Transitioning from an analogue world into the digital realm, Robert McNally speaks on the rise of NFTs, relentless dedication to medium and building a legacy ahead of his inaugural digital token artwork - "The Chariot".
Cryptocurrency. Blockchain. Non-Fungible Tokens. Decentralized digital ledgers. Peer to peer networks. The technological jargon of the digital age may appear daunting at first glance – an impenetrable array of terminologies seemingly designed to dissuade and exclude those without the cultural capital to negotiate the digital mesas and data plains of the modern financial landscape. But beneath the surface, there is a bountiful harvest of creativity, excitement, and unknowable futures – a brave new world pioneered as much by visual artists as it is by the new vanguard of alternative finance and bedroom bitcoin miners.
Having dominated the discussion of art over the past year, Non-Fungible Tokens have been met with mixed opinions and controversies. A symbol of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology’s creeping infiltration into the art world, NFTs offer a potential moment of redefinition in a culture and milieu that has been entrenched in its own customs and traditions for centuries – a bold leap into the unknown.
Launching his first NFT, “The Chariot” via authentic digital artwork marketplace Superrare, London-based visual artist Robert McNally has been quietly observing and studying NFTs, as well as their surrounding cultures, since the start of 2021. An esteemed artist, the Gateshead-born drawer’s expansive graphite work exemplifies an astute attention to detail and what has been referred to as a “sadistic dedication to medium”. Pirouetting between reflections on virtual and physical realities, McNally’s recent exhibition “The Metawürst” at KOENIGZWEI Gallery in Vienna showcased his work – a remarkable combination of unflinching devotion to paper and graphite, immense scale and meticulous details that encourage interpretation – blending stimuli from a variety of sources to cultivate a unique world reflective of our own lives in the digital age.
“The Chariot” sees McNally venture away from his typically analogue approach into an entirely virtual reality to present his first digital artwork. A 40-second video, McNally’s inaugural NFT shirks the fallacy that the medium simply commodifies pre-existing artworks, blending a purpose made 3D-rendered environment with original sound design to build a captivating and immersive space of its own.
Sitting down with Robert McNally at his studio in London, END. discuss the influence of NFTs on the contemporary art world, the importance of dedication to medium and how technologies impact creative practice.
NFTs have rather loudly become a central point of contention within the art world – an emblem of blockchain technology’s advance further into public consciousness and legitimacy. How do you see NFT artworks fitting into the canon of modern art?
It is early days, but it’s being taken seriously. It's featuring in Art Basel – for example. The fact that NFT pieces are being traded for such large amounts of money means that it’s not going to be ignored by the large galleries and the large collectors. Even though it’s very of the zeitgeist at the moment, I don’t think it has reached a crescendo yet at all because cryptocurrency arguably hasn’t, though some may argue otherwise.
I imagine that NFTs will maintain a presence in the art world, but I’m not 100% certain. I’d like to hope that they will be seen as a new string on the instrument to play and to develop things, but I imagine that a sceptical part of the art world will see it as a rival animal that they need to kill or tame. Not to destroy, perhaps, but to take control of, because that’s one of the really interesting points that NFTs have already come to really quickly, that its origins are in that lust for democratisation of art – in a very hopeful way. But galleries have a lot of sway and can reverse engineer anything and do it for themselves, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing necessarily, as long as it adds to the artform. That’s something that is already happening – anyone can build their own rival platform, Johann Koenig Gallery has one for example. But at the moment, the power is tipped towards the idealists I’d say. You look at a lot of the artwork that is out there, and it's not highbrow conceptual fine art, it's people doing the thing that they want to be doing with the images that they want to use. They’re not trying to force their way into a large physical gallery – there’s still a lot of “fuck you” in it. That doesn’t mean to say that someone from the contemporary physical side of the art world can’t express themselves with NFTs and participate with NFT communities in a really good way.
I think that the idea that NFTs are democratising the art world is a little bit of wishful thinking – that this thing has come along that is going to completely uproot the art world and give power back to artists. Underlying everything, like the stock market, like cryptocurrency, is a level of old money cynicism that we’re at war with, they are sold in major auction houses. Maybe they don’t like it or maybe they want to be a part of it – I don’t know – but it is probably here to stay. Even if it isn’t, by virtue of what came out of it in such a short space of time, it might be really interesting and kitsch in the way things from the 80s are cool and kitsch to us now. The technology itself – that it is this token saved as a block on the blockchain – is collectible and meaningful, and it’s strength is that they can be embedded in limitless scenarios. But it depends on what you do with it.
In terms of your work, how has working on your NFT project differed from your typical artistic practice?
