The market follows the artist. The artist does not follow the market.
Iimani David, author.
Recently, a painting that had been sold as an authentic Leonardo da Vinci in 2017 has been “downgraded” by the Prado Museum. So… how does a Leonardo disappear?
The Art Newspaper reported that the Prado, in a exhibition catalog, has downgraded the Salvator Mundi from being by the hand of the great Leonardo da Vinci, to being “attributed works, workshops or authorized and supervised by Leonardo,” in other words, done maybe in part by Leonardo, in the presence of Leonardo, or maybe he was in the room with it at some time. (that last part was sarcasm)
What is this thing?
This is an oil painting on a wooden panel approximately 2 ft 2in x 1 ft 6 in. It portrays Jesus Christ as the Salvator Muni, Latin for “savior of the world.” It’s dated to sometime between 1499 to 1510. Jesus peers out from the frame, garbed in a blue robe and making the sign of the cross with his right hand. He holds a clear orb in his other hand. There are about thirty authenticated copies and variations of this painting by Leonardo’s followers, and drawings related to the painting are in the British Royal Collection. These thirty are copies of a presumed lost Leonardo original that probably dated to about 1500, and may have been lost in the early 1600s, though various copies have been claimed as the lost original at various times by various art historians.
By the way, this version of the Salvator Mundi (there are at least thirty of them) is sometimes referred to as the “Cook Version” after a previous owner, or as the Gulf version for its current presumed home in the Persian Gulf. For simplicity’s sake I will refer to it by the latter title.
In 2005, this Gulf version was bought by an art consortium in New York City from the estate of a Baton Rouge businessman, for about $1,175.
Wait. Full stop.
They bought a Leonardo for a grand?
No. They bought a very badly damaged and heavily overpainted Old Master painting that may or may not have been related to Leonard’s workshop. It was only during the process of stripping off the overpainting, and the restoration and cleaning that the possibly that Leonardo might have had his hands on it came to light. Thinking this might even be the lost original, they carefully proceeded with restoration.
After restoration it was authenticated, which is to say, some experts all got together and agreed it was most likely a real Leonardo painting. It was on display at the National Gallery in London as a Leonardo in 2011 to 2012, and later the Dallas Museum of Art also authenticated the work. At that point, it became a Leonardo.
In 2013 it was sold to a Swiss art dealer for about $75 million, then sold in short order to Russian billionaire Dmitry E. Rybolovlev for about $127.5 million. That’s an increase in value of about $52.5 million in less than a year.There were legal disputes over the work, with Rybolovlev bring suits against the dealer and the brokering auction house, Sotheby’s, for fraud and misrepresentation.
Famously the work, sold at a Christie’s auction in 2017 for a mind boggling $450 million. This sale made it the most expensive work of art to date. After this massive profit, Rybolovlev’s suits have been dropped. Although touted by the auction house as “the greatest artistic rediscovery of the last 100 years,” even as the gavel fell on the work, people were questioning its status as being by the Old Master’s hand. The buyer was Saudi culture minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah, who is presumed by many to be a stand in buyer for Prince Mohammed bin Salman. However Riyadh only names Badr as the owner. Since the purchase the work has not been publicly displayed, despite a 2018 planned opening for the piece at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, an event that was cancelled. The Louvre Abu Dhabi refused to allow the painting to be subjected to further testing and authentication.
In 2019 the Louvre (in Paris) held an unprecedented Leonardo exhibition, which did not include the Gulf Mundi. There was much speculation that the buyer(s) may have questioned the attribution even immediately after purchasing and might have felt embarrassment over spending almost half a billion dollars on something that probably wasn’t worth it. Then the recent downgrade of the Gulf Mundi in the exhibition catalog by the Prado seems to confirm judgment that the work is not an authentic original.
If it’s a workshop piece instead of an original then its value is probably in the realm of about $1.5 million dollars.
This shoddy piece of wood with cracked and restored paint lost about $448.5 million in value.
There has been no comment from the Saudi government on this development, and no announced plans to display the work in public. The Leonardo has disappeared.
As someone who teaches art history, specifically modern and contemporary art, it’s not uncommon for me to get a lot of questions about art’s value and the art market. For a wide variety of reasons, people seem much more intensely interested in why post-war abstraction and contemporary installation works sell for millions of dollars than with the monetary value of a Monet or Rembrandt (in my experience, anyway). So when a Beeple NFT work sold at Christies for 69 million dollars, I got a lot of questions, from students, colleagues, and friends. I attempted to sort my thoughts in my previous post on NFTs, In that post I also summarize what an NFT is, so if you’re looking for that explanation, please check that post out first.
I had a pretty critical response to NFTs in that article, and while I’m attempting to be more open to the positive potential of this new technology, I’m still quite wary. Previously, I argued that the frenzied speculation in the market was an indication of the acceleration of art’s commodification. I suggested that while the intention of NFTs developers was to empower artists to maintain ownership and receive proper compensation for their labor, what seemed to really be happening was a hyper-commodification that only in rare cases directly benefits the artist. I asked in that post if the transmutation of the art-object into a purely financial asset does or doesn’t empower the artist.
A few months, several huge auctions, and lots of spilled digital ink on the topic later, and many of my concerns about authenticity and commodification remain.
Anil Dash, the CEO of Glitch, who co-pioneered NFT technology in 2014, wrote for The Atlantic in April this year about his initial expectations for this new way of trading art. The intention, as he describes it, was to create a system of provenance and protection for artists. NFTs were meant to allow artists to retain ownership of their works and thus resist appropriation and exploitation. The technology was intended to be a brave new way forward to ensuring the direct compensation of creative labor. It didn’t quite work out that way.
Dash explained that the initial 2014 program was quite rudimentary, built during a type of hackathon. The program didn’t have the capacity to contain actual images, the shortcut they used in the code was to simply link to an external site containing the image. The issue, however, is that now, this market which is worth billions of dollars uses the same shortcut. Most people buying NFTs now are not getting access to a complete file but only a link to it, which may be housed on a website maintained by a startup company which may or may not be around two years from now. If that company goes belly-up, who authenticates your NFT?
In short: Right now NFT’s are built on an absolute house of cards constructed by the people selling them. It is likely that _every_ NFT sold so far will be broken within a decade. Will that make them worthless? Hard to say
Jonty Wareing, Tweet.
