NFT boom – putting the fun in fungible

While western artists make NFT into viral memes, Chinese tech makes viral memes into NFTs.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By SI Linwei


When 91 seconds of unreleased footage of the 2000 movie In the Mood for Love was sold for HK$4.28 million (US$550,000) this month, it made the news not because the movie is an all-time classic, but because it is the first Asian film clip to become a non-fungible token, a.k.a NFT.

NFTs are the talk of the art world in 2021. Any work — a painting, a song, or even a meme — can be stamped with a digital record of authenticity, stored on blockchain, and traded like a cryptocurrency.

Although the underlying technology has been around for years, it has been the plaything of crypto enthusiasts. During the crypto rally last year, traders all over the world realized that what they were trading was pointless mathematics, whereas they could actually trade in anything that could be made from “nothing” through time and effort – pretty much the definition of art.

Speculators are pushing prices to eye-popping highs. NFT avatars issued by the Bored Ape Yacht Club, for example, can be worth 740 ethereum - close to US$3 million. The avatars in question, as their issuer’s name suggests, are simplistic doodles of bored apes.

The NFT boom has manifested itself differently in China and the west. Think of CryptoKitties (a website that allowed people to claim and breed digital cats with cryptocurrencies), Beeple (a North Carolina artist who sold his tokenized collection for US$69 million), or Bored Ape avatars.

They all started obscure, but eventually ascended to the crypto circle and became social phenomena. Social media played an important part. Virality begets more virality, and it doesn’t matter even if the NFTs themselves are artistically unsophisticated. Their artistic and financial value depends on collective posting and reposting, an action that has its own cultural significance.

The process, interestingly, is reversed in China. It is usually already famous artworks, or at least works by famous artists, that are tokenized and traded. Creators include a popular talk show and an animator. Ant Group has issued tokens in partnership with Dunhuang Grottoes and the Euros. More often than not, NFTs serve as a promotional tool that makes cultural icons more valuable and tradable.

It’s too early to tell which model will prevail. Everyone has their own challenges and no one has it all figured out. Tokenization doesn’t shield western artists from copyright disputes; the Chinese way, on the other hand, defies NFT’s original purpose of democratizing the creation and distribution of art. But artists and crypto enthusiasts are too busy making and trading NFTs to worry about this trivia. The show has just begun.