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Playful Creator Gao Hang on His “Grand Theft Auto”-Inspired NFT Art

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Houston-based Chinese artist Gao Hang is famous for his irreverent critique of our obsessive relationship with the digital world. So it makes sense that he would get involved with NFTs, the seemingly poorly understood yet much-hyped tech term of the moment.

Gao paints graphic images he finds online onto canvases, rethinking them from different perspectives and shapes. By using an airbrush technique, he gives them a smooth and blurred texture. He paints in fluorescent colors and in a distinctly low poly style to simulate the awkward and blocky look of 3D graphics from the early 2000s. An untrained eye can easily mistake his paintings for genuine digital images. 

Ironically, Gao’s work was recently thrown back into the digital world with Ransom Money, a glowing augmented reality sculpture of a pile of cash. The piece is the result of a collaboration with Brooklyn-based gallery Unique Board and reflects both the digital and analog worlds — becoming something like an infinity mirror. 

“Ransom Money” is the artist’s debut in the NFT world.

NFTs — or non-fungible tokens — have thrown the art world into a frenzy over the last month. While the format is relatively new, hype around NFTs reached boiling point when digital artist Beeple made history by selling a collage at Christie’s for 69 million USD. He went from not even considering himself a “real artist” to ranking among the top three most valuable artists alive. 

A non-fungible token simply means that the original of a digital artwork can be bought, sold, and collected as fine art since its provenance is traceable and secure as a unit of data on the blockchain digital ledger. Beeple’s NFT artwork was the first sold at a major auction house and Christie’s first sale of a digital-only piece. It started an NFT gold-rush — and not just for art.

Since then, a digital home, a New York Times article, and a tweet have been sold for whopping sums of money. Even humanoid robot Sophia has painted her self-portrait, offered it as a non-fungible token, and sold it in auction for close to 700,000USD. 

Related: 

World’s First Major NFT Exhibition to Take Place in Beijing

Gao originally crafted “Ransom Money” in physical form, with bright green airbrushed foam to recreate the excitement he felt when he saw a pile of money appearing on screen while playing the infamous video game Grand Theft Auto. It was luminous and impalpable.

As an NFT artwork, the new piece sheds light on the trust and authenticity of intangible money and cryptocurrencies, and it establishes a parallel with the value of immaterial assets. “When money is completely intangible in the near future, intangible assets will make more sense,” says Gao. 

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“Ransom Money” at Christie’s

Since it’s AR-based, Ransom Money will offer an interactive experience to its future collectors. They can throw the holographic content into any physical surroundings they wish. Gao and Unique Board did errands to a number of famous New York City spots to project the sculpture and emphasize this feature. They went to the New York Stock Exchange, The Metropolitan Museum, and, of course, the Christie’s building. By choosing such locations, they add new layers of meaning to the artwork. Could this glistening pile of impalpable money be a metaphor for how speculative investors and collectors perceive fine art? 

Still, Gao and Dan Kim, founder of Unique Board, are sympathetic towards NFTs and even to the lunacy they have created: “This type of buying frenzy always happens in the art market in general,” says Gao. “It happens in any market. Ultimately, it helps to bring attention to the field so that actual experts can live a better life after that.” 

“I think NFT means opportunity,” Kim adds. “Now, there is a new audience who’s passionate about collecting digital art. It’s an opportunity for artists to navigate this new space and reach collectors they never had access to. In the end, people will value the artwork based on three key elements no matter what medium: artist, artwork, and context. This will never change, not even with NFT.”

Ransom Money Gao Hang NFT

“Ransom Money” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

NFTs also bring another benefit for digital creators: guaranteed ownership. Today, the internet still operates as a no-man’s-land for digital art, with virtually anyone being able to copy and reproduce digital files. “Let’s be honest: the idea of copyright is gone. It doesn’t matter anymore — just like the people who made these images don’t matter,” Gao previously told Neocha. With the NFT, even if the artwork is copied, the token always refers to the original. Artists can even edit the trackable code to receive royalties every time a transaction takes place in the future.

With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the digital world has been brought into sharp focus. We’re not only immersed in digital technologies but totally dependent on them in several fields of our lives. “Recently, while we have been restricted from going to concerts, museums, fairs, or events, the only way for us to experience and express ourselves is in the digital world,” notes Kim. “That means more time spent on digital art. This whole situation sped up the NFT digital collecting movement.”

The rise of this technology means a great deal to him. Since September 2020, Unique Board has released limited AR art editions in collaboration with several artists. They have sold over three hundred of them.

Ransom Money” is their first NFT release, though. They’ll open bidding on their platform this April Fool’s Day. Perhaps another playful metaphor there for those looking for them.

Tomás Pinheiro
    Tomás Pinheiro lives his life behind the scenes of culture. He's a producer, critic, and art writer. He's been meeting with the people and exploring the spaces nurturing the creative cities of Asia-Pacific.