Whenever precious contemporary works of art are burned, the media is sure to attract attention. This is a fact that was probably taken into account by Damien Hirst, whose new exhibition, “The Currency”, consists of the burning of a series of his works. Hirst, considered the richest living artist in the UK, opened the exhibition on September 23 at his private gallery, the Newport Street Gallery in London. The 57-year-old artist is no stranger to publicity stunts. Critics love it or hate it – either way, its success in the art world is undeniable.
Art as currency
In the tradition of another star artist, Jeff Koons, Hirst now works with NFTs, so-called non-fungible tokens, which are non-manipulable digital certificates and therefore virtual originals, secured in a blockchain. This is Hirst’s first NFT project, and it’s been going on for a year now.
In 2021, he linked 10,000 specially produced unique dot paintings to NFTs and sold them to the public for $2,000 each (€2,055). Buyers then had one year, until July 27, 2022, to decide whether to keep the digital token or exchange it for the physical artwork.
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A total of 5,149 buyers chose to exchange their NFT for a physical piece of art, while 4,851 people chose the digital token.
Works whose owners have opted for NFT must be burned. Hirst himself will set fire to a pile of works on October 11, a day before the opening of London’s Frieze Art Fair, one of the world’s largest contemporary art fairs.
Hirst described his project to “The Art Newspaper” as his “most exciting by far”, tackling “the idea of art as currency and a store of wealth”. It is no coincidence that governments decorate coins and banknotes with art: “They do it so that we have confidence in money. Without art, it is difficult for us humans to believe in anything.”
NFTs and the Question of Ownership
Curator and art critic Kolja Reichert hosted a number of talks at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, including one on the possibilities that blockchain technology enables to broaden participation in the art world. Even with his NFT project, “Damien Hirst remains stuck in analog art ownership criteria,” he told DW.
For Reichert, NFTs are much more about circulation than the way artworks are traditionally collected and owned. He thinks there is a lot of potential in blockchain technology that artists could also use to comment on social issues.
German conceptual and media artist Hito Steyerl, for example, has used art to comment on NFTs and what she feels are their gender bias. As a satirical commentary on the NFT hype in the art market, she unceremoniously transformed Germany’s leading cultural institutions – the Bundeskunsthalle and the Humboldt-Forum – into NFTs and declared herself their owner. In their current function, NFTs in the art market are like the equivalent of toxic masculinity, Steyerl criticized at an event in 2021.
Participation and sustainability
Reichert of the Bundeskunsthalle believes that NFTs should explore participation and how one thinks about the concept of art ownership. This year, the curator presented an NFT project by the art collective Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CAPTA), founded by workers in Lusanga, Congo, in collaboration with Dutch artist Renzo Martens.
The band minted 300 NFTs of the “Balot” sculpture. The sculpture was made in 1931 by the Pende, an ethnic group from the Democratic Republic of Congo, in an effort to banish the ghost of Belgian colonial official Maximilien Balot who had committed atrocities and was eventually beheaded.
The original sculpture is now in a museum in Virginia, while the NFTs that CAPTA and Renzo Martens made were sold at Art Basel in 2022. The money generated from the sales went directly to the former oil plantation of palm in Lusanga. “This action creates measurable effects, namely the possibility of buying back land”, specifies Reichert.
The land is not only bought, but also replanted and cultivated, and generates local income. The action, on the other hand, focuses on how the sculpture, which the Pendes view to this day as a figure of power, came to a museum in Virginia through a European art dealer.
Along with buying back land and developing sustainable agriculture, the collective is using the revenue to bring culture back to Lusanga. Maybe one day the “Balot” will come back too.
These are actually the really interesting questions about ownership, Reichert argues. “What does the Virginia Museum actually have? Is the authority of the museum greater or that of the people of the area today, who want to restore it to its original function?” For the curator, it’s more interesting than revisiting the idea of art as currency, as in Hirst’s project.