Raghava KK’s $94,500 NFT at Sotheby’s sets new record for Indian artists

Raghava KK   | Photo Credit: Kristin Pike

Known as ‘NFT-Punk’, Raghava KK is riding the non-fungible token wave. At Boundless Space, the online group auction by Sotheby’s and Burning Man, he made a $94,500 splash as his NFT, La Petite Mort (part of The Orgasm Project) went under the digital hammer, after a starting bid of just $100! The ‘phygital’ piece (with a digital as well as a physical artwork, both of which belongs to the bidder) was created in collaboration with data scientist Harshit Agrawal, neuroscientist Abhijeet Satani and material scientist Ben Tritt — to explore how humans contend with love, loss, boundaries, introspection and the like.

The auction featured over 150 artists and Raghava’s was among the top five bids. (The highest bid was $1,08,000 for photographer Peter Ruprecht’s work.)

Why The Orgasm Project?
  • After his divorce in 2017, Raghava says he began wondering if everything is a commodity. “What is the craziest thing I can sell? The Orgasm Project was the most intimate, personal and non-sellable item I could think of,” he explains. The French call the orgasm la petite mort or ‘the little death’ — “an experience where the mental and physical meld”. To the multidisciplinary artist, it came to stand for “a binary confusion, because the death of eros gives rise to new potential life. So, it got me thinking whether I could have an erotic relationship with my imagination? And if I could digitise it”.

When I first met Raghava in Mumbai, at the Ashish Balram Nagpal Gallery at Radio Club way back in 2003-’04, he told me that he ‘loves painting with his hands and sometimes his feet’. I remember being sceptical. Yes, he was witty and clever, an upwardly mobile toon-gen artist, but was he someone to look out for, who would set new trends? This was right after he had made a big splash as a droll newspaper cartoonist known for his bold line and an eye for ‘telling it like it is’.

When he established himself in the US in 2012, he was collected by the likes of Paul Simon, Jeff Bezos and Shah Rukh Khan. Now, as he cracks the Indian presence in the world of NFTs with a mammoth sale, the art world is sitting up and taking notice of the boy from Bengaluru who has made it big in New York, once again.

Down, but never out

“I want the world to have a bit of disruptive India in their collections. This disruptive technology has the potential to create utopias and dystopias — as with any technology,” says Raghava, adding, “Exclusivity is rare in a capitalistic economy, but crypto investors, typically libertarian, look to break out of this. It’s an anti-political statement to re-establish the real-world art system.”

La Petite Mort, oil on canvas

La Petite Mort, oil on canvas   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Working with curatorial advisor Myna Mukherjee, who advised Sotheby’s on the project — and who is also featuring his work at Artissima, with co-curator Davide Quadrio, in Turin, Italy, next month — Raghava, 41, can finally say he is a ‘trendsetter’. This, given that he had an uphill task shushing naysayers with his grit and dedication to his work, especially since he does not come from a ‘typical art background’. Many took umbrage with his blurring of high art and popular art. His oeuvre spans painting, sculpture, installation, film and iPad art, always linked by his challenging opinions on identity, conformity, gender. Raghava even viewed his lavish wedding — in 2007 to actor-musician Netra — as a piece of performance art.

Also read | Keen on the NFT art drops? It’s all about strategy, buyer knowledge and timing

Here is an artist who once said, “Be a dude before you can become an ascetic, be a rock star even if it is in your own house!” However, it was not just in his own house that Raghava was practising his larger-than-life style. A decade ago, he was known for his 9/11 caricature of Osama Bin Laden that raked up enough of its share of controversy.

“After the 9/11 incident, I swore I would never do cartoons but, of course, I could not stick to my promise — to stay away from being creative. I cherish change the most; it gives me the opportunity to reinvent myself,” he says. So, when he got divorced a few years ago, he “went on a new journey of reinventing myself and exploring new experiences. The minute I feel comfortable, I begin to itch, and I try to throw myself into the midst of anarchy”, he quips, adding, “The only times you learn is when you feel vulnerable, because you're forced to do something different. You develop new skills when you're down.”

Raghava KK

Raghava KK   | Photo Credit: Mohit Damani

Constantly challenging himself

Raghava has collaborated with American singer Erykah Badu to design T-shirts for her charity, Blind, curated India’s first AI art show in 2018, created artwork for musician Paul Simon’s concert tour, even participated in an education initiative at NuVu Studios, an offshoot of Harvard and MIT, where he helped develop a new form of participatory art (enabling paintings to become touch screens within picture frames). Art has helped him be relevant. “I’m always rethinking my idea of what the role of art in the world is.”

He acknowledges that technology, because of the “endless possibilities it offers”, is important to his work — especially since it can bring artists, technologists and scientists from around the globe together, to create. “It is essential for artists to think like scientists and be rigorous in their perception and thought process. At the same time, scientists need to be more creative in how they look at the world. I think it is very important to bring these worlds together for a better tomorrow.”

