If something gets burned somewhere, media attention is almost certain. Damien Hirst has also made this account for his exhibition Coin, which opens September 23 at his private gallery, Newport Street Gallery in London. Some of his works will be burned. The largest campaign was announced on October 11th.
The 57-year-old artist knows all the tricks when it comes to self-marketing, he hacked into the attention economy and made himself useful. It is not for nothing that he has been “the most expensive living artist in the world” for so long. Critics either love it or hate it. There isn’t much in between.
Art as currency
Like Jeff Koons before him, Hearst is now working on NFTs. It’s Hearst’s first NFT project and it’s been in the works for a year now: Hearst has linked 10,000 custom-produced, individually textured spot images to so-called non-fungible tokens (NFTs). NFTs are digital certificates that cannot be tampered with, and therefore a virtual original, secured in the blockchain.
Hirst’s pixelated images have been around for a year and are all different but very similar, both physically and virtually. Buyers could purchase a work for around €2,050 (US$2,000) each and were then given the option to keep the digital token or exchange it for a paper equivalent work. Now the decision has been made: 5149 people exchanged the NFT for an enamelled bitmap. This leaves 4,851 NFTs in circulation. Hirst will now display the physical templates of the NFTs – and then burn them. A fire shall be lit every day, and the rest shall be lit at the beginning of the Frieze Art Gallery in London from the 12th to the 16th. To be dismissed in October.
Damien Hirst described his project to The Art Newspaper as his “most exciting yet”, touching on “the idea of art as currency and store of wealth”. It is no coincidence that governments decorate coins and banknotes with art: “They do this so that we can trust money. Without art, it is difficult for us humans to believe in anything.”
The Bundeskunsthalle sets the tone by coordinating discourse on the blockchain
Kolja Reichert finds Hirst’s view of virtualism to be somewhat traditional. Since 2020, the curator and art critic has been organizing new speech formats at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, including the possibilities offered by blockchain technology to expand participation. “Damien Hirst stumbles upon the standards of owning analog art,” he told DW. NFTs are more about trading than they are about holding in the traditional collecting sense.
Basically, there is a lot of potential in blockchain technology that artists can also use to renegotiate social issues. or artists. One of those with whom Reichert interacts frequently on these questions is the German conceptual and media artist Hito Steyrl. As an ironic answer and commentary on the NFT hype in the art market, the major German cultural institutions – the Bundeskunsthalle and the Humboldt Forum – in 2021 quickly turned into NFTs – and declared themselves the owners. In their current job, NFTs seemed like the antidote to toxic masculinity in the art market, Steyerl blasted at the 2021 event.
Participation and sustainability – also in art and culture
The potential to be explored instead is that of sharing and of thinking about possessions as such, says Reichert. One example he took this year at the Bundeskunsthalle was an NFT project by Kunstkreis Kongolesischer Plantagenarbeiter * innen (CATPC): the Congolese art group, in collaboration with artist Renzo Martins, has made 300 NFTs for the sculpture “Balut”. The statue was made in 1931 by the Pende, an ethnic group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to banish the spirit of Belgian colonial official Maximilien Balot. Having committed rapes and other atrocities, Bindi rebelled. Plut was beheaded.
The original statue is now in a museum in Virginia. The NFTs by CAPTA and Renzo Martens are put up for sale at Art Basel in 2022. The money from the sales went directly to the former palm oil plantation in Luzanga, Congo, where the original statue was once made. “This measure creates measurable effects, which is the buyback of land,” explains Reichert. Not only is the land bought, but it is also replanted and cultivated – generating local income. On the other hand, the work deals with how the statue, still considered a powerful figure by Pende, arrived at the aforementioned museum in Virginia via a European merchant.
In addition to buying back the land and building sustainable farming, the congregation uses the proceeds to bring cultural life back to Lusanga. Maybe someday “tilts”. According to Reichert, these are the really interesting questions about ownership: “What does this museum in Virginia actually have? Is the authority of the museum greater? Or the authority of the people who live in the area today, who would like to restore it to its original use?”
Art (not) worthy as a work of art?
Damien Hirst made it an art form to create art with non-art objects. The fact that he is now monetizing art is a provocation. But against the background of all the possibilities of blockchain technology – for art, too – it becomes clear how stuck Damien Hirst’s project is in an ancient currency system, NFT or not. Negotiating the possibilities of new technologies for art and art ownership or commerce cannot succeed if money remains the de facto reference value. The cards may be on fire, but a blaze of hotter questions hasn’t been ignited in Damien Hirst’s latest prank.