By Adam Iscoe,
The art world is used to antics: Maurizio Cattelan sold a banana duct-taped to a wall, Robert Rauschenberg erased a de Kooning drawing, Ai Weiwei photographed himself smashing a two-thousand-year-old urn. Seconds after the painting “Girl with Balloon” sold at auction for $1.4 million, its creator, the street artist Banksy, shredded the piece via remote control. Earlier this year, in Chelsea, an aspiring artist in his mid-twenties walked into Taglialatella Galleries and purchased a Banksy screen print, titled “Morons (White),” for ninety-five thousand dollars, using funds that he had raised from investors. Then he set it on fire.
“Art is whatever you want it to be,” the young man, who goes by the name Burnt Banksy, said, laughing. “Do I think I’m an artist? Yes and no. I don’t think it’s even remotely fair to compare me to someone like Banksy. I’m just trying to make a message.” He was dressed all in black: sneakers, jeans, puffer jacket, and mask, which refused to stay put over his nose. “I’m trying to stay anonymous,” he said. “Dude, we’ve received so much hate. Some people are very, very angry.”
Before he torched the art work, Burnt Banksy had a photographer take a picture of it, then minted the photograph as an N.F.T. and uploaded it to an online auction platform. (An N.F.T., or “non-fungible token,” is a certificate of authenticity and ownership attached to an asset, like a jpeg image or a viral YouTube video.) Everything went as planned, except that the art work wouldn’t catch fire. Fifty thousand people watched live on Twitter as Burnt Banksy struggled to burn a Banksy. Eventually, the print went up in flames, and Burnt Banksy’s début N.F.T. sold to an anonymous buyer for about three hundred and eighty thousand dollars, in cryptocurrency.
“We didn’t see this as destroying the art work and creating a new one,” he said. “Essentially, we were transferring it to the N.F.T. space.” In recent weeks in the N.F.T. space, someone paid sixty-nine million dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency for a digital mosaic by the artist Beeple; an Azealia Banks audio sex tape fetched around seventeen thousand; and a buyer spent just under three million for Jack Dorsey’s first tweet.
For his next project—a decentralized auction house specializing in N.F.T.s—Burnt Banksy has raised about two million dollars from cryptocurrency venture capitalists in Hong Kong, mainland China, and Singapore. “It’s a bitch to go through Sotheby’s,” he said. “You need to be famous.” His auction house will allow anyone to buy or sell N.F.T.s online, without being vetted by snooty auction-house personnel. “I’m removing every barrier to entry to be an established artist.”
He is also planning to open a pop-up gallery that showcases only N.F.T. art work. “It’s called Not an Art Gallery, because a lot of people have told us that N.F.T.s aren’t art,” he said. “So, fine. There’s art on the wall, but this isn’t an art gallery.”
He and a publicist were scouting locations the other day for Not an Art Gallery, and they checked out a gallery space across from the Whitney Museum. It started to rain, and Burnt Banksy ducked into Taglialatella Galleries, where he’d bought the Banksy screen print. Someone asked a gallery assistant there what she thought of the stunt. She paused to clear her throat. “Obviously, we never want to encourage the destruction of very valuable and important art,” she said. Then she said that Taglialatella was launching its own N.F.T. program. The storm cleared, and Burnt Banksy went back outside, dreaming up his next N.F.T.: “I want to have a piece of art, a camera facing it, circling the Earth, in orbit for four years. Until it burns up. And whoever buys the N.F.T. gets access to view the art in space.” He looked at the sky. “I mean, it’s cool, right?” he said. “Let’s go to the fucking moon!”