Even though I'm the type of person who is incapable of committing to any professional task without taking it to the point of utter self-destruction, this worked as a release valve, I was able to dip in and out of it around my large drawings and exhibition prep. My physical and digital works feed into each other but one of them needs 12 hours of solitude, standing, looking and doing, whereas the other may only need two hours on a particular day, and people can be in the background. I have a family now, and it’s not always the case that you can take excessive amounts of time a plonk yourself into the studio. It’s really important to respect that and move in different ways. Because the family part of it is the most important part, and they can all feed into each other, and they do. This work here [gestures to work hanging above the desk] I’m working on with my son – it’s good to feed these things into one another. I'm not interested in commodifying archived images of my works, some people in my position are simply dropping still images, jpegs and photos of completed historical works - which is fine - but that's not my angle or interest at all. I want it to sustain itself – if it made a lot of money, I would want to put that money back into it, I would want it to avalanche and spiral out of control over time. There’s a time limit on this first release, and subsequently a lot of pressure on it because of that, but mainly because I want it to work out well, so I can transform it into a longer, open-ended project that has side elements that come in that are also NFTs but move with the technology – which could take five or six years to conclude. That’s what I really want – it would be the perfect virtual accompaniment to my larger physical works, to embed them within one another. To really use the technology. I don't want to portray myself as being somehow in the Vanguard, but I am very enthusiastic about using technology to broaden my expression and productivity. My physical work is devoutly analogue - it's about being present and connected and having a painful method, and that method is as important as the resulting image itself. But you could definitely play off that by having something that is faster and perhaps more accessible alongside it.
"Go on Instagram and you’ll see an image of the Vietnam war - scroll down and the next photo is an avocado on toast. That’s really surreal. That’s as surreal as you can get! But it goes right under people’s radars."
Has that transition between working with physical medium to digital medium been difficult?
It’s been really positive, actually, because when I've been creating the digital artwork I’m more of a director, whereas when I’m creating the physical works, I’m only directing myself. It’s very insular and isolated, very single minded, like an existential experience. Creating "The Chariot" has been the opposite. It’s really free and playful to combine elements of animation and sound. You can reflect what you’re trying to convey much quicker in the forms that people are most familiar with. If I filter something as a form into a drawing, I know what it is because I’ve obsessed over it but a lot of the time someone’s perception of what I’ve drawn is completely different to my own. If I do it digitally then I can present something verbatim and they’ll know exactly what it is – which can allow the viewer to read the symbolism in my physical works a bit more clearly.
Your drawing and painting work, exhibited at KOENIGZWEI in Vienna as a part of your current solo exhibition, “The Metawürst”, depicts a surrealist world that seems altogether familiar at one moment, then unrecognisable the next, as the boundary between digital and physical worlds are becoming increasingly blurred. What does this blurring between physical reality and virtual realities reflect?
It references the popular and commonly known science fiction ideas about fantastic, possibly hedonistic worlds, colliding with inherent human behaviour patterns and traits. I have dealt with it in a way that some of the fiction of my youth is the reality of my today. I'm less interested in off-world sci-fi set hundreds or thousands in the future, I am interested in the earth-bound sci-fi of 5-10 years time, J.G Ballard's Science Fiction. Yes, you can create a metaverse, a VR world where you can enact anything you want and hypothetically escape certain problems in the physical world, but at the same time you’ll have somebody somewhere in a disgusting flat who is paying money to play in a VR world where he cleans up offices – something really banal like that – but he’s paying to do something that he doesn’t do for himself in his own room. Key parts of the fantasy feel premature, human nature consistently behaves a certain way, but I like and accept the idea of a proxy world and try to depict it. It’s interesting to look at this and question it, to see what might happen in a world, that we’re sort of already living in, where you can have such a car crash of opposing imagery. Go on Instagram and you’ll see an image of the Vietnam war - scroll down and the next photo is an avocado on toast. That’s really surreal. That’s as surreal as you can get! But it doesn’t register anymore in that context. I'm presenting the dichotomy between the virtual and the real where you realise that the irony and the surrealism has been compressed and lost over time, but it’s still evident when you take a step back. To present it on a flat white wall in a Gallery, you can then reimagine it. Surrealism has become more difficult to capture in simple terms because people are so numb to it now. I never try to shock people with imagery, I try to present it in a sequential narrative that is disrupted by something that appears but doesn’t belong there as it does on your Instagram feed or in a pop-up, anything that bombards and invades your consciousness. There’s so much detail in the presentation that if you don’t really look, it will slip past you and you’d simply look at the work and say “that’s a really good drawing”, but miss everything that is loaded with meaning. Every detail is there for a reason – whether it’s a meme, a reference from a movie, music or a book, even the direction of the light – it's all ready to be unpicked should you choose to.
