If something is burned somewhere, media attention is almost certain. Damien Hirst will also have made this calculation for his exhibition “The Currency”, which opens on September 23 in his private gallery, the Newport Street Gallery in London. A number of his works are to be burned. The biggest campaign was announced for October 11.
The 57-year-old artist knows all the tricks of self-marketing, he’s entered the attention economy and made himself useful. It is not for nothing that he has long been “the most expensive living artist in the world”. Critics love it or hate it. There isn’t much between the two.
art as currency
Like Jeff Koons before him, Hirst is now working on NFTs. This is Hirst’s first NFT project and has been underway for a year now: Hirst has linked 10,000 specially produced, individually embossed point images with non-fungible tokens (NFTs). NFTs are non-manipulable digital certificates and are therefore virtual originals, secured in a blockchain.
Hirst’s dotted images have been around for a year and are all different but very similar, both physically and virtually. Buyers could buy a work for around €2,050 (US$2,000) each and then had the choice of keeping the digital token or exchanging it for an equivalent paper work. Now the decision is made: 5,149 people have swapped their NFT for enamel dot paint. This leaves 4,851 NFTs outstanding. Hirst will now lay out the physical models of the NFTs – then burn them. One fire must be lit each day, and the rest must be lit at the start of the Frieze art fair in London from the 12th to the 16th. be fired in October.
Damien Hirst described his project to The Art Newspaper as his “most exciting to date”, tackling “the idea of art as currency and a storehouse of wealth”. It is no coincidence that governments decorate coins and banknotes with art: “They do it so that we can trust money. Without art, it is difficult for us humans to believe in anything.”
Bundeskunsthalle sets the tone with blockchain speech format
Kolja Reichert finds Hirst’s view of the virtual rather conventional. Since 2020, the curator and art critic has been organizing new speech formats at the Bundeskunsthalle Bonn, including the possibilities that blockchain technology offers for broader participation. “Damien Hirst is stuck in the criteria for owning analog art,” he told DW. NFTs are much more about circulation than possession in the sense of traditional collection.
Basically, there is a lot of potential in blockchain technology that artists could also use to renegotiate social issues. Or artists. One of those with whom Reichert is very interested in these questions is the German conceptual and media artist Hito Steyerl. As a satirical response and commentary on the NFT hype on the art market, in 2021 she quickly transformed the major German cultural institutions – Bundeskunsthalle, Humboldt Forum – into NFT – and declared herself the owner. In their current function, NFTs appeared to be the equivalent of toxic masculinity in the art market, Steyerl criticized at an event in 2021.
Participation and sustainability – also in art and culture
The potentials that should instead be explored are those of participation and reflection on possessions as such, argues Reichert. One example he took up this year at the Bundeskunsthalle was an NFT project by the Kunstkreis Kongolesischer Plantagenarbeiter*innen (CATPC): the Congolese art collective, in collaboration with artist Renzo Martens, fashioned 300 NFTs of the sculpture” Balot”. The sculpture was made in 1931 by the Pende, an ethnic group from the Democratic Republic of Congo, to banish the spirit of Belgian colonial official Maximilien Balot. After committing rapes and other atrocities, the Pende rebelled. Balot was beheaded.
The original of the sculpture is now in a museum in Virginia. The NFTs made by CAPTA and Renzo Martens were offered for sale at Art Basel in 2022. The money generated from the sales went directly to the former palm oil plantation in Lusanga, Congo, where the original sculpture was realized. “This action creates measurable effects, namely the redemption of land,” says Reichert. The land is not only bought, but also replanted and cultivated – thus creating local income. On the other hand, the action deals with how the sculpture, which is still considered a figure of power by the Pende, arrived at the said museum in Virginia via a European dealer.
In addition to buying back the land and building sustainable agriculture, the collective uses the profits to bring cultural life back to Lusanga. Maybe one day the “Balot”. According to Reichert, here are the really interesting questions about ownership: “What does this Virginia museum actually own? Is the authority of the museum greater? Or that of the inhabitants of the region today, who would like to bring it back to its original use?
Is art (de)valuable as a work of art?
Damien Hirst made it an art form to create art with non-art objects. The fact that he now reduces art to money is a provocation. But against the background of all the possibilities of blockchain technology – also for art – it becomes clear how stuck Damien Hirst’s project is in an old monetary system, NFT or not. Negotiating the possibilities of new technologies for art and the property or trade of art cannot succeed if money remains the real reference value. The newspapers may be burning, but a fire of more interesting questions is not kindled in Damien Hirst’s latest prank.