Pablo Picasso, Damien Hirst...and blockchain? Art consultant Eleanor Chan navigates the increasingly blurred line between traditional fine art and NFT art.
It was over a year ago that the term “NFT art” started to pop up regularly in not only my conversations with artists, gallerists and curators in Hong Kong and Asia, but in the art world at large. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are non-interchangeable units of data stored on a blockchain; NFT art, meanwhile, refers to when someone stores their art in one of these units of data, be it an image, gif, animation or song. Back then, as someone with a background mainly in traditional fine art that might be called “low-tech”, I hoped nobody would notice the huge question mark floating over my head.
Alas, a year after Beeple sold his The First 5000 days for US$69 million and Crytopunks was credited for kickstarting the NFT craze, I am now knee-deep in the NFT world, specifically the NFT art world. I have even managed to acquire a few pieces of my own.
As my fascination took hold, so did these questions: Are NFTs an overhyped trend or are they really a democratic force, as their proponents claim? Which is the best NFT marketplace? How do you prevent someone from stealing your NFT art collection? One of the most interesting phenomena I had noticed is that while the NFT market was dominated by NFT native artists in the early days, well-established artists including Damien Hirst, Xu Bing and Vhils are entering the fray. What exactly is the allure, for both artists and collectors?
I believe that part of the excitement has to do with NFTs’ potential to cultivate a shift in the way one appreciates and collects art. Part of it has to do with exclusivity; when you buy a limited edition NFT, you join an exclusive club of collectors. For some, NFT is a part of their identity, like the Canadian collector who recently refused to part with his NFT for that very reason. That isn’t as outlandish as it seems, in a world where our digital identities are becoming richer and increasingly important. Technology scholar Donna Haraway proclaimed that we were all “cyborgs”. Perhaps soon we will become “cryto-borgs”.
But still the question remains: should we treat NFTs as we do traditional fine art? In an attempt to answer that question, I look at five handpicked pieces that crystallise the increasingly blurred line between NFT art and traditional fine art.
THE CURRENCY by Damien Hirst
I’m not sure if Damien Hirst’s NFT art project ‘The Currency’ is a different beast from the artist’s most recent show ‘His Own Worst Enemy’ at White Cube Hong Kong or cut from the same cloth – albeit featuring completely different embellishments.
While ‘His Own Worst Enemy’ questioned the value placed on myths and fictions, drawing on rich associations evoked by Disney and Greek mythology, ‘The Currency’ also appears to be making a statement about the value attributed to physical art pieces. ‘The Currency’ comprised 10,000 unique hand-painted dot-covered works on paper, each one corresponding to an NFT. When it first dropped last July, each of the painting-NFTs was available to collectors at US$2,000. But it came with a catch: buyers had to decide if they wanted to keep physical work and relinquish the right to the NFT, or keep the NFT and have its physical counterpart destroyed. As of September 2021, ‘The Currency’ was valued at US$500 million.
Is Hirst saying that NFTs are the myth of our time, or is he taking a cheeky stab at the arbitrary way the contemporary art world values art? Or does he simply want to make a buck? We can only hazard a guess. If there’s one thing I’m sure of – it’s that I will definitely keep the painting.
SITTING, WAITING by Mizuki Nishiyama
I often wonder what NFTs mean for artists. I tried to find answers at the Digital Art Fair last year, where a few NFT artworks were on display. One piece that caught my eye was Mizuki Nishiyama and Victor Wong’s Sitting, Waiting, an AR work that transforms the hills and valleys of sublime landscape into the curves and contours of a woman in a half sitting, half kneeling position. Interestingly, the work was first iterated as an oil on canvas, featuring only the woman. The painting is part of Mizuki’s “Seiza” series, which interrogates how the female body and identity are shaped by traditional Japanese society.
The AR work still focuses on this theme, but it also reflects on how landscapes have long been associated with the female body, adding another dimension in its critique of the objectification of women. It is said that NFTs allow artists more control over their own creations, as well as a better indication of how much others are willing to pay for their work. If that means that it will empower artists to experiment more freely with the medium, then I’m all for it.
BOOK FROM THE GROUND by Xu Bing
Xu Bing is known for his ethereal mixed-media installations that subvert language systems, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s turning to NFTs to subvert a different system: the preconceived ideas we have of art, collecting and ownership.
The Beijing-born artist is perhaps best known for Book from the Ground, a monumental work comprising books, wall panels and hanging scrolls – appearing to be inscribed with important Chinese text, yet the “text” is in fact some 4,000 pseudo-Chinese characters invented by the artist. Now, it has inspired his NFT project MetaWords. The MetaWords platform allows one to trade MetaWords Shard NFTs, which correspond to 35 chapters from Book from the Ground, as well as create their own MetaWords NFTs.
Xu touts it as a way to “democratise” the process of text and ascribing meaning, aligning with the democratic aspirations of certain proponents of blockchain and NFTs. I wonder, though, if language can exist without a system, or if the NFT world will eventually be consolidated in the hands of a few tech giants.
RUST BELT and DETRITUS by Vhils
I’m enthralled by Vhils’s incredibly empathetic ability to give voice to the marginalised in society as well as
bring the city into his work, as he does with neon infusing a sublime Hong Kong skyline. As part of the The End of the Industrial Era project, he used explosives to turn discarded buildings into ephemeral pieces of art, giving life to the decrepit and bringing sublimity to the banal, before immediately demolishing it. Both the video of the explosion (Rust Belt) and digitised chunks of debris (Detritus) were auctioned off as NFTs last year. I’ve always wanted to see the artist’s process in action and the video, using advanced slow-motion camera technologies, captures that absolutely exhilarating moment. Given Vhils often plays with the idea of creation and destruction, the NFT piece feels like an extension of the physical work but with a twist: if the NFT exists permanently on blockchain, are the moments of creation and destruction forever repeating, or do these processes no longer exist?
VISAGE DE COULEUR by Florian Picasso
Want to own a Picasso without shelling out millions of dollars? You can, now. No, I am not talking about fractional ownership schemes, but art by Florian Picasso, Pablo Picasso’s great grandson. Back in early February, Florian and his mother, Marina, announced plans to release a series of 1,010 NFTs of a ceramic work by Pablo Picasso. Yet, when other members from the Picasso estate vehemently opposed the idea, they decided to release their own original NFTs instead.
Each work from Florian’s ‘Visage de Couleur’ collection features a single animation of a face against a background. The response has been lukewarm so far, with the works selling a little north of US$5,000. All of which makes one think, if it doesn’t suffice to have clout in the NFT world, perhaps what matters more is a truly fresh idea, such as Hirst’s ‘The Currency’ – or the collection by the Indonesian student who took a selfie every day for five years and sold the lot for US$1 million.
Originally published in ECHELON Issue 7