Higher Brothers, Crypto Fashion Week, Jacky Tsai… What do these have in common? Three letters: NFT. Our very own Shanghai-based China Art connaisseuse ravissante Kate Kologrivaya explores how China fits into the NFT equation. Or does it now?
The NFT game is here and with it, an emerging wave of CryptoArt is blazing, scorching, trending. It’s fire.
It’s a new culture, a culture of the digital age. It has no borders, nor, unlike reality, is it constrained by anything the virtual world can’t do.
When, where and why is this fire burning so bright? And in a setting of critically-acclaimed explosion versus general public confusion, is this burning bush truly heralding a new era for (China) Art?
Back in September, Chinese hip hop heavyweights Psy.P and KnowKnow, of Higher Brothers fame, and fellow Chengdu rapper Ty. partnered with award-winning visual artist Aslan Malik to drop a non-fungible token (NFT) music video titled “Phuket” inspired by the vibes of sunny southern Thailand.
Second, during Crypto Fashion Week’s (September 10-17) inaugural Meta Gala–a virtual experience and digital fashion event inspired by the Met Gala, hottie bottie RUBY 9100M in collab with digital fashion house The Fabricant issued two NFTs on digital art marketplace SuperRare. For those not in the know, RUBY 9100M is an imagined transhuman created by Hong Kong-based digital artist Ruby Chan Ka Yu. Find out on more on her/ its/ their pronoun IG right here.
Third, Shanghai-born artist Jacky Tsai’s work, too, entered the NFT game. Best known as the creator of the iconic floral skull image made for late British fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s SS08 menswear collection, Tsai combines traditional Chinese painting techniques and references with western pop art styles. Back to the NFT files: Tsai’s 2021 edition of his 2016 work “Puppets” saw its NFT minted on the Ethereum blockchain before its bidding launched in late September.
The question beckons… Have you ever seen memes in the mirror?
NFT, Meet China
March 2021, the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, China. A very first NFT exhibition entitled “Have You Ever Seen Memes in The Mirror?” forays into the Middle Kingdom with the first large CryptoArt offline exhibit opening its doors to tell a story about NFT, from March 26 to April 4. “We are pretty sure that the public is not ready for such an exhibition. Here in China, Bitcoin is still associated with something unreal, a scam. But we want to experiment and expand public horizons. CryptoArt is the way to go,” Wen Zihan, head curator of the exhibition at UCCA Beijing, told me at the time.
A few days earlier, on March 11, the NFT work “Everydays – the First 5000 days” sold at Christie’s for $69,3 million USD, setting a record for the digital art piece. With such a commercial success, Mike Winkelmann (Beeple) has put his name right after Jeff Koons and David Hockney, becoming the third living artist selling his work at these skyrocketing price tags. Crazy, eh?
Doesn’t selling CryptoArt through a 250-years-old auction house and not a platform especially created for digital pieces seem like somewhat of a joke? Perhaps… The more you look into it closely, the more this NFT environment seems, let’s put it mildly, to be self-engaged. The artist Beeple himself called the NFT market “a bubble” and his work was purchased by “bitcoiner” Vignesh Sundaresan (Metakovan). It only seemed a matter of time before the NFT world would explode…
CryptoArt has developed from memes (a new philosophical question in the art world is if “memes are art” — enter #lol) and will be seen by many as “not serious.” But that was only until Nyan Cat’s meme sold for USD 580k. When money is involved, the game takes a turn and the artist starts talking like a sommelier.
“For me”, said NFT artist Robert Alice during a ClubHouse talk with UCCA curators, “this was the sign that CryptoArt is maturing and becoming stronger. It is definitely a unique movement in the art world; one people had been waiting for.”
Another serious topic connected to NFT is its impact on climate change. The money from the last work that Beeple managed to sell, went to an environmental protection fund. Indeed, after Injective Protocol’s performance with burning Banksy’s work “Morons” (White) and keeping it online, scandals with the ecological impact of NFT-production due to high levels of energy consumption remain. But who cares?
China, Meet NFT
Circling back to UCCA Beijing, the CryptoArt area of the museum was divided by red lights with purely visual artworks and blue lights which included socio-economic connotations and the meanings of NFT. “While a representation of a token or usage of blockchain technology can be considered as new mediums, explained Hong Kong-based collector Jehan Chu, a bigger meaning of an emerging art market with fast and less commission-heavy transactions which make the life of an artist more sustainable and independent from galleries should be uncovered.”
