Alibaba’s Metaverse Art Exhibition is a Great Snapshot of China’s Current NFT Landscapeby@bigmao
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1,431 reads

Alibaba’s Metaverse Art Exhibition is a Great Snapshot of China’s Current NFT Landscape

by susie liuNovember 11th, 2021
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In China, November 11th has evolved from a meaningless date to one of the most important days of the year. Alibaba has launched a “Metaverse Art Exhibition” featuring 8 NFT art pieces as part of its 2021 Single’s Day campaign. Each artwork is minted into a number of NFTs stored on the **AntChain** **blockchain** and can be viewed in the Taobao app. Each piece has an option to “experience in 3D”, but you won’t be able to zoom in on it.

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In China, November 11th has evolved from a meaningless date to one of the most important days of the year. In 1993, four students at the University of Nanjing decided to hold a campus event for single students on November 11th, and the event quickly spread to more campuses across China. The day grew to be known as Single’s Day and was more of an informal celebration until e-commerce company Taobao (owned by Alibaba) held its first discount event on November 11, 2009.

Twelve years later, Single’s Day has become China’s (and the world’s) biggest retail event, generating 12 times as much revenue as Black Friday.

But the e-commerce industry is beginning to the e-commerce landscape in China is getting tougher in the face of increasing user acquisition costs, the rise of newer platforms like Pinduoduo and Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book), and social media channels like Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok) rapidly growing their e-commerce functions. The industry is constantly on the lookout for new ways to boost online traffic, and Alibaba’s firm belief is that the metaverse, virtual humans, and NFTs are the best means of driving the future growth of their online marketplace. That’s why the tech giant has launched a “Metaverse Art Exhibition” featuring 8 NFT art pieces as part of its 2021 Single’s Day campaign.

Despite the unimaginative name and Alibaba’s previous questionable NFT projects (like the mooncake NFT), curiosity got the better of me. I had to check this out. After all, almost every media outlet had reported on it, so it couldn’t be that bad. Right?

The Summary

Alibaba (or rather, AYAYI, Alibaba’s first virtual human employee) has worked with 8 brands, including global names like Burberry and Kiehl’s as well local brands like Xiaopeng, to create 8 different digital artworks that can be viewed in the Taobao app.

Each artwork is also minted into a number of NFTs stored on the AntChain blockchain – for example, the Burberry piece has been minted into 1,000 NFTs which all look the same visually, but each with its own unique code. It’s worth noting that since China’s recent ban on the trading of NFTs, the word NFT does not come up in this exhibition at all – everything is referred to as a “digital collectible”.

The User Experience

Users can find the art exhibition by typing in “元宇宙艺术展 (Metaverse Art Exhibition)” into the search bar on Taobao.

I was greeted by an image of the silver-haired AYAYI as the experience loaded, and then taken into a silver space that resembles the inside of a piece of quartz, but smoother and shinier (Is it just me, or does everyone seem to think the metaverse needs to look futuristic, pale, and shiny?). There are floating, transparent crystal orbs, each containing a different piece of “art”. Selecting on an orb allows a closer look at the piece of art (however, you won’t be able to zoom in on it), along with a description of the inspiration/story behind the work, as well as an option to “collect” the piece.

A couple of the pieces also have an option to “experience in 3D”, but essentially all that allows you to do is spin it around and get a 360-degree view of the item (no, you still cannot zoom in on it). If you click on “collect”, you’re redirected to a page that looks just like any other product page you’d find on Taobao.

The “Art”

I had a little too much fun trying to translate all the names and descriptions into English. The copywriting team at Alibaba deserves a round of applause though – they’ve managed to come up with some pretty deep stories for the most unremarkable things.

Burberry’s “Digital Elf” Description: A deer-like character with massive ears in a $400 USD Burberry scarf. Story: He has a great sense of style, an acute sense of the latest trends, and uses algorithms to determine the optimal outfit. The “elf” is AYAYI’s fashion consultant, and the oversized ears are supposed to help him better absorb all the information out there. (1000 NFTs minted, given at random to users who purchase a limited-edition physical Burberry scarf)

Kiehl’s “One Thousand And One Nights” Description: Kiehl’s mascot Mr. Bones chilling on liquid metal. Story: Mr. Bones has been tirelessly helping humans with our skincare routines since 1851, and he has decided to take a break. He rests on a flying carpet of liquid metal, tanning himself underneath a digital sun, not needing to worry about UV rays and skin cancer. Before he embarks on a new journey though, he needs to find his trusty Harley (I think the Alibaba team has somehow incorporated Ghost Rider into this.) (1000 NFTs minted, given at random to users who purchase a jar of Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cream)

Alienware’s “Artery of Thought” Description: The Alienware head in shining metal with glowing blue eyes. Story: The alien is a metaphor for the metaverse: mysterious, advanced, and obscure. In the metaverse, the metal of the alien’s head is interlinked with our thoughts – the more intense our thoughts, the brighter the metal shines. (100 NFTs minted, part of an exclusive Alienware X17 R1 gift set consisting of a laptop and an NFT)

Wuliangye’s “Milky Way” (Wuliangye is one of China’s largest liquor brands)

Description: A translucent bottle of the finest Chinese baijiu liquor. Story: Traditional Chinese alcohol takes on a new form in the metaverse – glowing gold and silver particles that have captured the essence of the stars in our galaxy combine to create a dazzling concoction. (9 NFTs minted, not available to individual collectors – wow, now that’s pretentious.)

