JTake two cultural phenomena, both designed to confuse us, that are now each worth a lot of money: the art of Damien Hirst and the equally infamous Non-Fungible Tokens, or NFTs. Between them, they have already puzzled many art lovers. This month brings them both together in a dramatic event that will be staged during Frieze London, a time when the international art world turns its fickle attention to the capital.
And, as if the combination of this notorious British artist and the mystifying market for digital art wasn’t explosive enough, a real bonfire is promised. Hirst is to spotlight works from his first £10million NFT collection. For his detractors, the expensive stunt will mark the low point of a career built on brass cuffs and necks. For admirers, this is an opportunity to reflect on the impact of a master.
Hirst’s conflagration is due to begin on Tuesday, October 11 in front of a virtual audience and guests at his Newport Street Gallery. The burning routine will continue daily at set times until its exhibition, The Currency, ends at the end of the month.
The artworks themselves, a series of 10,000 images that feature his trademark colorful dots, were released by digital arts service Heni last year, each represented by a virtual token, or NFT, worth £2,000. Collectors had the option of keeping either the token or the physical artwork, and this summer 5,149 chose the tangible item, while 4,851 opted for the NFT. It is these 4,851 original images that must now be destroyed.
For Laura Cumming, author and Observer art critic, this ostensibly provocative act fits perfectly into the practice of the artist. “Damien Hirst made the market his medium and his message a long time ago,” she said over the weekend. “His latest stunt is absolutely self-contained in those terms.
“He’s always been brilliant on titles and this one is like the crack-cocaine concentrate of epigrams. It’s called The Currency and that’s what it’s about and what it’s for – l art as money, and making money with art. And that, in turn, goes right to the heart of Frieze Week.
Hirst’s first fireworks display will be far from the first artistic banter with the spectacle of destruction. Before Banksy surprised this auction house in 2018 by automatically shredding his Girl With Balloon image, the KLF group stunned the music world by burning a million pounds on the Hebridean island of Jura in the summer of 1994. And , in 2001, artist Michael Landy proceeded to destroy all his possessions in an abandoned department store.
The gratuitous demolition is alarming, although anyone who has ever built a sandcastle or a snowman will be familiar with the toll the threat of erasure places on creativity. Certainly, 2009 Turner Prize winner Richard Wright saw the eventual destruction of his intricate murals as part of their essence, and he claimed to be quite optimistic about it.
The images that make up The Currency were hand-crafted on paper in 2016 with enamel paint, then numbered, watermarked, hologram and micro-dotted, as well as randomly stamped and titled from Hirst’s favorite song lyrics, before being signed on the back.
The artist sees in this series a way to involve the public by buying, exchanging or selling his works. To the outside world, however, it’s really the kind of trickery that has given contemporary art a bad name. But then, without a bad reputation, where would such an art be? Much like the punk wave in music in the late 1970s, the Young British Artists of the late 1990s wouldn’t have had much effect without killing a few sacred cows, and eventually pickling them.
The Sex Pistols’ music wasn’t melodious or smooth, but it was exciting, and Hirst was the YBA equivalent. Like Johnny Rotten, he asked the annoying questions that modern art has often asked, but more aggressively. Questions like, what is art and how is it different from craft and design, or even a visual joke? We can all understand that a pillbox is a pillbox, but if you fill an art gallery with it, it means something more. But what value or meaning does it have if you then mass-produce these pill boxes? NFTs have now taken these conceptual puzzles one step further by removing the need for any product.
“If anyone was to play with NFTs and their value, it was Damien Hirst,” said Louisa Buck, The art diary contemporary art correspondent, admitting that she is “not one to believe that NFTs are the offspring of the devil”. “He’s always been brilliant at playing with the art market. But much of the art he created along the way, well, that’s another story.
Buck points to the varying quality of the 223 works by Hirst auctioned off at London’s controversial 2008 “liquidation” sale, works ranging from grand to “hideous”. It was a fiasco in which art dealers were allegedly forced to secretly buy back works to protect the value of the artist’s output.
“And when it comes to that diamond-encrusted skull [which Hirst initially claimed sold for £50m in 2007, before later backtracking], who knows if Hirst ever owned it, or who bought it,” Buck said. “Still, he’s done a fantastic job patrolling the territory that wonders what is art and what is merchandise. And whatever happens next, he has already produced some of the most stunning works of art of the last decades, pieces such as Mother and Child (Divided), the cow and calf in tanks and the shark in formaldehyde . Or A Hundred Years, the fly installation. We must not forget the paintings on site either. Of course, he was referring to the art of people like Bridget Riley. It is steeped in art history.
However, not all of them are even slightly seduced. This weekend, one of his artistic peers told me that the commotion around Hirst was “almost as boring as his terrible work.” He likened it to giving Cliff Richard space on the music pages.
If nothing else, however, Hirst’s role as a motivator and promoter of the YBA movement was undeniable. His ambition was there from the start, when he and other illustrious people mounted an exhibition in a deserted building by the Thames called Freeze in 1988. Almost empty on the day of my visit, luckily at the time, the legendary show vibrated with pure nerve and visual exuberance. Sensation, the controversial YBA show at the Royal Academy in London, followed in 1997 and after that, the rock star lifestyle of a wealthy bohemian awaited Hirst.
Today, he remains the kind of celebrity who attracts anecdotes. A friend, for example, remembers setting fire to a caravan during a music festival. And then came his Devon empire, including an elegant Ilfracombe restaurant, and the proliferation of spin paintings. Scandalous media coverage over the years has varied from tame revelations that he hasn’t done all his work, to speculation about the veracity of his Sunken Treasure parody, to recent claims that he’s got rid of many employees during the pandemic.
More serious blows from art experts have included the condemnation of Robert Hughes, the late champion of modern painting and sculpture. In a film for Channel 4, the Australian critic said Hirst operated ‘like a commercial brand’, had ‘little ease’ and his shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, was ‘the most overrated in the world “. marine organism.
Criticism of Hirst’s skill as a painter is more than justified, according to Buck: “Hirst fell off the hook when he began to see himself as a painter, standing in a studio with a smock and a beret, while ‘he can barely draw,’ she said.
The opening of the new NFT show has already garnered an in-kind reaction from a reviewer. An artist called Victor smashed one of Hirst’s dotted ceramic plates on the pavement outside the Vauxhall gallery in protest, before burning a book he plans to sell now for £250,000 as a as a commentary on the “grotesque art market”.
The art isn’t just about stunts, of course. But it’s about stimulating images and ideas, some of which look directly at the very idea of art. The value we place on an image is always up to us, as is our belief in a currency. As Hirst once said when asked if the shipwrecked treasures he presented at the Venice Biennale in 2017 were real: “Myth or reality…whatever you choose to believe.