Think sneakers and you see celebrities, athletes and high-end brands making an imprint across the screen, in the sports arena and even on the catwalk — remember Chloe Zhao’s white Hermès pair when she received the 2021 Best Director Oscar for Nomadland?
Sneakers have made the leap from niche interest to global obsession, says Sotheby’s, which sold a pair of Nike Air Ships worn by Michael Jordan in 1984 for about US$1.47 million in October 2021. They are assets of choice, status symbols that tell stories about those whose feet they adorn, and the people who design and make them.
Getting down to the sole of this growing phenomenon, Adrian George notes that sneaker culture was born on the streets along with street art and skate culture and it was artists, designers and creatives who drove it forward. “It has been appropriated and turned into a global business worth about US$72 billion last year,” adds the director of programmes, exhibitions and museum services at Singapore’s ArtScience Museum (ASM). Market revenue worldwide is forecast to reach US$100 billion ($133 billion) by 2026.
To celebrate the diversity of sneaker culture, trace its history and examine its connections with entertainment, technology, contemporary art, hip-hop, sports and fashion, ASM is hosting Sneakertopia: Step Into Street Culture from February until July. It is the Asian debut of an exhibition founded in Los Angeles by Emmy Award-winning producer Steve Harris and Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur Steve Brown in 2019, to share their passion for sneakers.
The display takes visitors through 10 immersive zones filled with artwork by street artists and rare shoe collections on loan by Mandeep Chopra, founder and
CEO of Limited Edt, boutique art consultancy The Culture Story, and popstar JJ Lin. US creatives involved include McFlyy, Michael Murphy, Smoluk, Mimi Yoon and Tommii Lim.
Seventeen Singaporeans are also part of the show, which has 100 limited-edition sneakers, 70 murals, prints, large-scale installations, sculptures and even a DJ mixtape with tracks selected based on hip-hop artists’ influences and connections to sneaker culture.
Professional athletes, designers and brands have worked together to create innovative sneaker designs and The Playground zone doffs the cap to sports legends such as LeBron James, Serena Williams and Michael Jordan.
Sneaker culture infiltrated the entertainment industry through films, television series and media, and footwear thrust forward in Hollywood made its way across the world, propelled by the media, as The Backlot shows. A highlight of this zone is Singaporean singer-songwriter Lin’s rare sneakers and artworks by icons such as
Yayoi Kusama and Banksy.
The Art + Sole Gallery is dedicated to those for whom the shoe is both a canvas and an inspiration to create. Many did that and, driven by concerns such as mass consumption and throwaway culture, used recycled materials like cardboard and deadstock fabrics to produce art.
The Street zones in on the influx of visual noise that reflect the flurry and commotion of city streets. Sam Lo’s sculpture of a myna and a mural on corrugated metal panels capture the cacophony of noises that surround us while Huru Hara has an installation of artworks, objects and archival videos of regional street artists.
The Technology + Innovation zone follows creatives who have moved from street art to painting in virtual reality. And looking ahead, Singaporean designer Pek Shun Ping showcases ALIVEFORM, a 3D-printed shoe brand.
Moving from room to room, visitors feel like they are retracing the steps of those looking to express themselves by putting their best foot forward and, along the way, kick up a storm that has redefined sports, music and fashion.
George hopes visitors to Sneakertopia will understand the value of sneakers and the diverse factors that have led to their becoming an icon of contemporary art culture, and how many collectors there are in the world. “I also hope people will take away the idea that you can be a lawyer and make your own shoes; you can be a street artist and study law. There is this thing about identity, uniqueness and making your own art with your sneakers.”
In 2018, ASM hosted an exhibition on street art — skate culture, sports culture, architecture and product design. Response to the show made it very clear we have very active subcultures across the whole region, says George. Sneakertopia is timely to leverage that and move things one step on.
It is also a natural step for what the space is designed to be — a different kind of museum. “We want to be at the front of things. We’re seducing you to come and see [something] we know you like and look at this here, which is a bit more challenging. And maybe, we can have a conversation about that”, he adds.
ASM, which opened in 2011, has held big shows by major artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali. True to its name, aspects of science and technology, from big data to robotics, marine biology and space, have anchored various exhibitions.
Collaborations with international organisations drive its programmes too. In 2017/18, it showcased more than 200 treasures from the Natural History Museum in London.
Last September, it co-curated MENTAL: Colours of Wellbeing with Science Gallery Melbourne, offering “a welcoming place” for visitors to confront societal bias and stereotypes around mental health. Exhibits covered four broad themes — connection, exploration, expression and reflection — with artists, makers, scientists and designers exploring, among other things, ideas on anxiety surrounding illness and death.
“I’ve been in museums across the world and have never seen this controversial subject handled before. It was incredibly heart-warming, touching,” says George. “Visitors were crying and we had therapists in this space, and people supporting people for an extraordinary experience. Having done that, I think in the future, it is something we can do.”
On projects in the pipeline, he says ASM will be moving from Earth to sky and beyond later this year, to explore what would happen if we were to live somewhere else other than this planet and how might we do that. The other story is how far we can push our imagination into the distant future and what that might look like.
The museum, the cultural component of Marina Bay Sands, is also looking at women who have made a major impact on fashion design, and a proposal to feature a year of extraordinary women in 2024.