Will that make them worthless? The software engineer, Jonty Wareing, quoted above, certainly understands the technology better than I ever will. But I do think discussions on the value of NFTs would benefit on a reminder on how art is valued, no matter the media or method of trading.
A work of art’s value is determined by three things:Perceived Rarity + Perceived Demand + Perceived Authenticity
Rarity. Or if you prefer, scarcity. This is probably the most fraught concept when it comes to NFTs. IRL art is physically tangible, with dimensions that can be measured and cataloged. It’s an object that can be found, lost, rediscovered, etc. Due to the manner in which non-digital art is made we tend to think of the work as unique, original, and one of a kind. This gives obvious rarity. Even in the case of replicable media, like prints, the individual items are usually numbered and in limited editions. Lower numbered prints are typically valued more than higher numbered ones, prints from smaller editions are worth more than ones from larger editions. And then there’s the consideration of authenticity, prints made by the artist tend to be worth more than a posthumously made edition (in general, there are always exceptions). NFTs have a real problem in terms of originality. A jpeg or other image file can be copied easily, and absent metadata, the copy is indistinguishable from the original. As summarized in my previous post on NFTs what the non-fungible token actually does is provide a certificate of authenticity. It “mints” this particular jpeg (or whatever) as the designated original. The coding in the token is what is actually rare, not the item signified by it.
Demand. This element of value is fickle. Artists can fall in and out of demand over time, sometimes suddenly. NFTs are currently a hot commodity, there’s definitely demand, although the audience is quite limited.
Authenticity. An original is worth more than a copy. An original with well documented provenance is worth more than an accepted attribution with no solid substantiation of its origins. As mentioned before, an NFT is generally a certificate of authenticity, a tracker of provenance.
Perception. All of these elements of value rely on perception. All of these factors are largely subjective. A work thought to be an original may be discovered to be a forgery. A work thought to be a one-off may actually be one in a series. A work thought to be by one artist may turn out to be from someone else. A change in the academically accepted status of a work can suddenly and dramatically change its market value.
In the tweet above, the software engineer asks an open question regarding the nature of NFT art should the links encoded in the tokens be “broken.” In such a circumstance, the designated original would be lost, or at least compromised, but the token of authenticity would be intact (as far as I understand this hypothetical). Would such a work lose value?
In this hypothetical, but seemingly quite possible, scenario, what happens to the three factors of value? Immediately the authenticity and the rarity of the file would come into question. The designated original file would be compromised or deleted, but likely copies would exist. Since those copies would be indistinguishable from the designated original, and let’s say the artist consents to the substitution, the NFT could then be made “whole” again with no alteration to the original form of the NFT. What about demand? If I’m the owner of the “restored” NFT and put it up on the secondary market, does the process of restoration effect its value? In theory, it shouldn’t, since it is literally indistinguishable from the original, but in my opinion, I predict it would negatively impact the value. Collectors are often opportunistic, but not always rational, I think they would view the restored NFT as lacking authenticity, or as being damaged in some way. Not because it literally is, but because of subjective perception.
This is all wild speculation, of course.
Remember the collective that bought a Banksy, made it an NFT then burned it?
Artist Damien Hirst recently launched an initiative called “The Currency” which offers 10,000 hand-created dot paintings, each one with a corresponding NFT. For 2,000 dollars a buyer gets the NFT, but after one year the owner must decide if they want the physical version of the object, for which they must relinquish the NFT, or if they want to keep the digital token. If they choose the token, the physical painting is burned. Paintings were ranked by a third party analytics company in terms of “rarity” based on factors like how many colors were used, number of words in the title, etc. Since the project started, the secondary market has earned over 26 million dollars to date. Some of the tokens sell for only a few thousand dollars, others of 100s of thousands.
As a side note, I was not able to find out if the NFTs include a resale clause that gives Hirst a royalty on secondary sales. Some such contracts are included in NFTs but many tokens do not have this clause. Further, I was not able to determine where the designated original was stored, or how it was coded into the NFT.
It stands to reason that in a years’ time most of the owners of the NFTs will opt to keep their digital tokens, and there will be quite a bonfire at Hirst’s studio.
As in the Banksy event I discussed in my previous post, there’s a transmission of authenticity being performed here. For those who decide that the Hirst artwork is more valuable to them digitally, the destruction of the physical object will likely increase the NFTs value. Again, this is speculation on my part, but it will be interesting to see how the secondary market responds once the paintings are destroyed.
Many voices in the art and design community are also angry that NFTs are changing hands for such astronomical sums of money, and it’s often not going to the artist. Given that NFTs were originally created as a way of giving control by asserting digital ownership, the idea that they are becoming increasingly elitist is causing tension. The buy-in fees are prohibitive for many, and the cost to actually buy one means the marketplace is becoming something of a playground for the super-rich.
Georgia Coggin, CreativeBloq.com
Anil Dash, comments on the trading of NFTs currently: “What results is an almost hermetically sealed economy, whose currencies exist only to be traded and become derivatives of themselves. If you squint, it looks like an absurd art project.”
It really does all seem like an excuse for rich people to exchange money with each other. I don’t want to be completely dismissive of NFTs, artists in smaller markets can, and some have, been able to profit from this technology. Certain institutions have been able to leverage NFTs into money making ventures. Recently the British Museum announced it was going to sell at auction NFT versions of several Hokusai prints. Each set of NFTs being ranked by rarity, like the Hirst project, creating a series of copies of Hokusais that are designated “ultra rare,” “unique,” or “common,” with corresponding price ranges. It struck me that this makes the NFTs sound a lot like Magic: The Gathering (MTG) cards, and I can’t help but wonder how an ultra rare Hokusai NFT’s value will look in 10 years, and how it might compare to a MTG Black Lotus card in value? Isn’t that kind of what NFTs are? Digital Art Collectible Trading Cards?
The commercialization of art is nothing new, of course, and even this kind of explosive market is not unprescidented.
Probably the closest art historical analog to the present NFT fervor was the dramatic rise of pop art in the early 1960s. Artists such as Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol turned suddenly and in earnest to colorful, recognizable imagery produced in technological, déclassé media in multiple such as screen prints and lithographs.
