Before Philip Colbert became a famous contemporary artist, he had to become a lobster. A big, red cartoon-y lobster.
Born in Scotland, with Irish relatives and now living and working in London, Colbert has been called the “Godson of Andy Warhol.” For those not familiar with his work, to please visit his website (“Neo Pop Surrealist”) to get this reference explained. If you are not so inclined, know that his work is a mixture of Old Master themes combined with contemporary art theory. And lobsters, lots of them.
Disclosure: Colbert does not look like a lobster. He has not eaten lobster, ever. He has no lobster friends. He likes the 2015 film “The Lobster,” a surreal black comedy/dystopian film by Yorgos Lanthimos, but felt cheated there were no actual lobsters in it. If he remakes the film, he vows to rectify this oversight.
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He has also never heard of Irish lobsters. So, being Irish, I have to tell him.
That story goes like this. An American couple are dining at a posh seafood restaurant in Dublin. There is a tank of live lobsters and the sides seem low. They ask the maître d’ if some of the larger ones are in danger of escaping. “Oh no,” he replies, “they are Irish lobsters.”
The American couple are confused but the maître d’ tells them to watch. Soon one of the larger lobsters battles his way to the edge of the tank. He looks big enough and powerful enough to escape, but just as he is about to lob himself out of the tank and to freedom the other lobsters pull him back in.
Colbert’s fascination with lobsters has propelled him into international artistic fame and won him patronage from leading collectors Charles Saatchi and Simon De Pury. His contemporary art is lobster-driven and increasingly tech-based.
During the coronavirus lockdown he was concerned about people locked into their homes, not being able to get out. In a 2020 exhibition in Saatchi Gallery, he installed robots to take the place of people. These mobile units, plasma screens mounted on a mobile unit and human height, could be booked and used by virtual visitors to move around the exhibition space in tandem with real humans. They were not shaped like lobsters.
This month he is venturing into the metaverse and non-fungible tokens (NFT), a combination that makes utter sense to the lobster-inspired artist.
He is not alone. At a recent exhibition, friends witnessed a lobster cult visiting and worshipping his art. They videoed the cult in action and sent it to Colbert.
“This got me thinking,” he said. “Art is about ideas and creating an immersive world. Maybe not as a cult, but a metaverse seems the next ideological step for an artist to truly create their world.”
And where does a lobster live when not in the sea or the gourmet’s tank? In Lobsterland, of course, and more recently in Lobsteropolis, housed in the virtual world of Decentraland.
Colbert believes the idea is more important than the execution. He understands that an artist creates a world but what if the visitor could actually enter the world and hang out. This is what a metaverse, or virtual shared space, is made for.
His world, Lobsteropolis in Lobsterland is big: 57 plots in all. It’s not as big as London but it’s a pretty big space. It is not just a gallery, it is home to a museum, a record shop, a university, a live concert venue, coffee shops, a bank and more. He has a skyscraper he’d like to rent out to the other artists to create an art village. For his launch this month, he has teamed up with another big landowner in Decentraland, Vegas City.
On June 30, he is hosting an official opening with celebrity American band Devo as he guests. He has always loved Devo – and their hats. The lobster in him sees their hats as a fitting accompaniment.
The other guest of honor is Simon De Pury, art collector maven, who will auction a specially prepared video NFT in conjunction with Devo. Colbert sees the hybrid of art and music in a metaverse as the absolute obvious conclusion for today’s technology.
Come, he says, hang out.
Fitting in with the theme, I’ll be going as a starfish.
The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.
CoinDesk: Why a metaverse?
Colbert: “I’ve had this opportunity for people to come into this lobster world and slightly bend the boundaries of perception of what the art is, trying to create a more holistic, malleable, interactive art experience.
“When the lockdown occurred I felt it was the perfect opportunity to push my digital world. Because when people couldn’t travel and stuff, then obviously you have a more captive audience than ever.
“This year the rise of the NFTs further incentivized me to bring it online because, in a way, it just makes it accessible for people who are not just at my exhibition, because it’s globally accessible.”
“I can imagine Decentraland becoming the closest we have to a global metaverse. Loads of artists and musicians and thinkers and creatives and young aspiring individuals can go and live some weird crypto dream where the American Dream is served by avatars.”
You say ideas are everything.
“Our idea is the value of everything is abstract. We connect it to materially but, ultimately, the true value lies in it is in the story, the narrative, the idea, the provenance.
“Obviously, that doesn’t take away from the physicality of paint, texture of certain paint on canvas and stuff. But ultimately, the Holy Grail is the idea. The Holy Grail is the narrative, the story.
Is video art valuable?
“I see this opportunity to create a democratic platform for video art, because video art has always never really had any commercial viability or platform in the way that painting or sculpture has had.
“Video art has always been sort of slightly under the table. And, yet, it is obviously a very refined art form in the 21st century. NFTs give a platform to video and digital art. As a painter, I’m heavily inspired by video and 3-D software in the creation of paintings. Because for me, it’s that hybrid of new technology to create a new possibility in visual painting language, which I find really interesting.
“NFTs are the perfect platform to take this new dynamic of artistic expression. It certainly exploded to begin with which I think was probably just because of the huge enthusiasm; that suddenly people realized that there was a new genre being born.
There is no question that it’s here to stay as a part of the pie of what art is; it’s definitely now a significant slice of that.”