At the end of May 2007, over 60 Darth Vader helmets are displayed at the Star Wars celebration. Customized by the who’s who of the designer toy, lowbrow, and graffiti worlds, and curated by Dov Kelemer of DKE Toys, the exhibition is a perfect representation of why the Art Of section was created at Format.
“There’s a stigma attached to Star Trek and I don’t want that to happen to Star Wars.”
Format: Please introduce yourself to Format.
Dov: My name is Dov Kelemer, I am the curator of The Vader Project and I also run a company called DKE Toys where I distribute designer vinyl and art toys.
Format: Why were you selected to curate The Vader Project?
Dov: I wasn’t really selected. I presented the concept of The Vader Project to Master Replicas who actually manufactures the Darth Vader Helmet – it’s an exact one to one replica of the helmet used in the films. They retail for about 900 bucks, and I asked them if they would get me some helmets for artists to customize to do an art show. A platform show like that is pretty familiar in the art scene, at least in the designer toy world. It’s very common for designer toy manufacturers to make blank DIY versions that artists customize and do custom shows with. I just applied the concept to Darth Vader figuring that it would be a perfect canvas to customize, draw on, paint, mash-up, whatever…
Format: What made you decide to pick Darth Vader’s helmet specifically?
Dov: Well, a couple reasons. I think it was one of the first helmets Master Replicas actually released, so it was convenient, but coincidently it’s probably the most iconic. It’s not just a blank canvas, there’s actually a lot of depth and meaning built in, more so than some of the other helmets. Whether you’ve seen Star Wars or not, it’s very familiar, it’s an archetype that most people in our culture understand. It’s the embodiment of evil. Having that as a canvas, the artists involved really had an opportunity to play against it, or go with the theme, and if you look at a lot of the work in the show, you see an abundance of anti-war statements, and statements about violence in general. I think it’s a better concept than had it just been, “Hi everybody, please submit a painting for a Star Wars group show.” While other helmets would have worked Darth Vader just says so much more.
Format: Why did you pick this particular breed of art—lowbrow, graffiti, toy designer—for this project?
Dov: Number one, I’m involved, and almost all the artists there, are involved somehow in the designer toy market, and are all either in these kind of group shows, or they’re actually involved in creating designer toys. It was a conscious choice not to have any “Star Wars” artists. I know tons of Star Wars artists, and they’re all people I do business with, and it created a very difficult situation because they all wanted to be involved. What I tried to do was bring a new group of artists, not only to expose them to a new audience, but to have a new audience exposed to them. Had the show been open to artists involved with Star Wars then that would have opened a whole can of worms. There are hundreds of talented artists involved directly with Lucas Film from production to comic book artists, and the people who do posters, and design products. Everything at Star Wars celebration, everything in Star Wars in general, is usually very similar to what has come before, and so the idea here was to bring a whole new vision.
Format: You’re quoted as saying, “the pop surrealist/lowbrow/graffiti/designer art scene is exploding around us.” This exhibition being included in the Star Wars celebration is a testament to that. Why do you think this explosion is happening at this moment in time?
Dov: I think that people want something new and there is a growing appreciation in our culture for design. The idea that there is an artist or individual responsible for what you see. Consequently the part of my business that is involved in designer toys and distributing them to stores throughout the world is a movement that is rapidly growing, and the toy movement is creating more of a buzz for a lot of these artists and designers. If you can’t afford a Tim Biskup painting for example, you can definitely afford 100 dollars for a Tim Biskup toy. So, it’s just a way for people to be involved in collecting art, because essentially a toy is like a print in a way, it’s just a three dimensional version.
Format: How, if at all, did the response differ between art fans, and Star Wars fans, at the exhibition?
Dov: I don’t know how many fans of the designer toy scene were actually in attendance at Star Wars Celebration. However I can tell you there was a very small percentage of hardcore Star Wars fans who were kind of miffed, saying “what have you done to Darth Vader, this is sacrilege.” But I would say that 99 percent of the response was, “this is amazing, I’ve never seen anything like this, this is the most relevant thing at the convention, this made the show for me.” I mean, those are the comments we got over and over again. This is something that most mainstream audiences have never seen before so I hope they were impressed.
Format: How has Star Wars affected your life on a personal level?
Dov: I have a love hate relationship with Star Wars. On one side I’ve been selling Star Wars toys, and other Star Wars collectibles for all of my adult life and that business led to distributing designer toys which is hugely successful today. I also sold my personal vintage collection back in the late 90s and put a down payment on a house. But I see Star Wars stuff everyday. We buy people’s collections on the secondary market, old dealer stock, and handle liquidations for several companies so it’s kind of something that’s in my life and all over the house. So for the most part it’s been reduced to the most base commodity. So it’s getting very old for me.
When I first pitched The Vader Project to Master Replicas, what I told them, was that in my opinion, Star Wars was getting kind of nerdy. It was starting to approach Star Trek, and that’s not a direction that makes me very happy, and I guess that’s part of the love hate relationship that I have with it. The original movies are so great, and I’ve had so many fond memories, and it’s been such an integral part of my life. I’m also a documentary filmmaker and went to film school, so from the start it’s influenced me personally in almost everything that I do but when I attend these conventions I can’t help thinking of William Shatner on SNL, you know where he is on the podium telling the Trekkies to “get a life” and “have you ever kissed a girl?” And I don’t want to see Star Wars headed in that direction. I think it’s more relevant than that to me personally and to the culture. So my pitch to Master Replicas was hey, I have a concept here that I can try and present Star Wars in a new “cool” way. And there’s a lot of people out there with the same ideas but they seem to still be on the fringes and I think the reaction to the Vader Project proves that people are ready for more.
Are they going to make more movies? There’s talk of that. Are they going to make cartoons or other TV shows? Are we just the next generation of nerds who love Star Wars? Ultimately, we don’t know what’s in store for the Star Wars franchise. There’s a stigma attached to Star Trek and I don’t want that to happen to Star Wars. Now, 30 years after the first Star Wars film crashed onto screens, I’m doing my part to keep Star Wars cool.