How a Sand Art Wunderkind Parlayed Viral Fame Into a Solo Show in Chelsea

Tim Bengel's showmanship has won him loads of fans, and a real art career.

Tim Bengel at his exhibition at HG Contemporary in New York. Courtesy of the artist.

Before Tim Bengel made his New York debut at Chelsea’s HG Contemporary this month, he was already a star, with over half a million followers on Facebook and Instagram. Indeed, his website boasts that this social media clout makes Bengel “the most famous German artist of his generation,” adding “please go ahead and try to disprove it!”

The momentum continues: Bengel’s most recent YouTube video, created to promote the current exhibition, has now attracted over 900,000 views. In it, Bengel unveils one of his intricate compositions, made by painstakingly gluing gold leaf and colored sand to the canvas, and speaks about the importance of following your dreams.

In general, the secret to his viral success seems to be the showmanship of the reveal, where he tilts the canvas to the camera, letting the excess sand slide away, leaving only the bits he has glued to the canvas remaining to form the image.

“My videos are my attempt to show the world my unique technique with my remarkable materials: sand and gold,” Bengel told artnet News in an email. “I don’t want them to be seen as tutorials but as a kind of performance—an innovative way of presentation embedded in the digital revolution of the 21st century.”

Bengel is the first artist the gallery has discovered online. “I found him on the Internet about a year and a half ago,” gallery founder Philippe Hoerle-Guggenheim said shortly before the opening reception. “I really saw true potential, both from the medium, and because there’s that wow factor.”

The gallery show largely features depictions of architecture, including New York buildings both old and new, from the Flatiron Building to the World Trade Center Oculus, and historic European sites like Versailles and the Reichstag in Berlin.

During the opening, Bengel’s painting of Versailles, a new composition based on one of the artist’s most popular works, was unveiled to great fanfare (Hoerle-Guggenheim had even flown in a German mixologist to serve special drinks featuring Monkey 47 gin from the Black Forest.) The spectacle is documented in a short clip put out by HG Contemporary.

When artnet News stopped by, the canvas was lying face up on a table in the center of the gallery, the design covered in mounds of loose sand.

At first glance, Bengel’s work looks like a screenprint, Hoerle-Guggenheim admitted, but “when you do get close, you can see the texture.”

The process “is very challenging and delicate because every sand grain needs to stick in the right position,” Bengel added.

He also noted that the show, which features all-new works, was a year in the making.

Tim Bengel, Versailles Monuments, (2017). Courtesy of the artist and HG Contemporary.

Tim Bengel, Versailles Monuments, (2017). Courtesy of the artist and HG Contemporary.

Of course, success often brings backlash. One other YouTube user, known as “pang1oss,” published a video in which he compared one of the young star’s works to a photo online, edited with a few simple Photoshop filters. Finding them almost the same, he concludes that Bengel makes his work by projecting images onto canvas and simply tracing them.

That debunking video has itself received a half million views.

“It was difficult to learn how to deal with all the hate and the lies that were spread about me and my artwork,” Bengel said in response. “The problem is, the Internet gives any idiot the power to comment on your work with their bullshit. Maybe they envy me for my success.”

The artist is currently studying at the University of Tübingen, but he isn’t placing much importance on the receipt of a degree. “The university is full of people who have no clue about the real world of art. They live just in their fantastic-academic-book-world,” he insisted. “In my opinion, hands-on experience in art is the most important thing an artist has to do.”

Back at HG Contemporary, it was all hands on deck for the show. The packed crowd’s cellphones were at the ready to record the moment as Bengel lifted up the canvas. There was a moment of flash and spectacle as the sand rained down, uncovering the image underneath.

Tim Bengel: Monuments” is on view at HG Contemporary, 527 West 23rd Street, September 7–October 3, 2017.

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