As we followed the Shenzhen-based digital artist Niko Edwards toward the back wall of the gallery, the enthusiast who had introduced us leaned in and told me in a stage whisper: “He is obsessed with the universe because he believes himself an alien.”
That was the tone of “the world’s first major exhibition” of blockchain-registered crypto art on show at UCCA Lab in Beijing’s 798 gallery district: absurd, but frank enough to be charming. It’s an art gallery as a carnival, complete with a claw game for souvenirs, rather than gallery-as-high-culture-church.
The show, titled “Virtual Niche: Have You Ever Seen Memes in the Mirror,” gathered blockchain-related art, mostly sold as non-fungible tokens (NFTs). NFT mania has soared since a collection of 5,000 Instagram posts by digital artist Beeple sold for $69 million at Christie’s on March 11. NFTs are essentially deeds, often for publicly available image or video files. They’re not a style or school of art, any more than climate-controlled Swiss free ports are.
READ MORE: CHINA VOICES | What China thinks of NFTs
So when we went to see NFTs on display, I had a simple question: is the art any good? With a show themed around a financial instrument, frankly, I didn’t have very high hopes.
But the show was a pleasant surprise! The art worked, and the exhibit was dense and well-curated, packing a good number of pieces into a compact exhibition space. It scores high on playfulness but low on context—the pieces are presented with no interpretation whatsoever. It’s not all NFTs, mixing in a good amount of traditional meatspace art you have to go to a gallery to see.
An NFT in an art gallery is a digital screen showing a picture or video that you can view right now from the comfort of the same screen on which you’re reading this review. Provided your screen has a high enough resolution, what you’ll see, pixel-for-pixel, is identical to the piece on the gallery wall.
As a result, the big name pieces in the show didn’t hold the most attention. A rotating selection of Beeple “Everydays” on five TV-sized vertical screens was jammed into a hallway, while the collective project “First Supper” hovered over the main space on a larger screen. “The First Supper” is a collection of mismatched cartoon figures gathered around a MySpace-ish rendition of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” table. The gimmick here is that each figure in the composition is sold separately, potentially to a different collector; the collectors can then modify some aspects of the figures.
The dumbest stuff in the show tried to make the abstract world of computing concrete by printing a lot of 1s and 0s and claiming it represented something to a computer. This is about as effective as writing down a sequence of DNA elements and calling it a portrait, but it seems to be required by statute that every computer-themed show include at least one of these.
The show’s most charismatic piece also used untranslated numbers. “Block 8,” from Robert Alice’s series “Portraits of a mind,” presents a sequence from the source code of Bitcoin in hexadecimal code. It’s printed on what I first thought was a disk of stamped metal. In fact, it’s carefully treated canvas. It looks like a vintage magtape wheel would if it were redesigned by Jony Ive, or a high-tech version of the huge stone rings used as ceremonial currency on the islands of Yap. (Much like NFTs, Yapese Rai stones are often immobile and left in public places, while people around them negotiate and renegotiate whom to call their owner in ritual exchanges).
It feels immutable and infinitely reproducible, and in fact it is one of a set of 40. It conveys the majesty blockheads see in the technology—but it also illustrates what a tangible thing can do that a block can’t.
At the other end of the gallery, by the entrance, there was a slice of a blockchain mine—something most blockheads at the event, even the investors, had never seen up close. A bank of old Bitmain Antminer S9s—a slightly obsolete model of the specialized computers that power blockchain which saw its heyday in 2017—likewise gives you a tangible sense of blockchain as a physical thing.
Curator Sun Bohan also projected an unlabeled financial chart on the wall about five feet high, showing the kind of screen crypto traders presumably spend much of their days looking at.
Digital shows do come with glitches, and I didn’t fully understand at least one piece as a result. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Cows” by Chen Baoyang is a small glass labyrinth with an associated virtual reality program. The VR set was not working while we visited, so I did not learn how it related to the labyrinth. Walking through a transparent labyrinth is enjoyably trippy, however, and I did walk nose-first into one pane of glass.
The screens also occasionally went to screensaver, inviting viewers to make the digital gallery equivalent of mistaking a fire extinguisher for a piece of modern art. I asked the name of the artist behind a cascading wave of silver needles, and was told “It’s actually a Mac screensaver, but it is quite beautiful.”
Lastly, some of the show was pure novelty items. A bank of four actual claw machines offered logo plushies and a sort of simple construction toy as souvenirs. Both I and my colleague managed to get a prize, so I suspect the machines are fixed in the user’s favor. One work attributed to an AI and hidden in a niche in the wall melted and blended faces in weird ways but left me wondering how much of the work the AI had done versus its human collaborator.
Bottom line: It’s not every day you get to win a prize at a claw machine. The show is well worth RMB 80 if you’re in Beijing.
“Virtual Niche: Have you ever seen memes in the mirror?” is on display at UCCA Lab until April 4. Tickets are RMB 80.