There is barely any need for an introduction for Mike Winkelmann, the digital artist known as “Beeple.” Ever since his NFT artwork went under the hammer for a record-breaking US$69 million at auction in March 2021, the event pretty much changed the trajectory of contemporary art. Since then, Winkelmann has found himself wearing many new hats, including an NFT collaboration with the pop diva Madonna, an advisory role with Yuga Labs, the creator of the creators of Bored Ape NFT Collection — oh, and he’s also building a studio and exhibition space in his hometown Charleston, South Carolina.
While the arrival of crypto winter, crash of FTX and subsequent contagion might indicate that the NFT gold rush is slowing, the art world remains bullish regarding the potential of blockchain technology.
On December 9, Winkelmann’s hybrid screen-based sculpture, Human One, was unveiled at M+, Hong Kong’s museum of visual culture, marking the artist's first solo presentation at a major institution in Asia. A seven-feet-tall spinning box-like structure depicting a space traveler-like lone figure, Human One is an example of a digital and physical or “phygital” artwork symbolizing the journey of the first-ever human figure born in and traversing through the metaverse. It's a poignant display of humankind’s increasingly hybrid existence with technology.
Sunny Cheung, curator of the exhibition, tells Artazine that the context of Human One resounds deeply with the development of digital art history, which make up a significant portion of M+’s own collection. He pointed to RMB City (2007-2011) by Chinese artist Cao Fei, which Cheung sees as a precursor to the institution's current digital agenda, and depicts an early vision of the metaverse. There is also Ian Cheng’s generative, AI-powered work, B.O.B. (Bag of Beliefs) (2018-19), which pays homage to gaming culture.
“NFTs have really come into the forefront of public consciousness,” says Cheung, “All these [interests for the virtual world] are reaching a moment and they are all encapsulated within Human One. I think this is the perfect time to [present the work at M+].”
Prior to the public opening of “Beeple: Human One”, Artazine sat down with Winkelmann, the man of the (NFT) moment, to talk about Human One, how he sees the charm in the physicality of art, and why he thinks deadlines are the greatest source of inspiration.
Artazine (A): Where did the name Beeple come from?
Mike “Beeple” Winkelmann (MW): The name Beeple came from a toy from the 1980s. It's this stuffed animal that giggles and lights up and makes sound when you cover its eyes. And so, that kind of interplay between the light and sound [really resonated with] the early part of my career, which was about making digital art with very tightly synced audio and video. So, it seemed like [Beeple] was a good idea. It also just sounds kind of like computer stuff — beep, boop, bee-ple — I don’t know.
A: So do you prefer to be called Beeple, or just Mike?
MW: Usually people just call me Mike.
A: How would you describe yourself as an artist?
MW: I would say "weird." I tend to try to make things that people have not seen before. I think even that is hard, because there's such an onslaught of media that we're exposed to with the internet, that having any reaction to what we see is very rare. And so, I'm trying to make things that are truly like the weirdest thing you've seen on the internet, which is a lot harder than it sounds, because the internet is pretty weird.
A: You started your famous “Everydays” series by creating art every single day, are you still keeping up with that practice?
A: How do you keep coming up with “weird” ideas on a daily basis?
MW: Yeah, I am definitely still doing it every day. I've got to do it sometime today. I did it last night at the hotel. I'm trying to make artwork that's going to be very relevant in the future. In the future things will be even more weird, as technologies combine in ways that we didn't expect — for instance, art and the blockchain — I didn't see that coming.
[Not to mention] this crazy weird thing that happened, where I sold a JPEG for US$69 million. So there's going to be more weird things like that happening in the future, and that's what I'm trying to capture through [my art], the unintended consequences of technology.
A: It’s hard to forget that moment at Christie's in 2021. Your digital artwork Everydays: the First 5000 Days — a JPEG, as you said — sold for US$69 million. Back then, you were very adamant about keeping it a digital-only art, without any physical showcase. So what led to Human One? How did you arrive at this “phygital” hybrid work?
MW: For the sale of Everydays: the First 5000 Days, I was very adamant that there not be a physical component, because I think that was more of a statement. I wanted people to realize they were truly buying this digital artwork and they were buying something that symbolized the last 15 years of “Everydays”.
But for most work, having a physical component as a way to have [the art] live with you is a more meaningful way than just, "Here's a file on my phone." To me, that's the least engaging, the least emotionally impactful way to experience art. We're obviously still physical beings, we're not jacked into the metaverse yet. And so, having physical manifestations of this work, to me, is really important and I think helps make that emotional connection with people.