Michael Maizels, TechCrunch, November 2, 2021
The argument has been made that the fervor over Pop art was manipulated and elitist, at least as much as the current NFT rage is. I would argue, that while Warhol and Johns created commodified art about commodity culture, we’re not seeing a similar thematic trend in NFTs. The Beeple, Hirst, Banksy, and NyanCat sales don’t really have that much in common in terms of style, theme, or genre. Their commercial success as NFTs is only what unifies them. What these works have in common is their status as meta-data in a curious and novel form of cryptocurrency.
I find myself again at a quote from W.F. Haug which I quoted from in my previous post (apologies for the repetition):
“Capital, with art at it’s disposal, not only shows off as a connoisseur and admirer of Fine Art but also, in its esoteric interests, adopts the lofty illusion that it is the highest creations of the human spirit, and not profit, which is its determining aim. Thus, everything good, noble, beautiful and great seems to speak for capital. Art is used to dazzle, as a tool to create the illusion that the domination of capital is legitimate, and just as valid as the domination of the good, the true, the beautiful, and so forth. In this way art can become a means, among others, of stupefying the public.”
W.F. Haug, p. 129
Art and NFTs go together because art has long been a way for transferring wealth while also signifying interest in high-brow cultural pursuits that give the presentation of being more lofty and sophisticated than mere commodity.
Does this phenomenon have the potential to revolutionize how artists connect with buyers? To ensure creative labor gets the support it deserves? Maybe. It’s certainly not living up to that potential at the moment. I think it’s an error to presume NFTs are a fad or that they’re going away anytime soon. As long as the blockchain technology that underpins it remains viable, so will NFTs, and as long as speculators can make profit on using art as meta-data, then that’s what will continue to happen. Sadly, in most cases, this seems to have little impact on the actual artists except in the highest most echelons of the trade. Will NFTs eventually be relegated to the art elites? The Hirsts and British Museums? Will other artists see their work continue to trade for increasing sums without actually getting compensated? As much money has already been traded in this new facet of the art world, it’s still impossible to say exactly how the market will shake out years from now. I can only hope more attention to equity and accessibility will be paid in the future.
W.F. Haug, Critique of Commodity Aestheticts: Appearances, Sexuality and Adversitsing in Captialist Sockeity, Trans. Robert Block, Intro. by Sturat Hall. University of Minnesoata Press, 1986.
Last week I had the chance to see the newest exhibition at the Epoch Gallery (年代美术馆) in Wenzhou. I’ve seen several excellent shows at this location, and I’m always thrilled at their curatorial choices. This article will describe some of the highlights from the Local Individuals (在地个体) exhibtion on display at the gallery until June 20, 2021.
The ground floor of the exhibtion was beautifully arranged with some striking works in the main area. Artist Shen Kelong 沈克龙 really caught my eye with with his wood lacquer pieces that simmered with a raw energy and texture. The thick layers of the lacquer, the red and orange evokes an idea of oxidation, rust, changing surfaces. From afar the works seem minimal, largely monochrome with asymmetrical accents of color, but as one approaches the surface one sees the nuance of surface and the gesture of the artist on the gleaming support.
There was an overall theme in the exhibtion that was slowly divulged to me as I walked through, especially in the upstairs gallery. Things are not what they seem in this show, the allure of surfaces is revealed to be something entirely different, more complex, the closer one looks, more is unveiled.
The highlight of the show, in my opinion, was Kang Haitao 康海涛, in particular his work, Hidden Confluence, 2017. Kang lives in Chegdu and Mianyang and since 2000 has been working on a few series exploring traditional techniques, abstraction, and spirituality.
This work struck me the moment I saw it. The surface is deceptive, it seems like a reflection, but it’s not reflective. It seems like it has layers of light shimmering over each other, but it doesn’t. It feels like I should be seeing my reflection in the surface of the painting, but I don’t. As I get closer to the work, it dissolves, not in the same way that Impressionist works seem to, but Kang’s works become ephemeral, the overall confluence of light and color disappears as one approaches the surface. Underlying drawings, pencil marks, grid lines, scratchy edges of color, don’t so much come into focus as they are revealed upon closer inspection. The nuance of the illusionistic sheen on the painting is enticing. I found myself being pulled back to this work again and again while at the gallery.
The ghostly marks under glimmering colors and softly scattered shapes, gently pushes and pulls the viewer to and from the work, engaging one in a slippery tension of focus and blur. Like trying to watch the world in a reflection of a window, light seems to both pass through and be reflected back. Foreground and background are the same, collapsed and yet sliding above and beneath each other. The gridlines, only really noticeable at close range, serve an interesting visual function, seemingly contradictory. A grid typically feels machine-like and cold, but here it feels grounded, it is the hand of the artist, indications that no matter how diffuse and shifting the surface of the painting feels, there is a reason underlying it. An intelligence, a persona, that constructs the sliding ephemeral daze fluctuating just over. The hard lines of the grid make the work oddly human, by giving an anchor between the floating world and the real one.
Wu Jian’an 邬建安 is from Beijing and has a work series called 500 Strokes on display in this exhibition. Keeping with the theme I identified earlier, this piece is more than it seems at a distance. At first looking like a more frenetic version of a Franz Kline painting, Wu’s work reveals themselves to be much more nuanced and precise. Instead of ink strokes brashly scribbled on top of each other, Wu constructed these pieces out of many created by others. Each stroke on the canvas was brushed by someone the artist knows, or even by some he only met by chance. Each slash of ink is on a type of calligraphy paper that is quite thin and fragile, but well known as a traditional media that beautifully captures the expressive gesture of the artist. Wu meticulously cut out each stroke and composed them into the new works. The result is a meditation on both free expression and precise control, on the relationship between conscious composition and subconscious state of flow. The hand of the artist is both present in the orchestration of the overall work but obscured by the raw power of the gestures that are not actually his own. The 500 Strokes series is a beautiful symphony of tradition and contemporaneity.
“Each stroke is a portrait.”
