Beeple’s Collab With Madonna Is All About Celebrating Birth, But It Drains the Life Out of Pop’s Biggest Star
There's a reason you feel so uncomfortable looking at this NFT series, and it's not the one you think.
So, here’s an opinion about Madonna’s newly launched line of three digital artworks, made with NFT star Beeple. They are upsetting!
Not because each is a one-minute animation of a fully nude Madonna, with the virtual camera zooming in as a magical something springs from her vagina (a giant, flower-covered tree in Mother of Creation; a swarm of happy butterflies in Mother of Evolution; and an off-putting horde of mechanical centipedes in Mother of Technology).
To be fair, the just-opened Venice Biennale, “The Milk of Dreams,” was very much on this wavelength, with all its images of humans merging with trees and robots. Beeple was even seen on the scene there! If we weren’t told in the advertising that the “Mother of…” trilogy was the result of an intimate, year-long collaboration between Beeple and Madonna, I might have thought that Venice offered some inspiration.
No, these works are upsetting because the animation of Madonna herself looks so dead. Or undead.
The Beeple-ized Madonna has a thread-like blonde mane and hairless, rubbery body that make her look unmistakably like a Barbie doll—and not the updated, body-positive Barbies, either. (For some reason, Madonna is wearing high heels while giving birth in Mother of Technology.) The robot centipedes look more alive than Madonna does!
Beeple’s Madonna registers exactly no emotion as she engages in the looping, animated purgatory of supernatural birth. You don’t think, “Wow, magical.” You think, “Whoa, they went there.”
I mean, I guess Madonna gets what she needs out of the collab, in that she taps into Beeple’s amazing ability to poke a nerve and stay in the conversation, which is hard to do (the three works are being sold on Superrare to benefit three different charities). Still, on reflection, it feels like a slightly off combination of two sensibilities, and probably much more a win for Beeple than for Madonna.
Earlier this year, I went to Beeple’s IRL art show at Jack Hanley Gallery, “Uncertain Future,” in New York. It was fine. I think seeing the details big and up close doesn’t particularly serve the made-for-the-web work. But the man is not so famous for nothing: His images of Jeff Bezos with hairy dicks sprouting from his head or Mark Zuckerberg with bloody brain tumors exploding through his skull are memorably gnarly.
But I left thinking that the key aesthetic fact was how emotionally dead it all felt. The work takes a lot of images that flow frenetically through the online mind and gives them enough of an extra gross-out twist to get you to stop for a second. The effect is all in the difference between the shock on a human level and the inhuman emotional flatness of it. Beeple’s people are generally blank-faced, or turned away from the viewer, without any sense of interiority.
If you break it down, the essential, repeating idea of the work is “we live in a dystopia… and I feel nothing.” It’s for people who live lives so media-saturated and irony-poisoned that nothing feels real.
These new Madonna works have some of that vibe. They feel knowingly outrageous, but with that same slightly flattened, dystopian feel. And I think Madonna is going for something else—a much more reverent and even mystical tone.
“My journey through life as a woman is like that of a tree,” her voice intones in Mother of Creation, reading her own poetry as tentacles of vegetation emerge from the vagina of her stone-faced digital twin. “I’ve taught myself to be supple so that I won’t break….” (The marketing copy inexplicably describes the scene in this euphemistic way: “In a cold laboratory setting, with no sign of life, an opening gives way to a branch that transforms into a full vibrant tree.” An opening??)
In any case, the Beeple/Madonna team-up that no one was expecting seems very much unlike the Immaculate Collection-era Madonna, flawlessly in charge of her own image and seamlessly mastering each new thing.
It’s very much a this-era Madonna: the Madonna posting about how the pandemic is the “great leveler” while nude in a rose-petal filled bath; the Madonna who has fans cringing as she hops up onto Jimmy Fallon’s desk; the Madonna shilling Bored Apes when you’d think she really didn’t have to. The Beeple-era Madonna.
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