DAVID LEAFE witnesses Damien Hirst burn thousands of his paintings

‘It’s like stumbling across a cult whose members are waiting reverently to worship their deity’: DAVID LEAFE witnesses the bizarre moment Damien Hirst, 57, sets light to thousands of his paintings in front of fans inside his £36m London showroom

  • In 2021 Hirst produced 10,000 unique ‘dot’ non-fungible tokens (NFTs) paintings
  • Hirst offered buyers a choice to either exchange the NFT for the physical artwork or  keep the NFT and burn the physical artwork
  • The artist set light to thousands of the paintings in front of the owners of the art
  • Spectators watched in the Newport Street Gallery, a showroom devoted to his own works

Parked outside a trendy south London art gallery on a crisp October afternoon, there is a sleek, black Mercedes limousine and it’s a fair bet that it is waiting for one Damien Hirst – one of the world’s richest artists.

This is Newport Street Gallery, a Victorian former scene-painting factory which Hirst, 57, has spent a cool £36million converting into a showroom devoted to his own works.

And today, the former enfant terrible of British art, famous for such controversial works as a tiger shark pickled in formaldehyde, is somewhere within its walls – preparing for his latest attempt at sparking outrage. 

It’s tempting to suggest to the waiting chauffeur that he should keep his engine running – just in case his passenger needs to make a hasty getaway.

As each dotted artwork is claimed by the flames, the heat in the gallery is intense but Hirst moves about energetically, sometimes sticking his tongue out wildly for no good reason 

After all, what he proposes to do is set light to thousands of his paintings in public – and many of those queuing patiently outside to witness the spectacle are the owners of those very works.

Strangely, they have gathered not to protest but to cheer him on in destroying their Hirst originals in what is either an act of artistic genius or the most ridiculous publicity stunt ever conceived.

The master of self-promotion, Hirst knows exactly how to lure the media in, the Daily Mail included

Finally, there is a glimpse of the high priest himself – the familiar stocky figure clad in silver trousers like a space-age Willy Wonka, burning his artwork on one of the stoves at the other end of the room

As the long line snakes into the old redbrick warehouse, the strong smell of wood smoke from the gallery hits us. 

Hirst clearly means business, and our first glimpse of what awaits can be seen on big TV screens relaying live images of the preparations.

Visible in one corner of the screen is an assortment of newspaper photographers and TV crews. 

The master of self-promotion, Hirst knows exactly how to lure the media in, the Daily Mail included.

Perhaps the oddest thing of all, though, is that no one in this queue thinks that what we are about to witness is at all strange. 

Indeed, it’s rather like stumbling across a cult whose members are waiting reverently to worship their deity.

So how did we get here? In July 2021, having produced 10,000 unique ‘dot’ paintings, each measuring just 8in by 12in, Hirst allocated to each of them a ‘non-fungible token’ (NFT), a unique digital token encrypted with an artist’s signature to verify its ownership and authenticity.

Selling the NFTs for around £1,700 apiece, he then offered buyers a choice: they could either exchange the NFT for the physical artwork, in which case the NFT would be ‘destroyed’ (deleted). 

 4,851 opted to hold on to their NFTs with their corresponding paintings set alight in a public conflagration which will extend over many days – starting with a ceremonial incineration, presided over by Hirst himself.

Or they could choose to have the physical artwork burnt, and keep the NFT.

Over half the collectors (5,149) decided to retain their physical artworks, but 4,851 opted to hold on to their NFTs with their corresponding paintings set alight in a public conflagration which will extend over many days – starting with a ceremonial incineration, presided over by Hirst himself.

Among those waiting patiently to see their work destroyed is 39-year-old Paul Robinson, a London-based architect.

Although he loved the idea of having a Hirst painting displayed in his home, he prefers the ‘adventure’ of seeing what will happen with the value of his NFT.

‘I’m excited to see where it all heads,’ he says. ‘And I like the fact that it sort of involves you with Damien’s art.’

Husband and wife Arsen and Majda Pletenac have come all the way from Croatia.

They own two of the paintings and have chosen to have one destroyed, keeping the other.

Moving busily to and fro are about a dozen of Hirst’s assistants, each wearing orange overalls and heat-proof gauntlets as they lift up their next painting from stacks on the central tables and lower them into the flames.

‘Art is always seeing the introduction of new media and NFTs are the latest,’ says Arsen, himself an artist. ‘I think that Damien is using them in the best possible way. It’s very imaginative.’

And so up the winding wooden staircase we climb in small groups, before being ushered into a huge white-walled gallery with five wood-burning stoves arranged around the edges.

Moving busily to and fro are about a dozen of Hirst’s assistants, each wearing orange overalls and heat-proof gauntlets as they lift up their next painting from stacks on the central tables and lower them into the flames.

Finally, there is a glimpse of the high priest himself – the familiar stocky figure clad in silver trousers like a space-age Willy Wonka, burning his artwork on one of the stoves at the other end of the room.

As each dotted artwork is claimed by the flames, the heat in the gallery is intense but Hirst moves about energetically, sometimes sticking his tongue out wildly for no good reason.

Eventually he graces our end of the room as he explains that he doesn’t feel bad about destroying the paintings because they will continue to exist as NFTs.

‘People who only believe in physical art get very upset at the idea of you burning it,’ he says.

‘But people who believe in NFTs celebrate when you burn the actual paintings.’

He bats off my question as to whether this can be considered art at all.

‘Who knows what art is?’ he asks. ‘It’s like trying to convince people who don’t believe in God that there’s a God.

‘I mean, does it matter?’

With that, he disappears back towards the photographers – our audience is over.

Back outside, our clothes reek of smoke, but everyone does seem genuinely enthused by the experience – not least because the value of their NFTs has risen so much since they bought them.

‘At one point, I was offered £42,000 for mine,’ says Paul Robinson. He expects the price to rise even higher now but, beyond the bubble of the Hirst gallery, those who live nearby are not convinced.

‘People buying NFTs are pursuing a mug’s game,’ says one man as he puts out his bins. ‘It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes and one day they will regret not having the physical artefact.’

He might have a point. The recent, much-publicised crash in cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin overshadowed an equally sharp fall in the market for NFTs, not that Hirst will have to worry much about that.

As I head home, the black Mercedes is still waiting for him in the autumn sun. Clearly, trading in art – whatever art now is – is lucrative for those who get the showmanship right.

No doubt Hirst’s fans who have put their faith – and their thousands – behind his NFTs are praying that their investment won’t one day go up in smoke, too.

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