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Issue 232

Damien Hirst’s Bonfire of NFTs

At Newport Street Gallery, London, the artist performatively burnt thousands of his own works 

BY Tom Morton in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 24 OCT 22

If you’ve ever been cornered at a party by an NFT bro, then you’ll know how it feels. Deep boredom as he shows you the latest aesthetically dismal ‘drops’ on his phone screen. Incredulity that anybody would spend their cash on what pretty much amounts to (legally dubious) bragging rights over an infinitely copy-able, infinitely shareable jpeg. Irritation bordering on despair at his failure to acknowledge the woeful environmental impact of blockchain technology. Suspicion that the trade in this ‘digital asset class’ is nothing but a bubble. Most of all, a desperate desire to escape. Such, approximately, was my experience of Damien Hirst’s exhibition ‘The Currency’, staged in the artist’s own Newport Street Gallery in London, which saw him enter, with crushing inevitability, what more excitable souls term the ‘NFT space’.

Damien Hirst
Damien Hirst, ‘The Currency’, 2022, performance documentation. Courtesy: © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022

Let’s get the details of the project over with. In 2016, Hirst made 10,000 of his signature ‘dot’ paintings on sheets of 20 x 30 cm handmade paper, signing each unique work and franking it with a hologram of his face, as though it were a banknote issued by his own personal mint. For every one of these paintings, the artist also created a corresponding NFT (short description: more dots, this time in motion), which he put on sale in 2021 via lottery for US$2,000 a pop. Purchasers then had a year or so to decide whether to keep their non-fungible token or exchange it for its paper counterpart. At the end of this period, the rejected artwork would be destroyed, either with the click of a mouse or, more dramatically, in one of six minimalist incinerators set into the walls of Newport Street Gallery. 

In the end, 4,851 NFTs were retained (1,000 by Hirst himself, in what he’s presented as a vote of confidence in the medium, or at least its market) while 5,149 purchasers opted for the paintings. Did this amount to a poll on the perceived future value of a physical work by this most famous of British artists vs. an entry in a digital ledger? Only if we assume that everybody who ponied up two grand saw their purchase primarily as a store of wealth, an asset that might appreciate, rather than as, say, something that might bring them pleasure or consolation, might make them think or feel. 

Damien Hirst
Damien Hirst, The Currency artworks (detail), 2021. Courtesy: © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022; photograph: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

At Newport Street, the rejected paintings, plus greyscale facsimiles of those not scheduled for immolation, were organized into vast grids and hung from the ceiling in clear plastic casings. These looked appealing enough, although the impact of Hirst’s already overfamiliar dot motif was further diminished by its appearance on the invigilators’ T-shirts, and the souvenir tat on sale in the gallery’s shop. On the day of my visit, the artist, clad in silvery flame-retardant dungarees and matching gauntlets, was burning the first batch of paintings, tonging work after work into the incinerators’ roaring heat. Perhaps this was supposed to trigger thoughts of John Baldessari’s Cremation Project (1970), in which the American conceptualist set fire to every canvas he’d painted over the previous 13 years, or Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty of the KLF torching GB£1,000,000 in cash on the Scottish island of Jura (K Foundation Burn a Million Quid, 1994). Instead, I was reminded of a suburban boomer dad prodding distractedly at a barbecue, while he tried to work out whether he had enough in his pension pot yet to take early retirement.  

Damien Hirst
Damien Hirst, ‘The Currency’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022; photograph: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

If Hirst’s best work – his bleak, fly-blown vivarium A Thousand Years (1990), for example – is about death, then his worst is about money. Baldessari followed Cremation Project with a piece titled I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (1971). It’s a resolution that Hirst, a once-thrilling artist, might do well to adopt. 

Damien Hirst’s ‘The Currency’ is Newport Street Gallery, London, until 30 October. 

Main image: Damien Hirst, 8483. May I stay like this? (detail), 2021. Courtesy: © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022; photograph: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.