Deep in the swampland suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina, is a road that winds through the palmetto trees and culminates at an unmarked industrial complex wedged between distribution centers for Budweiser and Walmart. Inside is a 50,000-square-foot production studio with museum-quality galleries where more than a dozen employees tinker with doodads and dark hallways are illuminated by almost 150 television monitors. Ambient music pipes through the speakers as the boss, Mike Winkelmann, a.k.a. Beeple, sits in his office with his back to six cable-news channels playing on mute. The adjacent wall is decorated with a framed portrait of the video-game character Mario undergoing a bloody Cesarean section with a green 1-UP mushroom emerging from his womb.
“It’s one of my favorites,” the artist says, patting the plumber’s bare chest.
This is the Space, the mad laboratory of the world’s richest digital artist. Beeple could afford a $10 million renovation after a composite of 5,000 daily sketches, created over 14 years, sold in a March 2021 Christie’s auction for $69 million to an angel investor named Vignesh Sundaresan as a non-fungible token, or NFT, the blockchain darling turned speculative asset of the crypto nouveaux riches. Within a year, the technology became a $40 billion industry, and Beeple was its talisman, shouldering hopes that he would shoot both the art world and the crypto economy to the moon. “This has the potential to be the work of art of this generation,” said Anand Venkateswaran, who operates the crypto fund Metapurse with Sundaresan, shortly after Sundaresan’s purchase.
Now the crypto market lies in tatters, with nearly $2 trillion wiped from the market in recent weeks, bringing the NFT market down with it. But Winkelmann has no regrets. “I was never an NFT evangelist,” he tells me. “What I am is an evangelist for digital art. The selling aspect is a means to an end. I would love not to sell because that is the least fun part, even though it’s necessary. But I am not some crypto bro, because there is actually substance to what I have been doing.” Whether Winkelmann is making works of substance or glorified JPEGS, as his critics claim, is the question that hangs over him as he transitions to another speculative arena, this one in the midst of a decade-long boom: the traditional art market.
Blockchain messiah was always a strange position to occupy for a fiscally conservative, middle-aged graphic designer from Wisconsin who never traded more than stocks and who made a living as a freelancer helping produce Super Bowl halftime shows and concerts. Winkelmann, now 41 years old, still has that midwestern charm, though it’s often punctured by the kind of swearing you would expect from a teenage boy. Nevertheless, it’s perfect casting. “The guy looks like a high-school math teacher playing on his computer every single day,” says Meghan Doyle, an auction cataloguer who helped organize the deal when she was at Christie’s. “Buyers could respect that kind of perseverance and diligence.”
Winkelmann, who had previously sold his art for $100 a pop, auctioned NFTs for millions of dollars just months after learning about the technology. But he also warned that most tokens were risky bets that could easily fall to zero. The summer of his breakthrough, Winkelmann gifted his NFT collectors underwear packaged for the “medium adult anus,” preparing them to shit themselves. When the market crapped out, Winkelmann, who has purchased only about ten NFTs for himself, was ready to move on. “The dude is a shrewd businessman,” says Noah Davis, the former Christie’s digital specialist responsible for turning Winkelmann into a movement.
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who is the director of the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art in Turin, Italy, has become Beeple’s guru. “Carolyn reached out shortly after the auction. She thought I was an algorithm,” Winkelmann says with a laugh. “Immediately, we clicked.” She led the artist on a grand European tour this spring and summer, introducing him to an art world that he hopes will form a new base of collectors. They partied across the Continent, first at the Venice Biennale, then Documenta Fifteen in Germany and Art Basel in Switzerland.
The daily sketches, which are known as Everydays, have their appeal. They are like portals into a subconscious overloaded with mass media, most of them created in a couple of hours using ready-made assets in the digital-modeling program Cinema 4D. Look long enough at these ruins of video-game characters and penis pumps and you can find messages about gun violence, authoritarianism, billionaire hubris, and the dystopian promises of tech companies.
Not everyone is convinced of their merit. Writing in the New York Times, Jason Farago declared the battle of good taste over. Beeple had won: “It is his culture now, benighted but triumphant, where puerile amusements can never be questioned.” When I read this quote to Winkelmann, he simply throws up his hands and laughs.
Winkelmann chooses his subjects like a tabloid editor. “I have always been a big news junkie,” he says. During my visit, Boris Johnson announces he is stepping down as the U.K. prime minister. “I thought, Hmmm, maybe I want to make a cross out of somebody’s head,” Winkelmann says. So he constructs a crucifix on a grassy plain composed of about five dozen versions of Johnson’s face. Pray for Bojo becomes the title, referencing a Simpsons episode in which Homer gets a monkey helper named Mojo that becomes lazy and overweight. It is classic Beeple, both bracing and a little on the nose.
Winkelmann recently made his first physical work, Human One, a video sculpture. It’s a rotating box that houses an astronaut walking across an imagined world on a 24-hour loop that will be continually updated by the artist throughout his lifetime. A new scene recently placed the astronaut (a Beeple avatar), glowing with the colors of the Ukrainian flag, in a war zone. The sculpture was purchased in a November auction by the Switzerland-based collector Ryan Zurrer for nearly $29 million; it’s currently displayed at Christov-Bakargiev’s museum across from a painting by Francis Bacon. He has bigger projects planned. The enormous hangar in his studio complex is to become a stage for immersive art installations. “I would love the room to feel like you’re stepping into a video game,” he says. “What would the room look like if it was hell? If you were to walk in and there were piles of bodies on the screens? Then you could immediately flip a switch and make it feel like Heaven.”
Charleston is the incubation site for these projects. During my visit, there are at least five sculptures comparable to Human One as well as a giant emoji chained to a wooden pallet and a rubber baby pickled inside a large jar. Pacing the conference room, Winkelmann speaks about the dangers of government surveillance online and the spread of misinformation by extremist groups. A father of two small children, he is preoccupied with the future as well as with being more than a flash in the crypto pan.
“I am focused on legacy now,” he says. “It’s about the real shit that people will give a fuck about 200 years from now. Who cares about a stupid auction anymore? I don’t care.”