Epoch Art Museum, statement on artist Wu Jian’an. Translation by the author
In the downstairs gallery, Chen Qi 陈琦 has a group of Waterprint Woodblock pieces that are breathtaking. Originally from Nanjing, this printmaker makes visually stunning large scale works that in his estimation, work to free the process of printmaking from the burden of representation. Working printing plates in layers and reworking plates from 20 years ago, Chen’s work shimmer with subtlety. Looking at the surface of the prints closely, uncountable textures and layers, interfold and overlap, the sheer size and precision of his technique was enough to make me rock back on my heels. Feeling much more like paintings than prints, these works have a transparency to their layers that gives a tremendous sense of depth to them. I described Kang Haitao’s painting was like looking at the world on the surface of a window, Chen Qi’s works speak of depth where Kang’s plays on the surface. Even though the ink literally lays atop the paper, one feels pulled into it, dunked into the stream and flow of the undulations and textures.
“I have been trying to break through how to make the impression have independent meaning and not simply serve the reproduction of the image.”
Epoch Art Museum, statement by the artist Chen Qi. Translation by the author.
So much more could be said about the works in this wonderful exhibition. From the Neo-Expressionist inspired images of Liu Fengzhi with their deceptively simple renditions of scenes in bold, energetic gestures of paint, to the soft, meditative, evocative, and floating works of Ye Jiangqing. Fang Lijung’s works are bold and confrontational, whereas Zhen Jiang’s works seem minimalistic in comparison, only to reveal a stunning array of textures and layers upon closer look. All the works in the exhibtion displaying nuanced balance between meaning and materiality, between form and depth, a fantastic and must-see show.
Sources: Artist information from the Epoch Art Museum, Wenzhou. Photos taken by the author, all rights belong to the respective artists.
Recently, Christie’s auction house sold a piece of digital artwork by Beeple (Mike Winkelmann) for over $69 million. The interesting thing about the work, entitled EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS, beyond its aesthetic and mode of production, for me, is that the item sold is not a physical manifestation of the piece, nor is it “merely” a high-resolution digital file. The work was an NFT, or Non-Fungible Token. Similar NFTs have been extremely hot commodities online, with some video clips of professional basketball players, and pixelated cat illustrations, selling in the millions in some cases.
But what’s actually being sold? The art? The videos? The avatars? No. Not really.
Take the Banksy work I’ll discuss below in greater detail. That work, entitled MORONS (WHITE) 2006, was one of an edition of 500 prints. A company, Injective Protocol, bought a singular print of the edition, transformed it into an NFT, then destroyed the “original” purchased print. The image in question can be seen online in innumerable different places, including this blog:
(non-coincidental title is non-coincidental. Image from Banksy’s Twitter.)
And probably if someone wanted this image, you could right click on it and save the file, and there you go, you have it too. If that didn’t work, most of us can take a screenshot pretty easily, and again, there you go. The image is yours.
Or is it?
Obviously, you don’t need advanced degrees to understand that the process I just described allows you to save a file copy of the image. No one would seriously confuse (though we sometimes conflate) an “original” work of art with an image of it we see on the internet.
(you probably see where I’m going with this. Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928-9. LACMA)
The following is a dramatic recreation of an exchange in my office. Okay, it’s more drama than recreation. …okay, it’s entirely fictional. (apologies to my officemate)
“What the hell am I looking at?” my officemate exclaims when she sees the pixilated image of cats pop up on my screen. She’s not confused by the image, but by the context. “Someone paid millions for this?”
“Well…Yes…and no.” I hedge. She looks annoyed, as she often does when I start in with that contemporary art stuff.
“So, you couldn’t download this can you?”
“Well…this..I can.” and I right click the image on my screen and save as a jpeg on my desktop.
“So… did you steal that image?”
Surprised, “…not… technically…” suddenly I’m concerned about copyright warnings for that image and all the others I’ve plucked from the Googles and currently reside scattered across my desktop.
“But you have it on your computer.”
“I have a copy of the jpeg, yes.”
“I thought you said NFTs are not copyable.”
“But you copied it.”
“I copied the image, not the NFT.”
“But the NFT is the image.”
“No…but in a way, maybe, yes.” I decide on a different approach. “So, when you go to the British Library website and look at medieval books, what are you looking at?”
“Scanned copies of the manuscripts.”
“Right, the images on your screen are a representation of the pages. The original pages are in the book…”
“…right…manuscript…in a museum or archive.”
“So, in this scenario, the image on my screen is just a representation of data in the NFT. The NFT contains the image, and I’ve copied a representation of that. But the original is in the data of the NFT and is not replicable.”
“But it’s on your desktop.”
“No, a jpeg is on my desktop, the NFT is not. If I buy a poster of the Mona Lisa and hang it on my wall, I don’t own the Mona Lisa, I own a copy of its likeness.”
“I understand that. But I don’t understand why someone would pay hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars for a jpeg you can download to your computer at any time, and distribute freely.”
“They’re not paying for the jpeg; they’re paying for the NFT.”
Skeptical look. “So, this is just a way for rich people to exchange money with each other under the guise of art collecting?”
For those who don’t know, and those of us (including me) who only barely comprehend the technology, an NFT is a type of crypto-currency created on a smart contract platform, commonly Ethereum. The Token created by the Ethereum blockchain is non-fungible. Simply put, tokens that are fungible have equivalent value, like Bitcoins, or Euros, or Dollars. One Bitcoin always equals one Bitcoin, when the price of these tokens rises or fall, each individual unit remains equivalent to every other individual unit, this is essentially how money works and is the same reason a US dollar is equal to a US dollar, and at any given moment in time, no one USD has more or less value than any other USD. Non-Fungible Tokens differ in that each unit, or Token, is totally unique and non-replicable.
“NFTs shift the crypto paradigm by making each token unique and irreplaceable, thereby making it impossible for one non-fungible token to be equal to another. They are digital representations of assets and have been likened to digital passports because each token contains a unique, non-transferable identity to distinguish it from other tokens.” (Rakesh Sharma)
It’s uniqueness, it’s rarity (or perhaps better economic term, scarcity) is its existence as a digital object that is indivisible and not reproducible. Encoded within (or attached to? I don’t necessarily understand the mechanics) the Token can have other data, including images, music, videos, text, etc. Metadata, including things like an artist’s signature, can be added.
What was for sale at Christie’s was a digital token that contained the image. The image itself can be copied, replicated, deleted, altered at will. But the Token cannot. What sold for over 69 million US dollars was not really the artwork, but the token associated with it. I’m sure the artist and auction house would argue against that idea, but, in my opinion, the unique object for sale in that auction was not really the work of art, although the NFT is inseparable from the work of art (as far as I understand). I’m not discrediting the amazing process and images contained within Beeple’s work, and I’m not suggesting his art isn’t worth or would not have gotten this price range if it were offered through some other media. I am suggesting that there is something fundamentally different about the NFT medium that speaks more closely to economics and financial trading than it does to the aesthetics of contemporary art.