P&G’s “Click And Go” Description: A gaudy silver duffel bag featuring the P&G logo. Story: Packing could be a challenge for people moving into the metaverse, and P&G has taken it upon themselves to provide an easy solution. P&G is offering a “click and go” option, with a single click, all your beloved items and toiletries will be transported into the metaverse so you can begin your new life. (100 NFTs minted, users need to participate in a raffle and winners will be able to purchase the NFT for 1 RMB, the rough equivalent of 15 cents)

Xiaopeng’s “Graffiti In The Sky” Description: A black Xiaopeng car with bits of liquid metal flying off of it. Story: In the metaverse, cars are more than just a method of transportation – they’re a medium of expression. In this world, racecar drivers double as graffiti artists, adorning the skies with masterpieces created from speed and precision (1000 NFTs minted, given at random to users who purchase a test drive of Xiaopeng’s P7/G3i/P5 models for 1 RMB)

Moody’s “Starry Flower Whispers” (Moody is a local brand that makes coloured contact lenses) Description: Something that looks like a cross between a coloured contact lens and poisonous lily. Story: When a child is born in the metaverse, a Starry Flower will bloom. The Starry Flower grows from an orb of ice and metal, symbolizing the harmony between the virtual and physical worlds. (1000 NFTs minted, given at random to users who purchase Moody’s “Sky Disco” coloured contacts)

Chando’s “Himalayan Ice” (Chando is a local skincare brand)

Description: A bottle of lotion surrounded by a ribbon of liquid metal

Story: Water is essential to our survival, and this potion pays tribute to the source of human life. Metal replaces water in the metaverse, and this potion combines two eternal elements to freeze time and deliver timeless beauty. (100 NFTs minted, users need to participate in a raffle and winners will be able to purchase the NFT for 1 RMB, the rough equivalent of 15 cents)

The Verdict

The exhibition felt more like a pre-beta test version of a partially developed project. The crystalline space was nothing spectacular, and the pieces were boring at best. What was disappointing was that most brands basically took a physical product, added some liquid metal garnishes, and called it a piece of art.

It’s clear this was another one of Alibaba’s attempts to piggyback off the “metaverse” and digital art trend to drive more traffic to Taobao ahead of Single’s Day. That said, this confusing exhibition does provide a stellar and pretty comprehensive snapshot of China’s NFT landscape from a number of angles, including:

  1. The Consumer

Even though the government has prohibited the resale of “digital collectibles”, those pieces sold out fast. I’m Chinese, and I know how pragmatic we Chinese can be (think Jessica from the TV series “Fresh Off The Boat”). I always wondered how Chinese consumers would treat NFTs, since most Chinese households don’t even own much physical art, but it’s clear the younger generation has a different understanding of value.

And it makes sense – Chinese Gen Z have grown up with mobile games and buying in-game skins and merchandise for ridiculous amounts of money (certain skins in PUBG have been sold for nearly 200k RMB, that’s almost 30 grand in USD). Heck, China’s first virtual “idol” Luotianyi was created in 2012 and already made her way onto CCTV’s New Year Gala (an annual televised performance extravaganza watched by over 700 million people) in 2016, the year Lil Miquela was created.

Anyways, if these awful NFTs can be accepted, just imagine what the reception would be for a quality NFT project. Sorry, “digital collectible”.

2. The Brands

Personally, I think participation from big brands are key to paving the NFT road in China and bringing credibility to digital art. Why? Well, China can’t really rely on famous modern artists to create NFTs that’ll make people take the subject seriously, because there’s no real Chinese equivalent of Damien Hirst or KAWS. The most famous Chinese artists are the dead ones. In addition, giving out the virtual pieces as part of a special edition bundle consisting of an NFT and a physical good is a pretty smart way of getting us pragmatic Chinese consumers to feel like we’re getting a good deal.

It’s great that Alibaba’s collaborated with a pretty decent range of brands for this exhibition. While luxury fashion house Burberry and global names like Kiehl’s and Alienware didn’t come as a surprise, I was pretty impressed to see an old-school Chinese brand like Wuliangye on the list. Although very few people under the age of 40 actually drink Wuliangye (it’s the alcohol of government officials and balding businessmen), it’s one of those brands that every Chinese person will know. It’s promising to see that influential local brands are keeping an open mind toward NFTs, and this will likely set the precedent for more brands to jump on the bandwagon in the near future.

3. The Government

In China, general media sentiment is the best indication of the central government’s attitude towards an industry or trend. If you see mixed media sentiment and journalists actually daring to profess personal opinions about a certain subject (this doesn’t happen often), it usually means the government doesn’t care about the topic in question. Widespread neutral and objective reporting of the facts likely indicates that the government isn’t against the subject matter but is figuring out exactly what their stance is, which is why publications don’t want to take a stance either. If sentiment is very skewed in a particular direction, that direction is most definitely an accurate reflection of the government’s attitude.

Despite the recent ban on the trading of NFTs, the metaverse exhibition in question received a lot of media coverage. No opinions, no commentary, just the facts. Completely neutral. And neutral is great because it means there is hope for NFTs in the future.

The Chinese government isn’t really against the concept of NFTs or virtual art, but against unregulated and uncontrollable speculation which could destabilize the economy. It’s a fair point. Oddly enough, NFTs could help facilitate China’s goals if executed properly – President Xi has stressed the importance of promoting the development of China's culture sector to strengthen the public’s sense of fulfillment, happiness and security.

So, as long as future “digital collectible” projects can prove that they’re contributing towards culture, I dare say there’s a lot of potential. (Now that I think of it, the fancy names like “Artery of Thought” and convoluted descriptions of the digital collectibles were probably intentional – there to emphasize that the pieces were created with a lot of thought, and not just a way to create meaningless hype)

Overall, I was definitely disappointed. Disappointed, but happy. Because the fact that things like this are happening in China means that the country is keeping an open mind towards all the new possibilities out there. Now, it’s all about refining the execution. After all, an idea is nothing without great execution.