NFTs: A Flash in the Pan or a Herald of the Future?

By Ooi Kok Chuen

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The original CryptoPunk.

WHEN BEEPLE’S NFT, Everydays: The First 5,000 Days (2021), sold for US$69.3mil at Christie’s March 2021 auction, it triggered a seismic revolution in the art world, so much so that the year 2021 was dubbed the JPEG Summer.

To take the medium to another level, Beeple and supernova singer Madonna have collaborated on three videos that will be sold as NFTs for charity.

NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, hit stratospheric heights when Beeple, a.k.a. Mike Winklemann, a virtual nonentity despite a 14-year active spell, achieved the jaw-dropping benchmark NFT price that is the envy of even “conventional” blue-chip artists like Jeff Koons, Anselm Kiefer, Damien Hirst and David Hockney.

Wikipedia, in a nutshell, described NFT as “a non-interchangeable unit of data stored on a blockchain, a form of digital ledger, that can be sold or traded.”

The digital files can be from art-pieces, photographs, videos or audio (music), or anything collectible or tradeable that can be “minted”, with protean permutations.

In art, it can be, most likely, an original anime avatar like the generic CryptoPunks (by Matt Hall and John Watkinson in 2017) or the 10,000-part Bored Ape Yacht Club or original artworks “minted” into NFT versions the way artworks are marketed as giclee (using pigment-based ink), etchings or lithographic prints.

It runs on blockchain technology from a plethora of platforms such as OpenSea, Nifty, SuperRare (and the local, with transactions done in forms of digital wallets like MetaMask, Coinbase or Moonpay.

Artists first “mint” NFTs on a blockchain combining a base, usually Ethereum, a digital file and smart contract codes, and tokenise it in the marketplace or make a “drop” (launch). It must be remembered that NFTs are not tangible pieces of art.

NFTs have to be verified as uploaded by their owner before being listed on the site to safeguard intellectual property rights and prevent plagiarised works, spams, fraud and fake collections.

Most NFTs are registered on the Ethereum blockchain, which is criticised for its colossal carbon footprint. Ethereum uses a proof of work (PoW) consensus mechanism. PoW functions by utilising validators (miners) to solve cryptographic algorithms.

One of Red Hong Yi's Memebank Banknotes NFT series On Opensea in November 2021.

How you mint an NFT, how the sale price is determined – these and more questions can be answered in The NFT Handbook: How to Create, Sell and Buy Non-Fungible Tokens, by Matt Fortnow and QuHarrison Terry.

You know NFTs have caught on when big auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s have muscled in on the action, with Sotheby’s even having an NFT-specific platform, Metaverse.

Sotheby’s, which even accepted ether cryptocurrency for certain lots in its November auction last year, is reported to have earned US$100mil from NFT sales last year!

Read also: A Row of Fairs Clearing the Air in the Art World

In Malaysia, Digital Art first went mainstream when Ismail Zain staged his Digital Collage solo exhibition way back in 1988, his first solo at the age of 58.

Locally, Red Hong Yi’s Memebank caper for charity, with a bit of theatrics proved a tremendous fillip for cryptocurrency. She was anointed global superstar when her work, Climate Is Everything, made the TIME cover in its April 21, 2021 issue.

Later with graffiti artist Katun a.k.a. Abdul Hafiz Abdul Rahman, she created special pieces to support WWF tiger conservation efforts called AR-mazing Tiger Trail. She built a rattan cage, while Katun painted the Caspian tiger.

Business Today on April 17 reported that Katun made US$7mil from his Apes R Us collection of 8,444 NFTs which was sold out in 28 hours.

At the recent Art Expo Malaysia’s Art For All in KL, there was even a booth promoting NFTs.

Though the take-up locally is still not eyebrow-raising, several artists have joined the NFT bandwagon.

The oldest artist in the Metaverse at 78, Syed Thajudeen Shaik Abu Talib had put some of his Kebaya Series works on OpenSea. He is best known for his Ramayana and Malacca Sultanate magnum opus and was given a Retrospective by the Penang State Art Gallery in 2015.

Syed Thajudeen – Kebaya Series.

His son, Syed Fazal, an engineer by profession, handled the nitty-gritty of the NFT marketing to tap the wider market and cater for the different market segments, providing three options namely NFT (digital image) with only crypto transaction; NFT (digital image) + physical painting with crypto transaction; and physical painting + NFT (for an additional fee), with cash transaction for more conventional buyers.

Several like Calvin Chua Cheng Koon and Alex Leong Yim Kuan, both watercolourists with Calvin being a veteran, joined NFTapir. Alex Leong put up only two of his previous works.

Calvin Chua Cheng Koon.

One fervent NFT acolyte, watercolourist Lok Kerk Hwang, minted a few of his works into various blockchains ETH, Cronos, Tezos, Polygon and BNB, and transferred some to his appreciative collectors.

NFTs of watercolours by Lok Kerk Hwang.

“NFT is a big thing. With time, it will change the behaviour of artists and collectors,” the Batu Pahat-based artist penned in a questionnaire.

The global NFT top-grossers in a survey compiled by gothamag revealed the usual suspects. Beeple, Pak, Xcopy…

A sampling: Clock by Pak, on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s imprisonment US$50.2mil; Human One by Beeple US$28.9mil; Crossroad by Beeple US$6.6mil; Ocean Front by Beeple US$6mil; All Time High in the City by XCOPY US$4.9mil; Stay Free by Edward Snowden US$3.5mil; the meme Right-Click and Save As Guy US$7mil (bought by Snoop Dog); Ross Ulbricht Genesis Collection by FreeRoss US$4.3mil; Replicator by MadDogJones US$4.1mil; A Coin for the Ferryman by XCOPY US$4mil; Some Asshole by XCopy US$3.9mil and Nice to meet You, I’m Mr MiSUNDERSTOOD by 19-year-old Fewocious for US$2.8mil.

Even 85-year-old Singapore abstract icon Goh Beng Kwan reached out to the new digital market with NFT mints and even AR (Augmented Reality) works in his Retrospective, taking up the entire Level 6 of the Conrad Centennial Singapore.

The Vatican also decided to “democratise” its art collection by converting some into NFTs. Notable are Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, Caravaggio’s Deposition and Raphael’s School of Athens.

Goh Beng Kwan NFTs of works used to raise funds for the National Gallery Singapore. Clockwise: Viaduct; Urban Renewal - Sun and Moon; Painting Within Painting; and Chinese New Year Blessing.
NFTs of some of the masterpieces in The Vatican.

NFT got a big boost on April 30 when the U.K. High Court ruled that NFTs are considered bona-fide property, and thus injunctions can be taken on stolen NFTs.

Lest you get sucked up by all the dizzying hype, it’s pertinent to note that Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey only had the highest bid of US$277 in March 2021 when he tried to sell his NFT bought for US$12.9mil.

Like everything on the net, NFT can be open to abuse like hacking despite its steel-trap encryption codes. Some owners allegedly lost access to their Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) NFTs on OpenSea. BAYC has investors who include Eminem, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jimmy Fallon.

NFT has been around since 2014 but is still considered a volatile commodity. Without a proper ecosystem, it is unregulated, decentralised and still lacks in security. The biggest gripe is that the volume of NFT transactions consume huge computational energy, taking up a huge carbon footprint.

An icy shudder shut the metaverse when the Wall Street Journal on May 3 reported that NFT sales had flatlined with a 92% drop from its peak sales in September 2021.

Will it recover and how, and how soon? And more importantly, can NFTs be the future of art collecting?

Ooi Kok Chuen

is an art-writer and journalist, and the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.