Also read | How NFT art is expanding the definition of ‘artist’

However, not everyone is as keen about jumping into tech pixel. After the big splash made by Beeple’s NFT Everydays: the First 5000 Days, which sold for $69 million at the beginning of March this year, the raised eyebrows persist, as does the chitter-chatter in art circuits about whether this is a bubble that will burst soon. But with Raghava’s collaborative work setting a new record for NFTs by Indian artists, it looks like the bubble is far from bursting.

He is excited to première a work from his new body of work, Edges, at Artissima in Italy next month. He is also featuring Strange Genders — created using AI — a collaborative piece with Harshit Agrawal and 64/1, that talks about the gender spectrum. “[64/1] is an art collective started by my brother Karthik and me that focusses on blurring art, art criticism and art education. The work is going to be featured at Classical Radical, a museum show associated with Artissima. I’m also looking forward to more shows with Le Petit Mort series. [There will be] a major exhibition in India and projects that I’ll be bringing over in collaboration with [Myna Mukherjee’s] Engendered early next year,” he concludes.

What the art world thinks

Peter Nagy and Aparajita Jain of Nature Morte

Peter Nagy and Aparajita Jain of Nature Morte   | Photo Credit: Bharat Sikka

Peter Nagy, Nature Morte: “NFTs are a charade invented by the tech and finance folks to give value to that which is essentially impossible to commoditise [that being a digital image which circulates freely]. The fate of NFTs will be tied with digital currencies in general. These will certainly be the future standard, but for the next 10 to 20 years [it will be] constantly volatile — the social and regulatory parameters certainly problematic.”

Aparajita Jain, co-director, Nature Morte: “I think NFTS are not a bubble. They are the most important part of the new ecosystem of the arts.”

Raghava KK’s $94,500 NFT at Sotheby’s sets new record for Indian artists

Anpu Varkey, artist

I have been following NFTs since Beeple got big in March. I think it really decentralises the art market; you don’t know who is buying your work! If you believe in the bitcoin culture, this is a cool form. But it is also a belief system. You have to listen to Metakovan [one half of the duo who bought Beeple’s Everydays] talk. 99% of his assets is in bitcoin — that is a completely different belief system! NFTs are just opening up; people are still understanding its prospects. But I don’t know why Raghava put his original painting up for sale; I would have put up only its photograph. What Beeple did was smart. He can now sell that same painting as another NFT token. That is also where it gets tricky. There is no original; there are many originals. Will I ride the NFT wave? Yes, but after studying it a bit more. I have some fun ideas. I could sell my painted shorts as an NFT, that is what I will do!

Raghava KK’s $94,500 NFT at Sotheby’s sets new record for Indian artists

Bose Krishnamachari, artist, curator, president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation

“There are always art movements happening; there are always changes in the mediums used. Raghava and I talk a lot about new technology, and merging science with art. But I’m not an expert in NFTs. For me, it’s a very abstract concept, and I’m not sure about its longevity. This meeting of science, technology and art, however, will keep growing. And I won’t call NFTs a bubble; it could well turn into something else. Meanwhile, I am excited to see my friends like Unnikrishna M Damodaran experiment with NFTs.”

Raghava KK’s $94,500 NFT at Sotheby’s sets new record for Indian artists

Udit Bhambri, collector

I am slightly averse to the NFT conversation solely because when art becomes trendy, I go on high alert — it’s not clothes or fashion, so why is it trendy? Somewhere, when you marry art with technology, I feel the aesthetic takes a back seat and it becomes more about investment and trends. NFTs is interesting in terms of a new kind of infusion into a world that hasn’t seen much technology. Just the way e-commerce came in and revolutionised [in both a good and a bad way] the fashion world, I think this has potential. But not in its current form. All the news around it is very number led. ‘Oh let’s do an NFT because it [Beeple’s Everydays] sold for $69 million at Christie’s’. Why aren’t we discussing what the work of art is rather than how much it sold for? For me as a collector, it’s not whether an artwork is a painting, a video work, or a sculpture. I respond to the work.

Raghava KK’s $94,500 NFT at Sotheby’s sets new record for Indian artists

Lekha Washington, artist

Art is no longer just a painting on a wall. I believe that art is an experience and whatever can enhance that, it is a plus for me. NFTs are like a signature. You can own a piece in a way that is undisputable, and I like that as a concept — especially in this digital world where everything is an interpretation of something else, and people just take things and claim it as their own. At the moment, a lot of the art spaces allow for ‘old’ artists.. the Tyeb Mehtas and MF Husains. People tend to respect money. You can do something fantastic and nobody will notice until you say this is worth this much. So it’s cool that Raghava is bringing that light into this space. It’s an old and decrepit market. So it’s fantastic that these kinds of numbers are coming in for people who are currently creating. It’s great to have an inflow of capital in general, for the whole industry. It will help others to push their boundaries.

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 9:40:22 PM |

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