Art scene report: Ladson, S.C.
On the experience of a local guy making an obscene amount of money
A guy who lives in my city sold a .jpeg file for $69 million the other day.
The guy’s name is Mike Winkelmann, but he goes by Beeple on the internet. He lives in North Charleston like me, specifically in an area across town called Ladson.
Winkelmann started making an image a day on his computer on May 1, 2007. On March 11, 2021, he sold a digital collage of his first 5,000 images titled Everydays — The First 5000 Days in a record-breaking deal via the Christie’s auction house.
If you’re from a smallish city and a local person got famous for a stupid reason, you can appreciate how the news of Winkelmann’s good fortune made me feel. No matter how far I went down the rabbit hole reading about this little art fiasco, I always ended up chuckling at the same realization: This dude is from Ladson.
Here’s how my reporter friend Kalyn Oyer described him in the local paper:
He looks like a 30-something dad who might have a Yoda figurine on his office desk and spend a lot of time at the computer. Which, well, he does.
Winkelmann, who goes by artist name Beeple, is an unassuming guy who lives in a middle-class neighborhood in the Ladson section of North Charleston with his wife and two kids. He moved to the Lowcountry from Wisconsin in 2017 in search of milder winters and spends most of his time at home or on Folly Beach when the weather’s nice.
Ladson is a census-designated place straddling three counties in the South Carolina Lowcountry with mailing addresses in at least as many cities: North Charleston, Goose Creek, and Summerville. It’s a jurisdictional every-man’s-land that has been swallowed by encroaching municipalities from every direction.
Ladson has a post office but it doesn’t have its own government; my friend’s dad declared himself “Mayor of Downtown Ladson” at one point in the ‘90s and people just kind of went with it. Ladson is where my brother and I used to go to the flea market and scope out Ren faire swords and exotic reptiles. I went to a gun show in Ladson one time and a guy tried to sell me a .44 Magnum by saying it would improve my sex appeal. Ladson isn’t quite home for me, but it’s close. I like nearly everyone I’ve met from Ladson.
So, on the one hand, my instinct for civic boosterism kicked in every time I saw a headline or news article claim that Winkelmann was from Charleston, a separate city that borders North Charleston to the south. I was quick to set the record straight.
On the other hand, I felt vicariously embarrassed by the spectacle of the auction. This must be how people from Charleston feel about Southern Charm.
Beeple seems to be in on the joke, at least. He’s affable in interviews, and he openly laughs at the speculative price bubble he’s riding.
If I had to compare the concept of Winkelmann’s piece to anything, I might compare it to Tehching Hsieh’s Time Clock Piece (One Year Performance 1980–1981) in which the artist punched a time clock once an hour for an entire year. I saw a document of Hsieh’s work in a gallery once, and I had to admire his monkish commitment to the work.
One thing that sets the Beeple piece apart is that it looks terrible. If you zoom in on the individual images, they range from ham-fisted memes to the kind of janky sexual fantasies a middle schooler might doodle on his binder.
At best, the Everydays look like winning entries in a mid-2000s Photoshop contest. At worst, they are dull and offensive for no apparent reason.
I keep trying to wrap my head around that $69 million price tag. Goya paintings have sold for less. A spokeswoman for Christie’s said it was the third-highest auction price for a piece by a living artist, after Jeff Koons and David Hockney. The price seems farcical to me, but then so did the $58 million price tag on Jeff Koons’ balloon dog sculpture.
The buyers bought this piece with fanciful digital currency called Ethereum. Blockchain currencies like Ethereum and Bitcoin depend on massive amounts of computing power to establish their value. If you’re picturing warehouses full of computers burning more fossil fuels than the entire nation of Argentina to legitimize a libertarian wet dream, you are exactly right.
Since Beeple’s artwork is just an image file that anyone can download for free online, proof of “ownership” is established through a piece of online ledger data called a non-fungible token, or NFT. It took a few days for internet sleuths to figure out the identities of the piece’s buyers: Vignesh Sundaresan (a.k.a. Metakovan) and Anand Venkateswaran (a.k.a. Twobadour).
According to Ben Davis at Artnet, the two art collectors also happen to own Metapurse, a “crypto-art investment vehicle” that is trying to convince people to buy partial ownership stake in digital artwork. They reportedly gave Winkelmann 2% ownership stake in the fund, meaning that Winkelmann now owns 2% of the fund that bought his artwork.
So we’re talking about an ouroboros of hype that’s destroying the planet for nothing. Crypto dorks are salivating, art snobs are turning up their noses, and somewhere near the center of it all sits a dude who — I cannot stress this enough — is from Ladson.
One time I met a guy at a school bus repair shop in Ladson whose job was to keep the buses running more than 30 years after their assembly date. He did it by picking parts off of rusty old retired buses and dropping new engines into the shaky hulls. In a better world this guy would live comfortably and be justly rewarded for his service, but we chose a different type of world.
Anyway: Beeple is from Ladson.
In case you missed it, my buddy Dave guest-wrote the latest issue of Welcome to Hell World featuring some commentary from me alongside other South Carolina luminaries about the truly demonic priorities of our state legislature. You can check it out here, and give Dave’s booze-themed newsletter Fingers a look while you’re at it.
I put out a new podcast episode last week featuring a pastor from Georgia whose church got kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention for accepting LGBTQ people. You can listen to that here if you missed it the first time.
And here, I wrote a song about Ladson one time and recorded it in my friend’s garage in North Charleston.