arts

'That is art!': Damien Hirst has begun burning thousands of his own paintings

Updated 11th October 2022
'That is art!': Damien Hirst has begun burning thousands of his own paintings
Written by Oscar Holland, Leah Dolan CNNLondon, United Kingdom
Smoke rose from artist Damien Hirst's London gallery on Tuesday, as 1,000 of his signature "spot" paintings went up in flames. Thousands more will be reduced to ashes before the month is out.
This was no accident, however. The entire second floor of the two-story Newport Street Gallery was filled with a bonfire-like odor as journalists and camera crews crowded in to watch 57-year-old Hirst feed painting after painting into six glass-cased incinerators as part of his latest commentary on the value of art and the forces that dictate it.
The livestreamed event — beamed onto screens in the gallery foyer as well as on Instagram — was part of Hirst's project "The Currency," which began six years ago with the creation of 10,000 unique dotted paintings. Rather than selling the works, the British artist stored them in a vault and instead offered collectors a chance to purchase one of 10,000 corresponding NFTs.
He then gave buyers a choice: trade in their digital token for the physical painting it represents, or allow the artwork to burn. Owners of 4,851 of them chose the latter.
At Tuesday's event, held the day before the Frieze London art fair, the exhibition space — with its long central workbench, the gallery assistants dressed in matching orange jumpsuits, and Hirst in a pair of silver trousers held up by braces — resembled a Santa's workshop of destruction. Despite the somber connotations of art-burning, the artist was jovial while destroying his work — smiling, making faces and chatting with journalists packed into the press corner.
Although Hirst refused interviews beforehand, he happily fielded questions from behind the barrier: "To me there's no gamble," he said when asked about the value of NFTs over physical works, "there's only ever art."
On Instagram a day earlier, Hirst addressed the topic in more detail. "A lot of people think I'm burning millions of dollars of art but I'm not," he wrote. "The value of art digital or physical, which is hard to define at the best of times, will not be lost, it will be transferred to the NFT as soon as they are burnt."
Damien Hirst began burning thousands of his own artworks at London's Newport Street Gallery on Tuesday October 11.
Damien Hirst began burning thousands of his own artworks at London's Newport Street Gallery on Tuesday October 11. Credit: Jeff Spicer/Getty

A question of value

Produced in 2016, the original paintings were all signed, numbered and given unique titles. (Names were created by applying machine learning to some of Hirst's favorite song lyrics, resulting in titles like "Never getting up" and "Since making love in love.") No two works are identical, and no two dots in a single painting are the same color.
Each artwork was then linked to an NFT, a blockchain-backed digital token that can be bought and sold. Last summer, successful applicants were allocated a random token for $2,000 each.
With full knowledge of Hirst's looming ultimatum, owners then traded their NFTs on the secondary market. One NFT changed hands for over $176,000, according to data from Heni, the digital marketplace that hosted the initial sale. The average sale price was significantly lower, at $20,742, though this was still more than 10 times the original asking price.
In July, after a year of trading, owners were able to "redeem" their NFTs. Most of the 5,149 collectors who opted to trade in their tokens have now been sent the paintings. The rest of the physical artworks will be burned at Hirst's private gallery between now and the end of October.
Those incinerated on Tuesday, in fact, belong to the artist (he held back 1,000 out of the 10,000 for himself). After his deadline passed in July, Hirst wrote on Twitter that deciding what to do with his portion of the works had left his "head in a spin."
He also grappled with the question underpinning the project: Will the physical or digital versions be worth more?
"I have no idea what the future holds, whether the NFTs or physicals are going to be more valuable or less," Hirst wrote. "But that is art! The fun part of the journey and maybe the point of the whole project."
A total of 4,851 original paintings from "The Currency" will be destroyed while their twin NFTs remain.
A total of 4,851 original paintings from "The Currency" will be destroyed while their twin NFTs remain. Credit: Prudence Cuming

Playing with fire

Hirst is, along with Tracey Emin, considered a key member of the Young British Artists movement that emerged in London in the 1980s. He has (or, often, his assistants have) been making his characteristic spot paintings for more than three decades. The paintings' colored dots vary in density, shade and neatness, making them at once unique and almost indistinguishable from one another.
The artist's work often addresses — and, due to the amount it can sell for, raises — questions about money in the art world. One of his best-known works is a platinum cast of a human skull, covered with more than 8,600 diamonds, that sold for a reported £50 million (then around $100 million) in 2007.
He is not, however, the only person in the NFT space to have played with fire. In March 2021, a blockchain firm called Injective Protocol purchased a work by anonymous street artist Banksy for $95,000 before burning it on camera and selling an NFT of the video for four times as much. Last month, meanwhile, Miami art collector and crypto businessman Martin Mobarak released a video in which he claimed to burn a 1944 Frida Kahlo work to launch his own corresponding Kahlo-themed NFTs. (The National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature in Mexico has since opened an investigation into the incident, as destroying Kahlo's work is a criminal offense in the country.)
Hirst has said that burning his art was intended not only to interrogate the value of NFTs but to explore the idea that market value, like money itself, is underpinned by confidence. In a video introducing the project last year, he described it as an "experiment in belief."
"The whole thing is the artwork," he explained at the time. "It's almost like the behavior of the human beings that are all involved in it ... it just will have a life of its own."