Essentially the NFT serves as a kind of certificate of authenticity, it tracks origin, ownership, basically the provenance of a digital work. It is verifiable through the blockchain, the ownership cannot be revoked or removed, once it’s yours, it’s totally yours, no DRM, no licensing. The NFT itself cannot be recreated; each token is one-of-a-kind.
This newest art trend (or fad, according to some) is highly speculative with inflated prices not unlike what one sees in other cryptocurrency trading.
This is not to say that these objects have no use-value. This technology has the potential to open the market to artists to engage directly with potential buyers and collectors without the necessity of galleries, agents, or auction houses, at least in theory, if not in practice. Beeple sold through Christie’s after all. But whether this becomes the new standard for art selling and buying in the future, or if it’s a trend that burns itself out in a few months, what I’m interested in here is the larger implications of what it means to make, buy, and sell art in the age of digital reproduction.
And this brings me back to burning the Banksy.
“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” (Walter Benjamin)
Yep, I’m going there. We’re talking Walter Benjamin and authenticity.
The Banksy work was acquired and in a ritual performance streamed online, it was sacrificed. I know that probably reads as being over dramatic, but I don’t think it’s unwarranted. A masked figure approaches the work and sets it alight. It doesn’t go up right away, in a flash, but eventually it smolders and burns. And something fundamental changes.
A representative of the company that bought and was responsible for the decision to burn the piece, Injective Protocal, explains in a YouTube video that the destruction was necessary to destroy the primacy of the physical original.
Taking a work of art by one person and “destroying” it to create something new from its remains is not a new idea in contemporary art, ERASED DE KOONING, is just one well known example.
(Rauschenberg, Erased De Kooning, 1953. SFMOMA.)
Rauschenberg performatively disrupts the status of Willem De Kooning as an Old Master of Abstract Expressionism by physically removing the original artist’s hand from the surface of the work. The resultant piece is Robert Rauschenberg’s, his act of erasure also a flag post, claiming ownership of the item both physically and conceptually.
Banksy’s own works that self destruct (remember the self-shredding piece?) also seem like more sophisticated versions of Jean Tinguely’s machines. Banksy directs his works poignantly at the art market itself, at the commodification of art fundamentally.
But this wasn’t exactly what happened in this most recent performance. The purpose of the destruction was not to claim the object, or disrupt the position of Banksy in the contemporary art scene (at least I don’t see it that way). Nor do I think it was quite the swipe at the elitist economics of the art auction house that the artist himself has done.
This burning ritual was not a critique of how the market values art, but rather a transfer of value. In order to ensure that the NFT iteration of the work was valued as The Work proper, it’s original, the signified, had to be eliminated, thus (presumably) transferring the status of original to the NFT. The digital iteration, formerly a signifier referencing the print, became through the process of destruction, that which was the referent. While the print was in “its unique existence at the place where it happens to be…” the newer iteration would be robbed of potential market value. Burning the print transmuted the NFT to the status of original. If the market value of the print was actually transferred can only be seen once it is sold. No market, no market value.
Now, it does not escape me that the original was a print. One of 500 more or less identical images of the same scene. That edition now has 499, and the NFT iteration is fundamentally a unique, non-replicable, theoretically non-destructible object. The irony is rich, and I’m sure intentional.
“…changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.” (Walter Benjamin)
The NFT is a new iteration of the former print. Because that object no longer exists, the tradition of its ownership now extends from the creation of the digital file. Its existence is predicated on the existence of the former object (like the Rauschenberg was predicated on the de Kooning) but the resultant object, the digital file, is something separate. I don’t know if the NFT iteration indicates Banksy as a single creator of the work, but I would argue at this point the object of art in this case is the company’s object, or at least it’s a collaboration, whether or not Banksy willingly cooperated, or knew what was going to happen.
“Within the system of selling and buying, the aesthetic illusion—the commodity’s promise of use-value—enters the arena as an independent function in selling.” (W.F. Haug, 17)
The extreme speculation of this market speaks to the allure of its novelty. Christie’s involvement as broker of the Beeple sale gives NFT based art real-world legitimacy. Perhaps serving as a door opener to collectors otherwise uncomfortable navigating the ever-churning waters of cryptocurrency trading. Concerns and criticisms about the contemporary art market’s elitism are not assuaged by this development, but rather, concentrated. Art collecting has for a very long time (maybe always?) been a signifier of prestige, wealth, and power, a demonstration taste making and gatekeeping. Transcending the physical object to the purely digital, finally commodifying the digital into tokens that can have scarcity, and therefore tradable value on the market, maybe does not alter the purpose or function of art per se, but it does lend itself to an acceleration of art’s commodification. And as art becomes increasingly and more transparently a commodity, a financial asset, how does that in reality, empower artistic expression?
In Esquire magazine, Anna Grace Lee writes:
From an ethical and equity perspective, the option of selling one’s art as NFTs may not be the ample opportunity it has the potential to be. On Twitter, digital artist RJ Palmer recently warned fellow artists that there was an account ripping off art by minting artists’ tweets of their art and selling them as NFTs. There’s potential for abysmal exploitation of emerging artists’ work, without the proper enforcement or investigation into whether the person minting an NFT is the actual artist, true creator, and copyright owner of the work. The relative anonymity of crypto transactions has created an environment ripe for exploitation, theft, and harm.
The Christie’s auction provided legitimacy to the idea that what was being sold was what was being advertised. Other artists, not so well represented, are at risk for being ripped off, as collectors chase these rare tokens with little to no regard for the art it portends to represent. In the future, will NFTs be the democratizing and freeing medium that unleashes expression to a new generation of creatives? Or will it become yet another tool of exploitation, another way for rich people to exchange money with other rich people? Most likely, both, to some degree.
“…the ideal of commodity aesthetics is to deliver the absolute minimum of use-value, disguised and staged by a maximum of seductive illusion…” (W.F. Haug, 54)
In my opinion, the NFT market as it currently exists, is illusionary, the seduction of the new, the cutting edge, ultimately though an aesthetic of technology veiling the blisteringly fast pace of art’s commodification and placement as servant to capital.
