Arts & Culture

ZERO: Driven to Make Art, Not Inspired

What does scent look like?

Words by
b-side staff

Known by his moniker ZERO, Zul Othman is an urban artist who has done a lot more than just making art. Co-founder of the RSCLS collective and a lecturer at the LASALLE College of the Arts, Zul is one of Singapore’s best known visual artists with his graffiti-esque style. Taking art to the streets, his works revolve around pop culture and current affairs, creating social commentary and dialogue through them.

Most recently, his work DIFF/FUSION for ARTWALK Little India 2019 is a play on the scientific explanation for how smell travels, permeates and stimulates us. The mural embodies traditional Indian spices such as chilli powder and cumin through geometric shapes, while scents and fragrances are reflected through the choice of colours. The symmetry of the work is particularly striking, perfectly framed by the shophouse windows of the existing architecture.

With his works carrying so much meaning and weight, why does he go by the moniker ZERO?

Working Class Hero, 2017


I have always had this affinity with the number zero. Multiple reasons for this: my favourite skate brand is Zero Skateboards, and I can still remember stencilling the word “zero” on a plain T-shirt in 1998 because I could not afford to get an actual Smashing Pumpkins ZERO tee. Also, I had multiple zeros during my exams, from primary school to secondary school.

They gave the impression that my life would amount to nothing. But when one is nothing, one can be everything.

Shout-out to those who thought that I’d never amount to anything because I now have a great career as an artist and have a master’s degree.

How do you describe your artistic practice?

I dwell on the concerns of a bigger collective picture and narrative such as the street art and graffiti community, my own collective, and the concerns of my society and its idiosyncrasies, so I do not actually make anything for myself. I am driven into action and making art, never inspired. Inspiration is such a cliché thing. One needs to be driven and have a clear sense of self motivation. There is no point waiting for divine inspiration just to make art.

Makara, 2018 (The Big Elephant). Photo credit: Steve Golden

It is always understood that it is difficult to make art in Singapore. Do you think the restrictions we have here are more of a boon or bane to your artistic practice?

It depends. A bit more wiggle room would be great. Trust should be placed upon the artist to say what is necessary to address his or her own society, even if it is critical of social norms and such. But I also personally feel that the more uncomfortable and restricted one is, the more creative one gets. We are trying our best to do our best given the circumstances. We will have to learn to make more sophisticated works to hide our thoughts and concepts in plain sight.

As a lecturer and an educator, do you think art can be taught? Or is it more of an instinct?

I do not believe that there is such a thing as natural-born talent unless you are a true savant. It is just a natural inclination, which could be due to nurture or interest. People who can play the piano well or draw really well at a certain age that is seen as young, probably started having an interest at a younger age than someone who suddenly develops an interest at age of 40. But I believe the 40-year-old can be great at it if his or her drive remains constant. Techniques can be taught. Anyone can learn how to draw and paint a perfect portrait. You just need to be good at observing and drawing what you see.

Just download an image from Google and draw the same thing over and over for weeks, and you will see a difference.

Especially if you apply the right techniques. It is harder to contextualise new ideas or create new ways of seeing. That is something that needs to be nurtured, facilitated and encouraged. It is hard to ask someone to come up with an idea out of thin air without any project brief.

DIFF/USION, 2019 (artist’s impression)

DIFF/FUSION is inspired by smells, and that is not a commonly explored sense in a heavily visual world like art. Share with us how this concept came about.

I looked into the spices traditionally used in Indian cuisine and culture, and the way it was presented before the advent of plastic packaging. I see the ethereal approach of my mural as a way to perceive scent as a visual thing. The hands as a means to the sense of touch and sight.

Your favourite scent is…

Probably lemongrass.

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