"A really exceptional work of Art is like a membrane, with someone on the other side of it who you’re interacting with even in their absence."
Did it then seem like a logical next step to move into the world of NFTs and digital media?
“Move” makes it sound quite final – like I’m going there and never coming back. “Branch” would be more appropriate. I try to imagine what the potential for this project could be, and how it might look when I arrive at the very end, and what year it might be. It’s really cool. My physical work will have evolved to such an extent during that time, and you’ll be able to see that level of evolution as it will be permanent on a blockchain, whereas in reality, I’ve gone through the same arc and curve in the 16/17 years that I've been working as a professional artist, but many of those artworks are in people's collections, they're stored away in crates, they're in freeports, they're locked up, they're waiting, not instantly viewable in the way that I intended. It’s not a publicly viewable transition or gradient, I’m the only person with the full overview and I only get to see it on my computer as a bunch of jpegs in a folder marked ‘archive’. I like the public element of it, how viewable and accessible it is. It’s out there and everyone can see it. You want the work that you’ve committed to for such a long time to be seen and you want to provoke people with it, to know what they think and to challenge them, and be challenged back. Making NFTs will hopefully allow that to happen with a different audience as well – the demographic is younger and a lot of people who express a liking for my work do not have access to my exhibitions, or attend artfairs, some are put off by the perceived esotericism or it’s just not their scene. But they are ardent consumers of Art. And I'm really intrigued to see the response from an audience that will be unfamiliar with my work, but who are perhaps more aligned with what I feel are my generational tastes and influences.
How does "The Chariot" fit in within your greater body of work?
This body of NFT work is based upon my physical versions of the Major Arcana Tarot cards, which I made in 2015. I’ve enhanced and re-contextualised the physical artwork within a 3-dimensional environment, which is an amalgamation of references and other associated works, to produce something new and unique in and of itself. I’m pulling various works together and instilling an all-encompassing narrative, which will grow and develop with each subsequent work.
Tarot is all about subjective interpretation, willingness of the viewer to accept something more than face value. It's the same mechanism we value most artwork, the provenance is powerful. The interpretation is what really gives the work a value, because a really exceptional work of Art is like a membrane, with someone on the other side of it who you're interacting with even in their absence. That's a quality of the artwork that resonates with me the most, when I can feel that there is someone on the other side who is going through something, who is trying to give me their experience. I hope that my work does that, at least through the fact that you can stand in front of it and once you get over the scale, the accuracy, that a person can say "somebody did that with a pencil," that implies a lot. It's an entry point for people to realise that there is a level of care and love there that belies the image they're seeing. With "the Chariot", the piece is only 40 seconds long, but every bit the same level of care and detail and love and pain has gone into that - not just the work itself - but all of the organisation, learning, research, and involvement, a lot of it didn't come naturally to me. Every day I go to bed and think about what is going to happen when I release this, because in that sphere there is a lot to do with visibility. I've never gone to extreme lengths to make my physical works visible, work time is so precious and I choose to commit as much of it as I can to making work. All I do is try to bring my work to where I want it to be.
When I first heard about NFTs, I thought that was something for me, I thought it could be a logical way for me to develop my work in a new way. It's the way that I can bookend that appeals to me - I can insert a new abridged narrative into my overall body of work, a neatly packaged cipher. There's so much potential for the future - once the work leaves you and it goes to another person, and gets traded and moves around, it might be defined in other terms besides how I've defined it, it can be embedded and displayed in almost any manner conceivable moving forward. It's completely open to interpretation. That's why I chose to develop my Tarot card deck, it's true to the origins of the original format/game, it just exists as it is, it's then up to anyone else to interpret it. Maybe it gets traded back and forth, the meanings will shift. I'll keep producing the work as and where is fits moving forward, and I'll release only one at a time spontaneously.
It’s a really nice crossfader - a way to move from one thing to another – and as long as I can sustain it, then I’ll keep doing it. It’s presented a way to do something that I didn’t have the means to do or I didn’t have the catalyst to do.
Within this particular body of work, I hope to make something with a legacy, to produce something that outlives me and exchanges hands, and that would be a challenge for a single collector to own them all. I’d like it to be something that works with that perception of commodification. There's an attractive lazy perception that it's just about money making, but there are plenty of fascinating powerful artworks, by artists who are not driven by that. Like any art form, if you want to find out about it you've got to put in the time and not just read what the BBC has to say about the sensational big-money meme sales