Cover Harmony X #2/5 (2020) by Peng Jian (Image: Ora-Ora and the artist)

Ahead of Art Basel Hong Kong 2022, Henrietta Tsui-Leung, whose gallery Ora-Ora was first to bring NFT artworks to the art fair last year, says physical art will not be replaced by non-fungible tokens. Here’s why

Henrietta Tsui-Leung, the director of Hong Kong art gallery Ora-Ora, believes that NFTs are a global and cross-industrial movement which the art scene cannot ignore; so much so that her gallery was the first to present two series of NFT artworks at Art Basel last year—by contemporary artist Peng Jian and multimedia artist Cindy Ng when a lot of galleries were still hesitant to join the game.

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She says that most of the skeptics are cautious about the breach of internet protocols (IPs) because there have been cases where images were stolen and used to mint NFTs before the original creators could. “But blockchains are not thieves. It’s about spending time and money to secure the IPs for their artworks,” says Tsui-Leung, who once accidentally gave away her seed phrase, which is similar to the password of a wallet, and led to the draining of her MetaMask. “It was a precious lesson learnt.”

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Moreover, as blockchain technology can prove the authenticity of a piece of art without the traditional investigation and verification by art galleries or agents, there are concerns about the possibility of NFTs replacing galleries' role in authenticating or setting up a market benchmark for artworks. But Tsui-Leung is quick to dismiss this; she believes that the role of a gallery can be a co-creator, curator, developer, marketer and distributor of NFTs for artists.

“It’s very important for NFT projects to have a KOL [type of authority]. What Ora-Ora is doing is developing a real sense of NFT art,” she says. “Despite all the hype and money poured into the few exciting examples that have been written about, most of them are NFT collectibles such as profile photos.” Tsui-Leung says that there are a lot of NFT creators and investors who call NFT collectibles “NFT art”, and there is a lot being written about how NFTs are redefining art. “But art is art. I don’t think profile pictures can be called art because artists take many hours and even an art degree to create aesthetic works.”

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The director says that while her gallery will continue to be at the forefront of NFT art presentation, she has also recently added another branch to her art company: MetaKapital, a consultation and tech company that provides digital asset building, tokenisation and IP creation services for cultural institutions, brands and corporates. She says that while most of the world’s cultural institutions are aware of the potential of Web3, most lack the confidence, knowledge and tools to execute an idea.

Tsui-Leung, who has a PhD in Art Theory and Criticism from Shanghai University’s Academy for Art Industries, started researching the blockchain in 2017. But she says it wasn’t until 2020 that the market gradually picked up the pace in marrying art with NFTs. “The learning curve of NFTs has a limited timeframe. Now we’re still at the early stage of this hype where all the fun is,” she says. “That’s why Ora-Ora jumped into it.”

Last year, when she showcased Peng and Ng’s NFT video works Harmony and Flower, she presented them on a phone which attracted many collectors, both young and old, to the gallery’s booth. “The [potential] of NFTs is really [evident with a] phone. Many young people who own 20, 30 Bored Ape Yacht Club images or GIFs use a phone to show them to you. They don’t even use an iPad,” Tsui-Leung says. Ora-Ora sold their first NFT artwork by Peng to Crypto Investor at 2.9 Ethereum.

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Peng and Ng have regularly presented at Art Basel over the years, so their development into and inclusion as NFT artists might have reassured the fair’s organisers as to including the new medium. Tsui-Leung says NFTs also offer practical advantages. Ng’s art, for example, usually takes the form of large-scale works displayed at buildings such as New York’s Times Square. “Developers and companies came to us, saying that they were interested in Cindy’s work, probably for wall displays,” she says, and explains that there is a limited file size that NFT platforms can support, meaning that a long video work would have to be broken down into shorter clips to create an NFT artwork. “In that way, NFT video art would be less expensive than normal media art, and the file size is much smaller too.”

For Peng, moving into the NFT realm was about bridging old and new. He studied and now works at the China Academy of Art at Hangzhou, which is known for both the classical Chinese painting and intermedia and experimental art; this put him in the perfect place to experiment with presenting his ink artwork with innovative technological ways. When he first finished the original Harmony, Tsui-Leung says Peng suddenly decided to “break it down into small videos without breaking the painting”, which resulted in the five NFT video works presented at Art Basel.

This year, Ora-Ora will feature a new NFT artwork by Peng alongside physical pieces by contemporary multimedia artist Xiao Xu; Finnish painter Juri Markkula, who is known for experimenting with 3D textures; and British painter Stephen Thorpe.

“No doubt NFTs are one type of art we’ll be focusing on, but we will not merely produce NFTs going forward,” Tsui-Leung says. “Our passion ranges from ink to contemporary art and now to the digital realm. While we accept that this is the age of the digital, it doesn’t mean we’re letting go of our ambition to bring our amazing Asian artists to the [rest of the world].”

The director has plans to bring her gallery to the Asia Now Art Fair in Paris this year, and also has her eyes on that city’s Art Basel. The metaverse is just another destination on her list.


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