I admit I do not understand the technology in a comprehensive way, so perhaps there’s something essential to the process that escapes me. Until I do understand whatever that missing piece is, W.F. Haug’s comments about commodity aesthetics seems to me fairly apropos.
“Capital, with art at it’s disposal, not only shows off as a connoisseur and admirer of Fine Art but also, in its esoteric interests, adopts the lofty illusion that it is the highest creations of the human spirit, and not profit, which is its determining aim. Thus, everything good, noble, beautiful and great seems to speak for capital. Art is used to dazzle, as a tool to create the illusion that the domination of capital is legitimate, and just as valid as the domination of the good, the true, the beautiful, and so forth. In this way art can become a means, among others, of stupefying the public.” (Haug, 129)
W.F. Haug, Critique of Commodity Aestheticts: Appearances, Sexuality and Adversitsing in Captialist Sockeity, Trans. Robert Block, Intro. by Sturar Hall. University of Minnesoata Prewss, 1986.
W. Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, In: Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, from the 1935 essay. New York: Schocken Books, 1969
I had the ability to travel to the Asia Society in Hong Kong to see their exhibition, Breathing Space– Contemporary Art from Hong Kong. This is a quick overview of what’s there.
First off, the Asia Society is absolutely beautiful, with stunning views of the city. It’s located right next to the British Consulate General’s office. The building’s upper floors have outdoor walkways which gracefully intersect the urban and natural as you look through hanging vines and thick foliage to the bustling city beyond.
The artworks were arranged both indoors and outdoors, encouraging visitors to explore the entire area, stopping to consider particular works against beautiful, natural backdrops.
One of the first artists to capture my attention was Magdalen Wong, and her installation piece, Blanket. A heavy, grey, woolen blanket is folded on the ground with one corner of the blanket bound by a thick rope. The other end of the rope is attached to a track suspended below the ceiling of the porch where the work was installed. Many of the artworks in Breathing Space were sound-based, which made Wong’s nearly silent work even more prescient.
The blanket hung, partially suspended over the rough ground. There was no motor or electronics to move the thick blanket. Only the soft push of the wind caused the rope to slide through the track, pulling the blanket almost silently across the ground. Inevitably the rope would reach the end of the track, linger there for a short while until the breeze around the building shifted, pulling the blanket back across the ground. The movement was surprisingly graceful and regular, the blanket completing a sweeping movement across the ground, the rope taught and straight, like the handle of a mop.
With obvious references to the idea of a “security blanket,” we watch the work quietly and restlessly pace back and forth, worrying the edges of the cloth until they fray. There’s a statement here about anxiety and movement. The slow wearing-away of the blanket suggestive of the obsessive ways we wear ourselves down. We pace through our lives being pushed by unseen winds of obligations and responsibilities, on a track of our social constraints. And yet the work also seems a bit detached, as though we have some emotional distance from it. We see the futility of movement, the repetition of it, but we can move away and around it. In this setting, surrounded by both beautiful modern architecture and luscious greenery, the soft man-made materials of the blanket and rope seem simultaneously organic and artificial. The delicate, changing folds of the cloth contrast with the hard lines of the floor tiles and pillars, the subtle and unpredictable movement in conflict with the regularity of the building’s contours. The fragile uncertainty of it was surprisingly moving to me, and this piece stands out as one of my favorites on display.
See Wong’s piece in action and two other works in this video taken on site:
Inside the Chantal Miller Gallery was an engrossing piece of sound-based art by Cheuk Wing Nam (aka: Chang May Wing Joy). Her work (also seen in the YouTube video above) was entitled Avaritia–Silent Greed, 2015.
In an almost completely dark room, hundreds of recycled wine bottles hung from the ceiling at various heights. The bottom of each bottle was cut off. An electric motor was attached via wires to each bottle, and inside the glass bottles are small piece of shells spinning rapidly, striking the sides like a clapper in a bell. Each bottle emitted a persistent tinkling sound, and hundreds of them together was both musical and chaotic. It reminded me a little bit of the sound of insects chirping in the night, and indeed the lighting on the lightly colored bits of shell and refuse spinning in the bottles was very reminiscent of moths hitting a window, or fireflies tapping against the inside of a jar. But the sound was more musical than insects, like small bells being rung to a melody I don’t know, in part of some ritual of which I’m not part.
The sound permeated the entire gallery, even as I walked though to look at other pieces, the constant chiming followed. It gave the entire exhibition an interesting atmosphere. In her artist statement on the piece, the artist makes references to moths trying flying into the flame, only to spin endlessly in their clear glass cages. The fact that the work uses refuse makes a clear commentary on cultural consumerism and wastefulness, how each person, in the pursuit of material wealth, spins around hopelessly trapped the crystal-like confines of our obsessions.
Andio Lai had a different approach to using sound to make us think about our environment. One piece installed outside the gallery consisted of several small towers with a relay of switches connecting to a tapper and a small light bulb on each one (seen in the video above). Each switch was connected through an electronic train to the one before it, and all of them were controlled by a “commander” switch. The signal rippled down the “ranks” of the towers, with each one tapping out its unknown message, sending the signal down, then back up the chain of command.
The piece references the complexities and confusion of communicating in a closed system, how signals get dropped or interrupted, leading to miscommunication. A commentary on hierarchy and control of information flow is also a meaning that seems pretty clear given the context of Hong Kong’s relationship to mainland China.
Within the Gallery, Lai had a smaller work comprised of 44 Arduino boards with small LED screens which randomly display English words. The board mounted on the wall is an ever changing poem, surreal and at moments, surprisingly poignant.
Questioning the idea of authorship, Lai is undoubtedly the creator of this piece, but does that make him a poet? Is this not just an updated version of the Surrealists’ game exquisite corpse? Only with computer randomizers, any human bias is taken out of the equation.
The words “bus,” “fillet,” and “equilibrium” are all evocative. And they don’t stop being such just because a computer program selected them instead of an artist.
This work is especially interesting to think about in the context of an art museum, where traditionally the “hand” of the artist and the display of technical mastery over a medium as been the mark of genius and the cause for reverence. Here, Lai gives us a work that is always original, always being renewed, and never in a predictable way.
