole source of income, needed much more attention.
To alleviate these challenges — which the Covid-19 pandemic also exacerbated — Raja chose to put a pause on the gallery, magazine, and the merchandise. Scaling back allowed the team to focus more on paid work in order to keep the lights on. This strategy enabled Kult to put up its first art showcase at its Race Course Road location in 2022, primed to roar back to life as pandemic stresses ebbed away.
Far from being an immediately triumphant return to the art world, Raja is frank that the buzz generated by Kult in its previous shows made the team nervous about upholding its past reputation.
Between not hosting exhibitions, moving locations, and the challenges of the pandemic, Raja confesses that he was worried about Kult being forgotten.
Thankfully, when viewers came to visit Joy Sticks & Rage Quits in 2022, the reception was positive.
“Past visitors remembered us,” Raja beams, “They said things like ‘it’s nice to be back’ and ‘it’s good to see a show.’ That was pretty gratifying.”
Joy Sticks & Rage Quits explored themes of frustration with the workplace and offered a sense of relief through gaming and other technology-driven artworks. As a visitor myself, I was struck by how many fun and interactive digital works there were.
There were a few video games you could play on arcade-style consoles, an Instagram filter that showed a block-man running around in AR, and a workshop in the back room to create jewellery or knick-knacks made out of technological ‘artefacts’ like CDs.
“But [the positive reception] also added more pressure for the next show” Raja laughs.
“We never reach the top of the mountain, we know the work can always be better.”
As a creative myself, I can relate. The immense pressure to follow up on a stellar past performance is absolutely nerve-racking. It is always hoped that subsequent projects will form a series, and inspire room for improvement, but just like in the movies, sequels always seem to have the most expectations placed upon them.
Kult has been around for over a decade, so I wonder about how it fits into Singapore’s larger creative landscape. Strangely, Raja tells me that he thinks it doesn’t. “We have zero impact on the creative scene as we are now,” he states firmly.
This might be an overly humble and pessimistic statement—especially when one looks back at the entity’s many accomplishments since its inception in 2009. Kult has put on over 20 shows in two gallery spaces, publishing a magazine, and working with a number of notable clients, such as Facebook, Citibank, and Gojek. Kult’s shows have been pretty impressive and clearly mirror what Raja asks from his team now: to be plugged into the scene and to know how to have fun. Many of these shows brought diverse perspectives to the creative scene while bridging both the art and design communities.
Expect the unexpected
With upcoming exhibitions in sight, it looks like Kult Gallery is well and truly back.
“Did you know there’s a whole miniature scene?” Raja asks me excitedly.
Returning to Kult’s talent for highlighting special areas of interest, the gallery is keen to present shows with surprising content and formats that bridge the experiential and the immersive. And on show now is an exhibition on miniatures, hilariously titled Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Super Mini Thingy Exhibition.
The exhibition is focused on displaying works of miniature art. Crafted at an astonishingly small scale, the lines between craft, fine art, and design blur.
As part of the show, Kult will also offer immersive and quirky workshops and activities, like a self-guided eye test on the basis that one needs good eyesight to take in all the small works on display! Other programme highlights include a miniature food clay workshop, a miniature pottery workshop, and a tiny pocket tattoo workshop. On top of this, there’s cool merch you can pick up, if you’d like to support the cause.
There’s something for everyone, Raja tells me, and this seems like a promising revival for Kult, a gallery which I’ve now come to associate with some of the best parts of the art world — fun, creative surprises, and perseverance.
Kult Studio & Gallery is located at 409 Race Course Rd, #03 01A, Singapore 218657, Open Monday through Friday from 10am – 6pm, except Saturday from 2pm – 6pm, Closed on Sunday. Click here to learn more about Kult.
Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Super Mini Thingy Exhibition will run from 21 July – 6 August 2023.
Feature image courtesy of Kult Studio & Gallery.
A previous version of the article made reference to a t-shirt being designed by Steve Lawler. This reference has since been removed.