Beeple’s new studio space is a museum of digital art

Charleston-based artist Beeple, whose real name is Mike Winkelmann, forever changed the art world when his digital artwork “Everydays — The First 5,000 Days” sold as an NFT for $69.3 million in March 2021. It was the first purely digital artwork ever offered at Christie’s auction house — and remains the most expensive NFT sold to a single person. 

If you have no idea what “NFT” means, the simplest explanation is: NFT stands for “non-fungible token.” “Non-fungible” refers to something that is unique and can’t be replaced. By contrast, physical money and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are fungible, which means they can be traded or exchanged for one another. 

Every NFT contains a digital signature which makes it unique, verifying when you purchase an NFT, you bought a one-of-a-kind digital asset. These digital assets could be photos, videos, audio files or another digital format — tweets, even — but in the case of Winkelmann, he sells NFTs of digital artwork which he creates and releases daily. 

“Everydays: The First 5,000 Days” is an NFT associated with a collage of the first 5,000 days (or approximately 13.5 years) of his daily art making practice. The sale of this purely digital artwork marked a historic moment in art history — and the fact that the artist behind that moment is based in Charleston offers an opportunity for our very traditional visual arts scene to take a giant leap into the future. 

New studio may blow your mind

Two years after his groundbreaking sale at Christie’s, Winkelmann celebrated the opening reception of a new massive studio space in a Daniel Island warehouse off Clements Ferry Road.

The 50,000-square-foot studio space features a gallery of Beeple’s work, including a giant print of “Everydays,” a physical collage of the digital artworks which Winkelmann has created and released online daily since 2007. 

The print of “Everydays” represents the NFT sale that made Beeple world-famous. | Courtesy Beeple

The studio walls are decorated with large-scale prints of Winkelmann’s favorite “Everydays.” These images are often political, grotesque and irreverent, each with its own distinctive message. Three baby yodas dismember and eat Jabba the Hutt in one. Another portrays a giant version of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in a Pikachu helmet with the torso of Buzz Lightyear — plus massive breasts
— directing a military mission. You can find both on Beeple’s Instagram account, which is followed by 2.4 million users. 

The experience of viewing Winkelmann’s digital art is augmented by physical representations of those works at the private studio. | Courtesy Beeple

Winkelmann told the Charleston City Paper that he recently began offering physical artwork to his collectors because of a desire to enhance the experience of viewing his work, which is most often seen on a phone screen. When you purchase an NFT by Beeple, it now comes with a physical representation of the work, a small screen displaying the digital art.

“When I first started releasing NFTs in the fall of 2020, nobody had heard of them,” Winklemann said, “So, all of my friends and followers were like, ‘What the hell is this crypto art? Why would I pay for nothing?’ And I’m like, well, that’s a valid point.”

So, Winklemann decided to incorporate physical objects to augment the viewer’s experience.

“I think it is a much better way to view it than just, ‘Oh, here’s this thing on my phone, look, here’s the art or whatever.’ I think that’s like the lamest way to experience art. So to me, it was sort of natural to want to enhance the experience.”

The studio space marks a move into the physical realm despite Winkelmann’s massive success selling works that only exist digitally. This shift in his work started with the 2021 sculpture “Human One,” a physical and digital hybrid piece which Winkelmann describes as “the first human born in the metaverse.” The physical component of the dynamically changing artwork is a constantly rotating aluminum box, complete with an always-on video which changes throughout the day. 

Another digital-physical hybrid piece sits in the center of the studio’s first gallery space: a rotating, kinetic video sculpture in an aluminum case, demonstrating Winkelmann’s continued artistic exploration of these two realms, which he understands to be increasingly blurred. 

“I think in a lot of people’s minds, it’s like there’s the physical things, and there’s the digital things,” Winklemann said. “And I don’t think that’s how life is now. We’re all carrying around computers and starting to wear computers. And so, the lines between the digital world and physical world, I think are blurring, and I think they will get very blurry in the future.”