South Ho offered some social commentary on the relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland in his works. In particular Defense and Resistance, 2013.
This performance/installation piece featured the artist building a wall around himself with bricks on the bay in Hong Kong. Symbolizing a desire to protect himself and his identity from the massive influx of mainland Chinese nationals who have flooded into Hong Kong over the past several decades, and from the increasing pressures of the P.R.C. government, which has progressively worn away at Hong Kong’s post-British culture, economy, and legal system to “mainlandize” the island-city.
Not being Chinese or a Hong Konger, I certainly can’t make any comments on the piece from direct experience. I am fascinated by the potential question the work asks. What does Hong Kong identity mean? What does Chinese identity mean? How much can one defend against the rising tides of change? There is something definitely futile in the gesture of building a tiny wall around one-self in one of the biggest international commercial harbors in the world. In the end, the desire to keep one’s place as one remembers it, untouched by outsiders, results, perhaps inevitably, in walling one off from the outside. Not so much a resistance, but a retreat. Similar statements were made in the installation works of Siu Wai Hang, also on display, but I plan on addressing his work in a separate article.
Shutting out the world in an act of defense makes the case for South Ho, while Vaan Ip explores themes of urban claustrophobia in his paintings, Lost City, 2009. The broad, monochromatic works speak of the repetition of shapes, lights and forms flashing before your eyes as you explore the thick, urban landscape.
After a while even the most distinctive buildings start to look the same through the noise of the city. A noise captured in part in the work of Chilai Howard, in particular his video installation, Doors, 2008. The wall sized video displays the facade of an apartment building formerly on Queen’s Pier, near where the artist grew up. The building has since been demolished as part of the city’s effort to revitalize (read: Gentrify) the area. The stories of the building are displayed on the wall like registers on an ancient Greek vase, each one telling a story about the inhabitants seen through windows and allowing doors to slam shut behind them.
Time speeds up and slows down, not consistently across the screen. Some rows repeat on a loop, while others crawl in slow motion, the sprawling unity of urban life condensed into a rhythmic display of sound and light. Community-wide and personal narratives play out on the projection as the audience observes, like passengers on a bus catching a glimpse of other people’s lives as we roll past on the way to rejoin our own.
This quick look only scratched the surface of the amazing work on display at this show. I highly encourage anyone with the ability to see it to do so. Questions about place, responsibility, identity and belonging are all addressed in complex and poetic ways by these artists. I’m grateful I was able to see this exhibition and it was a great introduction to the art scene on my first (but not last) trip to Hong Kong.
A group of my colleagues and I went on a day excursion to Lushui. The mountains and rivers were breathtaking. But for now I’d like to share a few photos of some the amazing trees I saw while there. And for good measure, a couple poems on this, the first day of Spring…
On the afternoon of March 15 I had the opportunity to go into the downtown area of Wenzhou and visit a small art museum I had only just recently been told about. The Epoch Art Museum ( 年代美术馆 ) is a wonderful space near Bai Luzhou Park close to the Times Square shopping district. I didn’t know anything about the exhibit before I went (which is nice, sometimes). What I found was a variety of form and style, all loosely based on the theme of “painting language” or 绘话.*
The exhibition was too big and too broad for me to describe every artist’s work. So in this review I’ll be covering several of the artists featured, but not all of them. Likewise, this review will be comprised of some of my general first impressions, and not an in-depth analysis. At a future point I would very much like to re-visit the work of some of these artists for more well-researched analytical essays.
Li Di (李迪)
One of the first paintings I noticed when walking into the main hall of the exhibition space was Li Di’s large, colorful abstraction. Flat, undulating planes of color rolled in broken lines across the canvas in variegated patterns. It was only after a few moments of closer viewing that I noticed the planes were layered over an expressive under-painting of gestural brushstrokes. Once seeing that I strained to see through the rolled layers to the painting beneath. Just enough peeks through the gaps to suggest something wanting to be seen. The movement of the lines on the surface is complicated by the tension between the shown and that which struggles to be revealed. Li Di had other works of smaller size in the museum. Some of these showed lighter or darker color palettes. One in particular had a heavy impasto speckled on in a vigorous swirling motion.
Duan’s pieces stood out in the downstairs hall for their soft-focus, sculpture-like treatment of their voluminous people. Both geometric and organic, Duan’s subjects seem to be occupying a space as spectators or as people waiting silently, for something. The backgrounds shimmer gently with soft diffuse brushstrokes. The horizon lines are not quite perfectly straight, bringing familiarity and a human presence to the seemingly emotionally distant subjects. With much of the artwork on display being bright, colorful and gestural, Duan’s pieces were like quiet refuge. His people softly acknowledging us as we pass by.
Qi Zhilong (祁志龙) See more of his work on artnet.
In the upstairs gallery, separated across the room on opposing walls were the three images in Qi Zhilong’s series on Christ. Like a Renaissance deposition scene, Qi’s Christ figure descends from an upright pose to prone. The most striking feature of the large compositions are the repetitive circular shapes that cover each canvas. Looking past the shapes is like looking into a microscope at a cell wall, to see the thin, pinkish wash of the loosely rendered body beneath. The micro and the macro, the internal physical at the juncture of the spiritual… The triptych suggests, to me at least, something about the embodiment of faith and belief and how both the physical and spiritual are transient and tenuous.
If I’m going to admit to having a favorite artist at this show, it would be Yin Zhaoyang. I stood in front of one of his large, textured, brightly colored mountain paintings (Kànshān, 2015) with a big smile on my face. The paint was thick and luscious, the painter practically sculpting the landscape with the pigment giving the sense of the texture, movement and vitality of the earth represented. I, personally, love seeing an artist who clearly loves oil paint as much as I do. Expressive brushwork at its finest.
The striking toy-like artificiality of Shen’s people made the room dedicated to his paintings demand attention. Family, children, soldiers, nurses, animals…they stare out at us from their flat canvases with expressions that are both inhuman but warm and inviting. The innocence of the plastic toy is understood to be embodied with a subtext on society. Many of his figures smile unthreateningly in bright, shining color, but then, one notices a few others with bandages and wounds. More than just depictions of mass produced and sometimes abused toys, Shen provides us with a sometimes uncanny view of mass produced (and abused) identity. There’s a great deal more that can be said about Shen’s work and I encourage readers to look up his images. I may dedicate an Aesthetic Distance article to his Magnum Opis series in the future.