CryptoArt creates a new realm in the existing virtual world that already serves as a reflection of reality. What does it give to the public apart from the sense of novelty? Simpler access to artworks, the democratization of an art world, opening up of unknown artists and developing visual formats and themes. “Have You Ever Seen Memes in The Mirror?” developed this idea by showcasing works like “Do Androids Dream of Electric Cows?” by Chen Baoyang and “Red and Blue” by CryptoZR.
Chen’s work is multidimensional but primarily contains two parts, explains one of the organizers Jia Wei. The labyrinth constructed from a one-sided mirror and the digitally made VR-spaces. The audience walks inside the labyrinth wearing VR-headsets. The VR-world does not match the physical labyrinth. The labyrinth imposes restrictions on the audience from moving freely in the VR-world. It sheds light on the gap between virtual space and reality. The visitors who wear VR-glasses and try to find a way out of the glass-made maze constitute a spectacle to those watching outside. The metaphor of class and power structure hidden in the VR-technology is revealed through watching and being watched.
Another quite interactive piece, existing only online, entitled “Red and Blue” came courtesy of a female artist called CryptoZR. It was finished in 2019 when trade frictions between China and the U.S. made the artist realize that the relationship between the two countries is becoming a fun political game and people can play with it according to their values. Directly. She hopes to reveal the height of this game through the price change of “color block” bidding. For now, red wins…
By bringing new aesthetics and a spirit of fun and excitement to the art world, CryptoArt surprises with varieties of experiments and solutions. It’s a new culture, a culture of the Internet. It has no borders, nor, unlike reality, is it constrained with anything that the virtual world can’t do. For now, the scope of techniques and themes seem eternal and prosperous.
In hindsight, everything is 20/20 so we recently caught up with UCCA for a brief review. One of the exhibition’s organizers, Wei Jia–who dedicates herself to Art+Tech, tells Temper, “This exhibition was only a starting point for the Chinese market, and our goal was China’s NFT market education. Because the concept of NFT is still too new in China, most people suffer from FOMO, rather than attempting to find artists and works that are meaningful to them.” Our question beckons: did the public deem slash dream this new setup electrifying?
“Most people were confused about the works on display at UCCA, but of course, there were great artists in this exhibition. As an emerging wave, this situation is understandable, the NFT concept needs time to settle down. We believe in the next few years, there will be more Chinese artists coming up to get inspiration through the essential impact of blockchain technology on the art industry,” Wei concludes.
Similar exhibitions are bound to follow, and many projects or galleries out there are already starting to do their own showings. The UCCA one was a good beginning, at least from the point of view that people began to take an interest in NFT, the OG outset of the curators.
On a critical note, however great and boundary-less the concept of digital art may be, people might be reluctant to spend their actual money on it considering the fact that intellectual rights are hard to prove for an online piece. NFTs are a form of currency in which every token is unique, thus verifying a work’s authenticity. As soon as someone out there comes up with another way to solve the “digital authenticity” puzzle, these tokens will be on their way out. Food for thought.
The Art of NFT Education
This one’s on a personal note. A few months ago, yours truly found herself at an NFT art class—given the obvious interest in education in general and art, obviously. Whenever following up on a story, I want to see its development. And truth be told, this one got me pretty hyped up. I ventured out to another part of Shanghai, near the airport, to witness firsthand “the future of art.”
I entered a beautiful garden which somehow reminded me of the one in the Hitman: Blood Money final scene. It only lacked the “Ave Maria” humming along in the background. I immediately met up with the head of an NFT art school, who had gotten a recent mention in Forbes’ 30 under 30. She was talking about happiness and how people never know what they want, so when they get everything, they don’t know what to do with this “every-thing.” We had a long philosophical dialogue after which I once again confirmed that unhappy people do not understand their needs, but only their own selfish lusts first. They are lost and lusting, thus unhappy. Especially when they don’t believe in everything they do…
Anyway, I walked through the hallways—windows, no walls, into a classroom. I entered the darkness. The blinds were pulled, and 50 students were silently sitting in front of their laptops. They were listening to a lecture about digital art pieces. After the lecture, they were supposed to recreate the work of a line and two balls, and then put it online. This workshop somehow reminded me of a type of classical art education where students repeat the work of the masters and learn their techniques, in less lively fashion. And this was the future of art. So dark, so silent, so boring. If it wasn’t a scam, I would want it to be a scam.
So I left.
Well, one can dream.
Featured image: “HAVE YOU EVER SEEN MEMES IN THE MIRROR?” COURTESY OF Wei Jia, UCCA BEIJING
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