Why Artist Alicja Kwade Tokenized Her DNA – ARTnews.com

Berlin-based artist Alicja Kwade is best known for exploring time and natural systems through mind-bending sculptures that combine rocks, mirrors, and more. Anyone who attended the 2017 Venice Biennale and saw her sculpture Pars Pro Toto (2017), featuring 13 stone spheres that were reflected through pieces of glass, could not forget it. Similar works have been staged on the roof the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at biennials in Finland, India, and elsewhere.

In 2021, the artist turned her exploration of time inward—literally. For an exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie, Kwade printed the entirety of her genome on 259,025 sheets of A4 paper. Its title, Selbstportrait, hinted that she viewed this work as an image of herself.

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Some 12,000 sheets were hung from floor to ceiling, and the rest were stored in copper containers. Visitors were also invited to take a page of her DNA sequencing home with them. With this installation, the artist was playing with what we understand to be unique when it comes to identity: she was showcasing her own genetic profile in bold text while also underscoring the fact that 99.9 percent of all human genetic makeup is identical.

Starting today, Kwade’s Selbstportrait has been reformatted for a new NFT project. She’s minted 10,361 NFTs—all come with a 25-page PDF filled with 300,000 letters of Kwade’s DNA code in A, C, G, and T—and she’s selling them for $300, or around 0.1 ETH, each. This new project pushes Selbstportrait’s themes even further, since every NFT is supposed to be a unique digital work, randomized at point of sale. Essentially, this means buyers are unable to choose a specific NFT within the collection corresponding to the artist’s DNA, as each token is distributed randomly.

To learn more about Kwade’s most personal physical artwork to date evolved into its current tokenized form, ARTnews spoke with the artist via email this week.

Framed white sheets of paper hanging on a wall.

Alicja Kwade, Selbstportrait (10361 x 25p), 2020.
Photo Roman Maerz/Courtesy the artist and König Galerie

ARTnews: What inspired you to do your first NFT project, Selbstportrait (10361 x 25p)?

Alicja Kwade: Every human being is inherently an NFT. My DNA is unique, and yet I play with the idea of reproduction by releasing all my data and splitting it into 25 blocks that correspond to an average genome. In this manner, I sort of spread myself over the whole world.

It is a portrait of an individual, but it’s also the portrait of the 99.9 percent (shared DNA) of all people. We’re all pretty much the same. That becomes obvious here. Just the blanket print letters are the deviation that makes me who I am. We have the same matrix, and society is what we make of it. As such, the NFT stored on the block, corresponds to the concept of my work. It is a natural continuation of my previous exhibition at Berlinische Galerie.

How does Selbstportrait (10361 x 25p) explore the various boundaries between digital art associated with NFT and physical art?

The artwork could also be physical in nature, but of course, that does not make that much sense. It cannot be spread and shared that quickly, so both physical and digital qualities are combined here. The artwork gains NFT technology but also remains a physical work, since anyone can print out the PDF, and there is a 25-part work by me hanging on the wall that is formally minimalist and rooted in art-historical tradition.

As an established artist, what do you find appealing about NFTs? How does it resonate with your evolving artistic practice? 

Even though for a long time people asked me if I’ve also done NFTs, I didn’t have a reason until I did this DNA work for the Berlinische Galerie. It makes sense here. I don’t know yet how it will make sense for my other works of art in the future. If so, the work has to fit the technology and it has to make sense. But now that I’ve fully understood the technique and the system, it will always be in the back of my mind and useful elsewhere.

Framed white sheets of paper on a wall with barely visible text lining them. The letters 'ACACAC' appear in a bolder font on one.

Alicja Kwade, Selbstportrait (10361 x 25p) (detail), 2020.
Photo Roman Maerz/Courtesy the artist and König Galerie

There has been a great deal of divisive discourse on NFTs in the art world and beyond. What are your thoughts on NFTs? In your opinion, what are its strengths and weaknesses?

I think there is a lot of useless stuff in the use of each medium at the beginning because a lot is being experimented with and nobody really knows what it’s good for. Most people don’t even really know what that means, what it is, and how it works. However, for me, it’s less a means to sell funny kittens with colored tails and more about whether the medium being used is necessary for an additional quality of the work to be highlighted.

Amid the various disruptions reshaping the art world today, how do you think NFTs will impact art and artists, if at all?

NFTs have already created an impact, but a lot of this new technology still needs to be filtered out. Most importantly, even in the case of NFTs, it’s all about authenticity. After all, art is always about authenticity, originality, and so on. I think this technology only makes everything comprehensible. That will, of course, bring about a radical change in the art market. You can now make everything much more transparent and comprehensible. Subsequently, the technology and the checks of authenticity can also be transferred to physical works of art.

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