The Unlikely Space Where Cars, Art and NFTs Collide

The current wave of limited-edition cars embellished by luminaries of the art world brings a new level of cultural cachet to the personal vehicle — whether it’s designed to be driven or simply flaunted on a screen.

Article by Philip King

Porsche’s Taycan gets an update with artwork by Nigel Sense. Photography courtesy Porsche.Porsche’s Taycan gets an update with artwork by Nigel Sense. Photography courtesy Porsche.

A stainless-steel facsimile of an inflatable bunny made history in 2019 when it fetched $US91 million — the most ever paid for a work by a living artist. “Rabbit”, a sculpture created by Jeff Koons three decades earlier, is rumoured to have gone to a billionaire hedge fund manager who now owns “one of the most iconic works of 20th-century art”, according to the auction house Christie’s.

The sale of “Rabbit” confirmed Koons’s reputation as one of the most controversial but bankable Pop artists of his generation. So perhaps it’s no surprise that he has been recruited by one of the car industry’s more visually ambitious badges, BMW, to gild its cultural credentials — and bottom line. The BMW 8 x Jeff Koons, which was unveiled earlier this year in Los Angeles, is a special edition of the M850i Gran Coupé luxury tourer, featuring elaborate paintwork created by Koons.

The artist says the collaboration turns the M850i into his “dream car”. The geometric patterns, he adds, help to create “a sense of forward movement, just as the ‘Pop!’ and vapour thrust elements do”. BMW’s chairman, Oliver Zipse, describes the car as a “rolling sculpture” that will grace museums and ordinary roads alike. With 11 colours, many applied by hand (although not by Koons himself), the special edition is a challenge for BMW’s paint specialists and just 99 will be made. A standard M850i Gran Coupé, with its 390kW 4.4-litre V8 engine, starts at $277,900. BMW is withholding price and delivery details for the 8 x Jeff Koons until mid-year (the only car signed by the artist was sold at a charity auction in April, fetching $US475,000 [about $AU627,400]).

It’s not the first time Koons has painted a BMW, because the brand has been attracting daubers for decades, inviting them to treat a car as a canvas. It started in 1975, when the American sculptor Alexander Calder dramatically recoloured a 3.0 CSL racer. The idea quickly caught on. In the years following, a string of luminaries including Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, David Hockney and two Australians — Michael Nelson Jagamarra and Ken Done — have created one-offs using various BMW models. Koons’s first BMW canvas, in 2010, was an M3 GT2, which competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Jeff Koons leaves his mark on a BMW M850i Gran Coupé. Photography courtesy BMW.
Jeff Koons leaves his mark on a BMW M850i Gran Coupé. Photography courtesy BMW.

BMW’s most recent Art Car collaboration, with Cao Fei in 2017, was the first to be entirely digital, and since then the company has commissioned the Chinese multimedia artist to create original work for its cabins. Unveiled at Las Vegas’s Consumer Electronics Show in January, Digital Art Mode runs on the curved display in BMW’s latest electric cars: the i4 coupé and iX SUV. It features Fei’s “Quantum Garden”, described by the artist as “a poetic collection of universes, countless atoms, nebulae and thousands of fast-moving beams of light”. Digital Art Mode is expected to be available later this year.

Porsche is a relative latecomer to art cars (unless you count Janis Joplin’s psychedelic Porsche 356 from the 1960s, or Erwin Wurm’s Fat Car series, an example of which sits in Hobart’s MONA), but the Stuttgart-based brand has embraced the idea with enthusiasm since the late 1990s. Examples include a 911 turned into a swan by the Scottish artist Chris Labrooy to celebrate 20 years of Porsche in China this past November, and a 911 painted with Australian fauna by Biggibilla (Graham J Rennie) for the company’s Melbourne showroom back in 1998.

