TURIN, April 14 — Artists were quick to seize on NFTs, while museums and cultural institutions remained more circumspect towards this new technology. Few of them had, until now, ventured to stage exhibitions featuring these digital objects. But the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art in Turin is now rising to the challenge.

A year ago, few art lovers had heard of Michael Winkelmann, aka Beeple. At the time, he already had millions of followers on Instagram, but no museum had exhibited the South Carolina graphic designer’s pop arty creations. Then, the sale of one of his works as an NFT on March 11 at Christie’s for US$69.3 million (RM293 million) changed everything.

Beeple has since become the poster boy for NFTs, digital property certificates whose authenticity is verified by blockchain technology. While these non-fungible tokens have started a small revolution in the art world, they have had a harder time entering the museum. Exhibiting them can be a real logistical headache for institutions used to “physical” rather than digital works.

The Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art in Turin is determined to take up this challenge. It will include a piece by Beeple in its forthcoming exhibition “Espressioni Con Frazioni,” opening April 24. Its name is “HUMAN ONE.” This kinetic sculpture takes the form of a two-meter-high white mahogany column covered with LED screens depicting a character dressed in a helmet and a silver suit. According to the Wall Street Journal, “HUMAN ONE” will be displayed on a rotating pillar, giving visitors to the Castello di Rivoli museum the impression that the sculpture has been brought to life before their very eyes.


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Bringing legitimacy to NFTs

Moreover, “HUMAN ONE” will be exhibited next to “Study for Portrait IX,” a painting by Francis Bacon featuring a man in a suit, with no hands, and with a reserved air. This painting comes from the collection of the Castello di Rivoli Museum, while Beeple’s kinetic video sculpture is on loan. For Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, director of Castello di Rivoli, these two works have more in common than it might seem. “The two works contrast nicely,” she told the American publication. “Bacon’s man is tormented in his Cold War, post-atomic bomb era, and you get the feeling he can’t do anything, and then there is Beeple’s character, constantly moving but in its box.”

The “Espressioni Con Frazioni” exhibition marks a turning point in Beeple’s career, as it is his first foray into a museum of international significance. It is also an important step in establishing the legitimacy of NFTs in a sector that is often cautious about technological advances. Artists, however, are much less so. Many hope that NFTs will challenge the business model of auction houses and art galleries — one that has remained unchallenged for years.

As for museums and cultural institutions, they play an essential role in democratising these lines of code referring to a virtual artwork among the public at large. And there is still plenty of work to be done on that front. Only 8 per cent of French people know exactly what lies behind the acronym NFT, according to an Ifop study commissioned by the blockchain news site, Cointribune.com. Meanwhile, the investment bank Piper Sandler found that a tiny fraction of American teenagers (8 per cent) have already bought non-fungible tokens, even though they are likely to be the prime target for this new technology.

Cultural institutions have the opportunity to change their visitors’ perception of NFTs, and of crypto art more generally. And this is not without interest for museums, since the presence of digital tokens and other digital works in their collections could allow them to attract a new, young, crypto-savvy audience to their galleries. And that can only be a good thing after two years of pandemic. — ETX Studio