Beeple’s Museum of the Future

During the March 11 opening night event, Winkelmann showed his pieces plus an exhibition of work by 50 digital artists from around the world. He said some of the artists are friends and peers, others were discovered through an open call for submissions on his website. 

Winkelmann also said part of the motivation behind this showcase of digital artists is to demonstrate the potential of the digital medium and how it can be displayed.  

The studio demonstrates the untapped potential of what it looks like to bring digital art into a physical gallery space. | Courtesy Beeple

“I think there’s room to show a different type of experience in these spaces,” he said. “Most of the time when you go into an experiential space, which there’s not a ton of them, they’re programmed just like regular museums with physical art. I wanted to sort of show a different model of programming.”

Winkelmann also wants the space to create opportunities for artists to show work without the intense vetting process that often accompanies museum and gallery representation. 

Photo courtesy Beeple

“It’s also an ‘Instagram room’ type of thing,” he said. “You just put things on Instagram. They’re not vetted by these massive processes and whatnot. So that’s something I wanted to try and recreate.” 

Winkelmann plans to have more exhibitions and events featuring international digital artists, including a student showcase. 

“To me, it’s a win-win all around: People get exposure from showing at the space here, and we’re able to engage the community and give an opportunity to show in a space like this that normally they wouldn’t have.”

In collaboration with the Gibbes Museum of Art’s festival later this month, Art Charleston, Winkelmann is hosting an event April 29 that he hopes will engage the local art community. He said finding ways to bring in local artists presents a unique and exciting challenge. 

“It doesn’t seem like — and I could be totally wrong — there is a massive digital art community in Charleston. It seems to me that it is more of a traditional art community. So, trying to figure out how to engage them in a digital way, it is an interesting sort of challenge that we’d like to take on.”

Meaning over medium

The largest work in the Clements Ferry Road studio is a massive print of “Everydays.”

Winkelmann reflected on the process of making and releasing an artwork every day, explaining that he made a piece on the day he was married, the days his children were born and even on days he had food poisoning, calling the project a “diary of sorts.” The only day he ever missed, he said, was by 4 minutes, when he was on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and missed his midnight deadline to post the work he created live on the show. He’s still creating and releasing daily, with no plans to stop the project anytime soon. 

“Being able to see, especially on the wall, the first 15 years in one thing, it’s hard even for me to take in, because there’s so much of my life in there as well as things that happened in the world.”

Winkelmann created printed versions of his favorite digital artworks and said seeing the work physically has brought new inspiration. | Courtesy Beeple

Winkelmann said seeing the work in this format brings new inspiration for him, and new appreciation of the work from others too. 

“Seeing it like this, where you can see each individual picture is super exciting, because so many people saw the 5,000 days online, and it’s literally like this big,” he said, making an iPhone screen with his fingers, “and it just looks like noise. It’s like they’ve not even seen the pictures. So to me, that’s exciting to show people.

“I think when the sale happened, there was so much focus on the money aspect of it, and it was just like, ‘He put together a thing of like 5,000 days of images…’

“And I was like, whoa, whoa, you kind of ran past that part pretty quick. That was a lot of fucking work, right? I think people glossed over that. That was 13 years of work. And so to be able to have people really see it and see that was a lot of work, it’s been super satisfying.”

Winkelmann said there is often too much focus on his digital medium, and he hopes viewers will instead consider the meanings behind his images. 

“The thing I’m trying to do is bring up questions and show you something you’ve never seen before. I think that is my primary job. It is not to tell you what to think. It is to show you something you’ve never seen before, and hopefully that unlocks something new inside you. 

“That’s not easy, because we’ve seen a lot of things. That is part of the reason the pictures are very weird — to try and cut through the noise of the crazy amount of media that we consume, and show you something that you’ve never seen before, because I believe that is the work that will stand the test of time.”

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