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  • The Financial Times
  • NFTs in Beijing — ‘Who gets to decide the value of art?
  • Yuan Yang
  • 5 April 2021

The first large-scale crypto-art exhibition reveals the contradictions in China’s eager digital art market. It is a remarkable twist that the first major gallery in the world to host a crypto-art exhibition is in a country where the artists are forbidden from supporting themselves through the proceeds. Virtual Niche: Have You Ever Seen Memes in the Mirror? opened in late March at Beijing’s UCCA Lab. An exhibition of NFT art, it is curated by BlockCreateArt (BCA), China’s first platform for exchanging art through NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. These are works in digital form that are entered into a digital ledger with additional details such as ownership. The medium gives digital artists, whose work can be infinitely copied, another way to monetise their art.BCA and most other NFT art exchanges accept cryptocurrencies such as ether or bitcoin in exchange for digital pieces sold by artists. Many of these artists will eventually exchange their cryptocurrencies for government-issued currencies, such as dollars. But in China, a combination of capital controls and internet blocks means that nobody is allowed to exchange cryptocurrencies for renminbi. However, underneath the blocks, China has a surprisingly active community of blockchain enthusiasts, as well as the world’s biggest blockchain mining hardware company, Bitmain, which sponsored the Virtual Niche exhibition. More broadly, digital art, not only crypto-art, is enjoying an upsurge in Beijing, where at least seven digital art exhibitions were held concurrently last October — partly thanks to the government’s control of Covid. As the first major gallery to host an exhibition of NFT art, Beijing’s UCCA has gone some way to legitimise the crypto community in the art establishment. The other notable inroad was Christie’s $69.3m sale of an NFT by Beeple, the third most valuable work sold by a living artist. Justin Sun, the Hong Kong-based founder of Tron Foundation who also bid for the piece, says he hopes the global nature of NFT platforms will bring Chinese art to the interest of foreign investors. For Qinwen Wang, the exhibition’s producer, the recent surge of capital into NFT art represents the new influence of the “tech capitalist class”: bitcoin millionaires, tech entrepreneurs, and their taste for styles such as crypto-punk, which will stimulate more artists to create work in that vein. Sun Bohan, founder of BCA, puts it more bluntly, asking: “Is it old money or new money who gets to decide the value [of art]?”. If Beeple’s work is anything to go by, the new tech capitalist class has a strong liking for phallic cartoons. A much more beautiful example of that new taste, exhibited in Virtual Niche, is a block from Robert Alice’s Portraits of a Mind: a part-painting, part-sculpture of a thick metallic disc. Alice created 40 such discs, inscribing bitcoin’s source code across all of them — a series of blocks that creates a whole, mirroring the architecture of blockchain. Close-up, patches of electric blue and gold glimmer, bringing to mind the precious metals found in actual mining — as opposed to blockchain mining. Block 8 was chosen for the exhibition because of the association between that number and the Chinese phrase for “making a fortune”. Despite the crypto-world’s fascination with the ability to monetise everything, many of the artists in the exhibition see the relationship between creativity and finance as fraught. Innovation in fundraising is a way freeing them from thinking about fundraising. For Ellwood, a young artist recently returned to China from New York, NFTs present an opportunity to gain independence from the demands of art galleries. “Creativity is creativity, and fundraising is fundraising,” he says. He is exhibiting his 3D-printed encrypted self-portrait. Originally a photo of his reflection in his own iris, now randomised through encryption, the resultant sculpture resembles a relief of unknown terrain. China is steeped in political and social fascination with online technologies, and entrepreneurs and artists are used to pushing at the outer bounds of what the government explicitly approves of. Some of the artworks in Virtual Niche were not fully displayed at times, because they required special software (VPNs) to bypass censorship controls to access the global platforms that the art works reside on. In trying to reach beyond what is easy, Virtual Niche is ambitious and idealistic — as is every interesting art collective. At the centre of the exhibition space is a wall of Chinese and English words that describe not only the mechanisms of blockchain but also the values of its advocates: anti-censorship, privacy, decentralisation.