Liao Mingming (廖明明)
Liao’s works were the first I encountered when entering the building. Vertical, monochromatic compositions of soft landscapes in a modern interpretation of classic Chinese brushwork. Mountains, mist, and water calmly spoke of both tradition and modernity. One piece, The Other Side, 2015, a black and grey work depicts a tiny boat on an ocean or river with dark mountains on the horizon, the boat bobs up and down on a dimly lighted path. Is the path moving towards us, or into the distance? Is the small human construction in the vast natural world approaching us? Are we, with our modern sensibilities and urban drama the “other side” alluded to? Or is it the nostalgic, peaceful embrace of un-named, distant dark mountains, of unknown shapes in the moonlight that draws the wayfarer into calm, far-off waters? In my opinion a mark of an excellent painting is the ability for it to churn up a vast multitude of questions with just a few simple forms. Liao Mingming’s work excel in this regard. It’s easy to spend time contemplating and asking questions of these pieces.
Kang Lei (康蕾)
Kang made an impressive statement in the downstairs main hall with a stunning four-panel piece with floral and cacti patterns in warm colors called Paradise, 2016. As I stood back from the wall-sized painting I could see the subtle flows of color and line. Different shapes emerge and fade as you approach or retreat from the surface. This has a wonderful effect of like a conversation with the piece, interesting segments draw me in closer, where new things are discovered (a fleck of unnoticed color, a particularly well executed gesture) then as my eye moves on along the canvas, the size of it pushes me back again to take in the totality of the piece.
Upstairs Kang had a few, smaller pieces, more subtle in color and form. One piece that stood out to me was an installation of nine-parts of her Use of the Touch series from 2015. Square, framed black and white drawings of hands touching and other body parts are arranged in a grid. The bodies presented are fragmented, out of context. The close-ups make clear identification of the narrative impossible. There is, in this installation, a feeling of intimacy and tenderness, and yet the fractured view puts us at a distance, voyeur-like we catch glimpses, flashes of caresses, suggestions of the illicit. The tooth of the paper is quite prevalent and in some cases it appears the surface of the paper is scarred as though something was drawn on a paper on top of this one. The rubbed charcoal or graphite of the drawing unveils the damaged surface with the scene of touching and intimacy. This struck me as a particularly interesting visual metaphor. The traces of previous encounters mark the surface of the present. The lines of these encounters either enhance or take away from the immediacy of the now, past and present are always, in our mind’s eye, bounded together into one image. Perhaps that is never quite as true as it is in our most intimate relationships.
Jiang Huan (蒋焕) You can see more of this artist’s work on Artslant. **
Jiang Huan’s paintings displayed a beautiful photo-realism that draws the viewer into a quiet, intimate conversation with the subject.
One piece on display that I found particularly striking was a painting from 2009 called Nanna’s Sanday (sic). The painting was gorgeous, with subtle handling of rich color and perfect flesh-tones. The intensity of the subject’s gaze was wonderfully balanced by the expansive grey negative space over her. The grey background wasn’t oppressive or looming, it was flat and totally opaque, pushing the subject forward into a more intimate conversation with the viewer.
Duo Ba (多巴)
The upstairs hall also introduced me to the canvases of Duo Ba. Minimal, expressionistic and immediately reminiscent to me of artists like Shahzia Sikander in their composition. Duo paints freely, with a light hand on unprimed canvas. The undefined shapes are spaced across the surface in a rough dance with each other. Implied movement of faint whispers of lines suggests a narrative to which I don’t know the plot. The canvas itself is wrinkled and creased, these lines intersect with the small, energetic colors of the paint indicating perhaps movement taken, or half hidden barriers.
The exhibition was organized around the theme of “painting/language.” Much of that theme was lost on me as I was not able to read the accompanying text or wall panels. With apologies to the curators, I am unable to comment on how the works addressed the nuances of their vision until I’m able to understand the curatorial statements. But I will say a few things about language and art, and my experience at Epoch.
I moved to Wenzhou last summer. I didn’t speak or read any Mandarin (I still don’t, at least not very much, but I am trying to learn.) For the first few months my life consisted of awkwardly attempted communication, feeling lost, and wandering the local area just trying to get my bearings (physically and mentally). A few days before going to Epoch I was on a long walk downtown and even though I had never been on that particular street before I realized that I felt comfortable, I had my bearings, I knew where to go. So far it’s as close as I’ve been to feeling at home on this side of this big, blue marble.
When I walked through the doors at Epoch and saw the big, abstract paintings on the walls, I felt like I was on familiar ground. I couldn’t read the title cards, but that was okay. I could talk to the paintings, and they spoke to me. The details, the immediacy of color and form, that’s a language that I speak fluently, and the works in this museum and I had an amazing conversation. So even though I was unable to ask questions at the front desk, or properly order my coffee at the cafe next door, I feel like I was able to get answers from the experience. No doubt I’m missing something, but I’m getting something, too.
That’s the power behind this exhibition (and perhaps all well-executed art installations), the ability to communicate across silent voids. Painting is language, after all.
*Author’s Note: I will be using Mandarin characters in this review for specificity. The Pinyin used for artists’ names is taken from the Epoch Art Museum’s gallery brochures and are not my transliteration. I cannot read Mandarin (although I’m trying to learn) so if you feel I am using an incorrect character, please contact me with the correction.
**There are some other great images on this blog site that apparently shows Jiang Huan’s work. None of these images have titles or dates, though.
Hello Everyone, I’m gearing up for some new content this spring. But I’d really appreciate some feedback on the type of content you think you’d most enjoy having. Please take a 1/2 second to take my super simple polls so I can get an idea what kind of media people are looking for. I’m hoping to have more regular updates soon.
And if you have suggestions not listed in the polls I can be reached using the form at the bottom of this post.
Where have I been?!? Why hasn’t the site been updated in so long?
Well, a lot of things happen over the course of a year. Long story, super short: I now live and work in Zhejiang Province, China. I hope to get to the Shanghai Biennial next month, and start this project up again with a fresh, new perspective. I’m not exactly sure how that will pan out, but I’m excited by the possibilities.
Look for a revamp of the blog, new features, and a new mission.