Cornælhuys: A CryptoArt project 500 years in the making

By Luke Whyte, Editorial Director

With his collection, Cornælhuys, pop surreal artist Jæn has created a work in progress. Or, perhaps, it is more appropriate to say he’s created a bridge between the past, the present and the future.

Cornælhuys is a series of 18 “one of one” animated paintings Jæn made of 16th century masks. Minted on SuperRare, they are at once unsettling yet welcoming, the latest chapter in a story that begins in the 16th century and, Jæn hopes, will remain unfinished until long after we’re all dead.

@jaen, Cornælhuys 1/18 – Satyre Floral

Passed through the centuries

The story of Cornælhuys begins around 1514 with the birth of Cornelis Floris II in the Belgian city of Antwerp. Believed to have trained under his father, a stonemason specializing in tombstones, Floris would grow to become one of the most sought after sculptors of his time and place.

Eerie and captivating, the “Floris style” was rooted in the Grotesque, a 16th century phenomenon that, unlike the Renaissance style known for balanced and beautiful proportions, skewed instead toward the disproportionate, the fantastic and the delirious. He built tombs for Baltic patrons like the King of Denmark and the Duke of East Prussia and, at dates unknown, sculpted a series of haunting stone masks that would come to be the basis for the Cornælhuys NFTs.

The problem, however, is that all of the masks are gone. In fact, none of Floris’ sculptures survived the test of time. It’s possible we would know nothing of them at all if it weren’t for the work of a little known Netherlandish draftsman, Frans Huys, who made etchings of the masks in the late 16th century for other sculptors’ use.

Luckily, these etchings made it into the hands of the Rijks Museum in the Netherlands. They made high-resolution scans which Jæn first stumbled upon last October.

Putting 16th century sculptures on the blockchain

Jæn fell in love with the masks.

“They reminded me of some research I had done on Pan / Dionysos / Bacchus,” he said.

“I collected the scans,” Jæn said. “I cleaned them a lot but tried to keep the grainy texture. And then I made them move a little and brought them to life.”

The result is a series of captivating digital works with an intriguing connection to the past.

“I wanted it to feel like (the masks) are really floating in digital space,” Jæn said. “It is interesting to take something that should be the decor and make it the main piece.”

Jæn’s vision is for Cornælhuys to be just a chapter in the story of the masks, just the most recent iteration in the lives of evolving artworks. Hopefully, preserved digitally, he said, a future artist will write the next chapter, creating something new and relevant to the technology and vision of their time.

@jaen, Cornælhuys 5/18 – Le Grand Nasal

“This project is about conservation,” he said, “but not just for the sake of it. It is a project in three parts: First, taking the past and bringing it to the present and, second, I want another artist to be able to find this and turn it into something new.”

“(This work) is a blockchain made of art and time,” he said.

But digital preservation ain’t easy

There is a sense in some circles that once a work is minted on a blockchain, it is forever preserved. This, however, isn’t exactly the case: The token is preserved, along with related transactions, but the file itself – the actual digital work – is stored singularly on an IPFS node. These nodes can be cloned by anyone, but storage is expensive and, most times, the files generally live only on the original node, which is paid for by the marketplace hosting the node, like SuperRare or Foundation. 

The larger issue of decentralized network file storage is one the greater blockchain community working to solve, but we’re not there yet.

@jaen, Cornælhuys 6/18 – Le Panache

With this in mind, Jæn is working with Tara Digital Collective and employing the best practices outlined in their NFT conservation toolkit, to assure the preservation of Cornælhuys long into the future.

“We seek to bring museum-grade conservation to works that are minted on the blockchain,” said Sarah Maryam Moosvi a Digital Media Strategist with Tara Digital Collective.

“The root of the issue is that the blockchain is not built for visual media,” she said. “It is prohibitively expensive to upload files of any size to the network.”

The Tara Digital Collective’s NFT conservation toolkit aims to help artists and collectors solve this problems with techniques and strategies for long term archival of digital assets.

@jaen, Cornælhuys 3/18 – Fontanailes

“We provide a collector package that is delivered to a collector on collecting the work,” Moosvi said, “We’ve created a toolkit that is given to these artists and the responsibility of the gallery is to put together that package, maintain those files and preserve the work.”

“Because this is just the beginning (of CryptoArt), we are nowhere near having a long lasting solution for preservation of digital art on a blockchain.” she said. “We have a situation of trust: trust between artist, collector and gallery. (The toolkit) is about having a conversation about how we handle this art, which I think is quite healthy.”

Assuming Cornælhuys does survive the test of time, there’s no real way of knowing what the next iteration of its life could be. But Jæn has some thoughts.

“As far as I am concerned, we are at the very beginning of the metaverse and digital identity,” he said. “One of the best ways to store information is through DNA. Right now this is very speculative but just imagine if at some point we could create a genetic artwork. I would love for (the masks) to continue on in that way: through something living.”

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Luke Whyte is SuperRare's Editorial Director

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