A: So you think that having a tactile quality to art is still very important to your practice?
MW: Yeah. This is very new [to me], doing physical work, to be quite honest. With the NFT boom, the traditional art world kind of moved a little bit more digital, and [my practice] moved a little bit more physical. But what we’re going to see is the convergence between the two.
A: Can you tell us more about Human One and how the work came about?
MW: Human One is the story of the first human born in the metaverse, [the work] imagines that if this crazy metaverse we keep talking about finally gets fully realized, that this is a person, whose entire life has been inside the metaverse, and they're continually exploring, continually marching forward. And so, over time, the environments that the person's walking through will continue to change. This is something that I'm going to keep changing for the rest of my life.
I think that's exciting because I don't know where this is going, to be honest. I'm really making it up as I go. It's not like I have all 30 years of where this is going to go scripted out. The previous iteration [at Castello di Rivoli], which was showcased following the start of the Ukraine war, shows the person walking through a war-torn environment.
And I think that's something I couldn't have planned in advance because when this piece was created and sold in November of last year, the war hadn't started. And so, having this piece be something where I can continually comment on things and reflect on things that are happening in the world, will keep the piece feeling very fresh and vital for a long time.
A: What new elements were incorporated in the M+ iteration of Human One?
MW: Since this is the first time Human One is being [shown] in Asia, I wanted to do something that kind of reflected that, and so I wanted the person to be moving through this beautiful, foreign landscape which is full of color and life. And then towards the end of it, there's these giant orbs that explode, which is meant to symbolize fireworks, in a way.
A: What do you think is the significance of having museums or major institutions, collect and exhibit your work?
MW: I think museums are still the gatekeepers of the canon of art history, they think about art on a much longer timescale. To me that's really appealing, because I'm trying to make work that will be relevant and talked about 100 years from now. And so, having a dialog with museums is key to that.
A: What happens when you hit a creative block?
MW: That happens quite often. It’s kind of funny that people are like, “What if you're not inspired?” Guess what, I'm not inspired most days.
Inspiration is a tricky thing, because it comes very often when you sit down to do the work. I have to just force myself to sit down, and through the work, ideas come. But most days I have no idea what I'm going to do. Like today, I have absolutely no idea what I'm going to do. I haven't thought about it. I'm not going to think about it until I sit down and do it. I'm able to compartmentalize it pretty well, I think.
this piece is heavily inspired by some of the Chinese contemporary artwork i saw at @mplusmuseum in the Uli sigg collection. so fucking badass. 😍😍😍— beeple (@beeple) December 12, 2022
fun fact: It was posted at the very last minute of a rare 37 hour day (traveling home from Hong Kong). 👌
A: How do you do it..do you give yourself a daily deadline?
MW: It has to be posted [on social media] somewhere by midnight, so I do have a very hard cutoff. For example today, I've got 14 hours or whatever left to figure out something.
I think people don't have a lack of ideas, I think they have a lack of deadlines. And if you had more deadlines, you would see more ideas come out.
A: As an editorial platform, I can't tell you how much that speaks to us.
MW: (Points to video crew) Copyright Beeple — you don't have a lack of ideas, just deadlines. Get that copyrighted, on tape. Is that on tape? Both cameras?
A: Where do you see your art going in the future?
MW: Where do I see it going in the future? That's a good question. Honestly, I feel like there are so many different areas to explore. I'm very much at the beginning of my practice in terms of physical work. There's a lot of room to make objects that feel more connected and feel more dynamic, to me that is much more akin to how art will be in the future. I'm always trying to think of how I can make something that is a prototype of what things could be in the future.
A: When was the moment that hit you and made you realize "I'm an artist now"?
MW: I've been making art for over 20 years. It started in 1999 when I went to college. I went to school for computer science and realized I didn't really want to be a programmer and spent all my time making digital art. I was making art for 20 years before this. It was just not the way I was making a living.
With art, you just make whatever the hell you want, and then hope to God somebody wants to pay money for it. And that's much, much harder [than being a designer], because who wouldn't want to do that? Who wouldn't want to just make whatever the hell they want and then have somebody give them money for it? And so, I think that switch happened obviously with the NFTs, where I guess I'm technically an artist now.
Beeple: HUMAN ONE
December 9, 2022 – April 30, 2023
Focus Gallery, M+
West Kowloon Cultural District
38 Museum Drive, Kowloon