Last year, the Australian operation went one step further with a non-fungible token (NFT). These are blockchain proofs-of-ownership that enable artists to monetise digital works despite the fact they can be readily downloaded. Anyone can look, but there’s only one owner. Those who thought NFTs were just a fad were forced to rethink last March when the digital artist Beeple sold “Everydays: the First 5000 Days” for about $92.2 million, the third-highest price paid for a piece by a living artist.

The BMW M850i Gran Coupé collaboration with Jeff Koons. Photography courtesy BMW.
The BMW M850i Gran Coupé collaboration with Jeff Koons. Photography courtesy BMW.
Koons’s original BMW Art Car, an M3 GT2, released in 2010. Photography courtesy BMW.
Koons’s original BMW Art Car, an M3 GT2, released in 2010. Photography courtesy BMW.

Porsche decided an NFT was just the thing to celebrate 70 years in Australia and commissioned the Darwin-based artist Nigel Sense to design livery for its electric sedan, the Taycan. An actual Taycan was wrapped in the design then shot in an eco-sensitive location by the photographer Derek Swalwell. The producer and instrumentalist Gene Shill composed original music to accompany each of the three NFTs, using nothing more than the sounds of a Taycan power unit.

Sense says his work focuses on “the emotional feeling of movement going from one place to another, that excitement to see what’s over the horizon”. Porsche Australia’s CEO, Daniel Schmollinger, says the project chimes with the digitally advanced nature of the Taycan. “We wanted to celebrate this by pushing the boundaries of traditional artwork on cars, turning inspired artwork into a digital asset.”

Since NFTs are typically traded in a cryptocurrency, there are concerns about their environmental impact from the electricity used. Porsche says its NFTs are carbon-neutral thanks to its offsets program, while sale proceeds are donated to the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. Shortly after their release, one image was snapped up by someone with the handle @dbarbe, who displays his NFT collection on the specialist website SuperRare, where he’s described as an “entrepreneur and investor; day trader, crypto and nft collector”. He paid list price (1 Ethereum, worth about $5,000 at the time). Of the three images, one remains unsold at the time of press.

NFTs are proving as popular with carmakers as traditional, physical artworks. They were quickly embraced by Formula 1 teams from McLaren to Honda, and then a cascade of others. Last year, Maserati sold its debut NFTs, Rolls-Royce released an animated NFT with the artist Mason London and Ferrari announced a partnership with the Swiss blockchain specialist Velas. Much of this will result in the digital equivalents of bedroom posters or swap cards, rather than art per se. But Lamborghini, in conjunction with the Swiss artist Fabian Oefner, has already hit the NFT jackpot with its first auction in February.

The work shows a Lamborghini Aventador Ultimae blasting off from Earth with a trail of disassembled parts. Titled “Space Time Memory”, it consists of five NFTs, each representing a moment separated by a few seconds. Lamborghini says that while the images appear to be computer-generated, Oefner took hundreds of pictures of individual components then carefully assembled them into the finished photos, each slightly different. The curvature of the earth was captured by a stratospheric weather balloon. Oefner describes it as an artificial memory “of a moment that never existed. The Ultimae is no longer a car. It has transformed into a rocket reaching for the stars.”

Each NFT is accessed by a Space Key, which contains carbon fibre that was sent to the International Space Station as part of a research project and is engraved with a unique QR code. “We pushed boundaries two and a half years ago with the joint research project in space,” says the CEO Stephan Winkelmann. “Now, entering the metaverse is again proof of Lamborghini always setting sail for new horizons.”

The auction in February ran for 75 hours and 50 minutes, the time it took Apollo 11 to leave Earth and enter the moon’s orbit en route to the first successful moon landing, and the top price was about $271,000. While that wouldn’t buy an actual Ultimae — you’d need at least $904,419 for the valedictory example of Lamborghini’s long-running V12 flagship — it does prove that when it comes to art, carmakers are on a mission.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 50 of T Australia with the headline:
“Joy Ride”
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