Beeple with his artwork On the chain.
Photo: Zachary Small
Deep in the swampy suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina, a road winds through the palmetto trees and ends at an unmarked industrial complex sandwiched between distribution centers for Budweiser and Walmart. Inside is a 50,000-square-foot production studio with museum-quality galleries where more than a dozen workers tinker with doodads and dark hallways are lit by nearly 150 television monitors. Ambient music plays through the speakers as the boss, Mike Winkelmann, aka Beeple, sits in his office with his back to six cable news channels playing on mute. The adjacent wall is decorated with a framed portrait of the video game character Mario undergoing a bloody cesarean section with a green 1-UP mushroom emerging from his womb.
“It’s one of my favorites,” the artist says, patting the plumber’s bare chest.
This is the Space, the crazy lab of the world’s richest digital artist. Beeple was able to afford a $10 million renovation after a compilation of 5,000 daily sketches, made over 14 years, sold in a Christie’s auction in March 2021 for $69 million to an angel investor named Vignesh Sundaresan as a non-fungible token, or NFT. , the blockchain darling became speculatively active from the crypto nouveaux riches. Within a year, the technology became a $40 billion industry, and Beeple was his talisman, with the hopes of sending both the art world and the crypto economy to the moon. “This has the potential to become the work of art of this generation,” said Anand Venkateswaran, who co-operates the Metapurse crypto fund with Sundaresan, shortly after purchasing Sundaresan.
Now the crypto market is in tatters, with nearly $2 trillion wiped from the market in recent weeks, pushing the NFT market down with it. But Winkelmann has no regrets. “I’ve never been an NFT evangelist,” he tells me. “What I am is a digital art evangelist. The sales aspect is a means to an end. I’d prefer not to sell, because that’s the least fun part, even if it’s necessary. But I’m not a crypto brother, because there’s real substance in what I’ve done.” Whether Winkelmann creates works of substance or glorified JPEGs, as his critics claim, is the question that preoccupies him as he moves into another speculative arena, this one in the midst of a decade-long boom: the traditional art market.
Blockchain messiah has always been an odd position for a middle-aged fiscally conservative Wisconsin graphic designer who never traded more than stocks and who made his living as a freelancer producing Super Bowl halftime shows and concerts. Winkelmann, now 41, still has that midwestern charm, though it’s often pierced by the kind of swearing you’d expect from a teenager. Still, it’s a perfect casting. “The guy looks like a high school math teacher who plays on his computer every day,” said Meghan Doyle, an auction catalog who helped organize the deal while at Christie’s. “Buyers could respect that kind of perseverance and dedication.”
Winkelmann, who had previously sold his art for $100 a pop, auctioned off multimillion-dollar NFTs just months after learning about the technology. But he also warned that most tokens were risky bets that could easily drop to zero. The summer of his breakout, Winkelmann donated his NFT collectors underwear packaged for the “medium adult anus,” and prepared them to shit themselves. When the market collapsed, Winkelmann, who has only bought about ten NFTs for himself, was ready to move on. “That dude is a smart businessman,” said Noah Davis, the former Christie’s digital specialist responsible for turning Winkelmann into a movement.
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, director of the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art in Turin, Italy, has become Beeple’s guru. “Carolyn got in touch shortly after the auction. She thought I was an algorithm,” Winkelmann says with a laugh. “It clicked right away.” She led the artist on a major European tour this spring and summer, introducing him to an art world he hopes will form a new base of collectors. They celebrated all over the continent, first at the Venice Biennale, then Documenta Fifteen in Germany and Art Basel in Switzerland.
The Daily Sketches, which are known as every day, have their profession. They are like portals to a subconscious overloaded with mass media, most of which were created in a few hours using ready-made assets in the digital modeling program Cinema 4D. Look long enough at these ruins of video game characters and penis pumps and you can find posts of gun violence, authoritarianism, billionaire hubris, and the dystopian promises of tech companies.
Not everyone is convinced of their merit. Writing in New York Time, Jason Farago declared the battle for good taste over. Beeple had won: “It is now his culture, backward but triumphant, where childish entertainment can never be questioned.” When I read this quote to Winkelmann, he just raises his hands and laughs.
Winkelmann chooses his subjects like a tabloid editor. “I’ve always been a big news junkie,” he says. During my visit, Boris Johnson announces that he is stepping down as UK Prime Minister. “I thought, Hmmm, maybe I want to make a cross out of someone’s head,‘ says Winkelmann. So he builds a crucifix on a grassy plain, composed of about five dozen versions of Johnson’s face. Pray for Bojo becomes the title, referring to a Simpsons episode where Homer gets a monkey helper named Mojo who becomes lazy and overweight. It’s a classic Beeple, both invigorating and a little on the nose.
Winkelmann recently made his first physical work, human, a video sculpture. It is a spinning box housing an astronaut walking through an imagined world in a 24-hour loop that will be continuously updated by the artist throughout his life. A new scene recently placed the astronaut (a Beeple avatar), glowing with the colors of the Ukrainian flag, in a war zone. The statue was bought at a November auction by Swiss-based collector Ryan Zurrer for nearly $29 million; it is currently on display in Christov-Bakargiev’s museum, opposite a painting by Francis Bacon. He has bigger projects planned. The huge hangar in his studio complex is to become a stage for immersive art installations. “I’d like the room to feel like you’re stepping into a video game,” he says. “What would the room look like if it were hell? What if you walked in and there were piles of bodies on the screens? Then you could immediately flip a switch and make it feel heavenly.”
Charleston is the incubator for these projects. During my visit there are at least five sculptures similar to Human as well as a giant emoji chained to a wooden pallet and a rubber baby pickled in a large jar. As he paces the conference room, Winkelmann talks about the dangers of online government surveillance and the spread of misinformation by extremist groups. As the father of two small children, he is concerned with the future as well as being more than a flash in the crypto pan.
“I’m focused on legacy now,” he says. “It’s about the real shit that people will give a fuck about 200 years from now. Who cares about a stupid auction anymore? I do not care.”