Ever since Moderna Museet’s Hilma af Klint exhibition in 2013, the “abstract pioneer” has become the centrepiece for a small industry with a never-ending stream of exhibitions, books, films, and merchandise. Lasse Hallström’s biopic Hilmarecently opened in cinemas, Moderna Museet is currently showing yet another af Klint exhibition, and during the art fair Paris+ par Art Basel, which took place last week, the latest addition to af Klint’s strange afterlife was on display at the Swedish Institute in Paris: the 12-minute virtual reality experiment Hilma af Klint: The Temple.
The screening was preceded by a premiere at Frieze Art Fair, in conjunction with the release of the seventh and final volume of the English-language Hilma af Klint: Catalogue Raisonné at the Swedish Ambassador’s residence in London. Hilma af Klint has gone from eccentric to premium export. Meanwhile, Hilma af Klint: The Temple is described as an experimental “materialisation” of the artist’s spiritual vision of a temple. But what impact does such a claim have on the artist’s work and legacy?
The virtual reality opens in blue darkness. Above us, the golden spiral of Primordial Chaos No. 16 (1906–1907) descends like a solar cap. On the horizon, something resembling a shooting star (if we’re being poetic) or a sperm cluster (to be more prosaic) gathers. Soon we’re flying over a field of sunflowers as the triangle from the iconic Altarpiece No. 1 (1915) blazes on the horizon. Next we are led through a blue and yellow pipeline coil into the temple’s central hall. Here we travel upwards while the spiral architecture – reminiscent of the Guggenheim in New York – holds up af Klint’s paintings as if they were playing cards. The paintings’ elements move around: the circles from the The Seven-Pointed Star series (1908) twist and turn in their geometric shapes, while the segments of Youth no. 4 (1907) come towards us. Above us, the swans from the series of the same name (1914–1915) hover. It’s all over when we are back in a dark void and plunge into the sun.
Before entering the room at the Swedish Institute, we were given a brief introduction to what we were about to experience: an experiment based on af Klint’s vision of a spiritual, immaterial, temple and a temple-like building for her art. We were also instructed to “turn off your brain, don’t think, just try to go with the flow.” Crucial, but difficult.
Afterwards, I was, to my own surprise, less skeptical than I had been before I put on the headset. There are parts of this virtual universe that are rather kitschy – and technically and morally dubious – but, for some viewers, it can also open up af Klint’s esoteric work. According to the hosts, some have been moved to tears, danced, and discovered new aspects of an oeuvre they love and follow closely. No one in my group seemed to fall into those categories, but some did express awe and emotion. For my part, I found it difficult to switch off my brain, to not think and simply be present.
The interesting thing about VR technology is how viewers are immersed in an experience. The outside is cut off and the relationship between spectator and work can be more immediate. It is reminiscent of the psychedelic experience: we are immersed in a visual world that is at once alien and familiar. For such an experience to be good, the set and the setting are crucial. That is, a conducive mental attitude and a safe spatial and social context, as well as a willingness to take a leap of faith, are required. If we don’t believe and accept what we see, there is definitely the risk for a bad trip. So, for those who manage to suspend their aesthetic and ethical judgment – to turn off their brains and not think about the pixels or the genesis of the visuals – and float along, supported by virtual reality, in af Klint’s mysterious visual world, something can indeed be gained from VR technology.
At the same time, it’s hard not to think about the choices and decisions behind af Klint’s work. Something happens when the reclining black dog in Evolution No. 5 (1908) suddenly sits up straighter, turns its head, and flaps its ears in the middle of a vast field without the rays that have streamed from its muzzle for the past 113 years. Af Klint placed the dog as she did and let it look the way it does (with rays coming out of its snout) for reasons that are hers alone – reasons that it is not up to posterity to change.
It must, of course, be possible to reproduce works of art. But unlike a photograph of an artwork, a computer-generated animation has a much freer relationship with its original and the production process is opaque. Hilma af Klint: The Templeis thus a hybrid between a representation and a work in its own right; it offers an experience that can bring the viewer closer to the artist’s universe in a new way. But it is also a manipulation of her aesthetics that undoes her artistic choices, thus taking us further away from the work.
Hilma af Klint: The Temple is produced by Acute Art, a VR and AR gallery and production company, commissioned by Stolpe Publishing, and funded by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Charitable Trust, all of which have close ties to the Hilma af Klint Foundation. A number of af Klint’s paintings are also available on the AR app Acute Art, which creates the illusion that they are hovering directly in front of users’ smartphones. In some cases, the same animations as in the VR work are available. By downloading and activating the Acute Art app, we can watch the dog from Evolution No. 5dangle its tongue whenever and wherever we want.
The reproduction and exploitation of art is not uncommon, but here it is legitimised by references to af Klint’s spiritual side: that she herself wanted to create a temple so that her paintings would become known and spread their esoteric messages. And since they were never shown to a larger audience during her lifetime, there is no art historical precedent for how they should be presented. It can seem that a “materialisation” of her vision is just there for the making.
Paradoxically, af Klint is both an accessible artist and difficult to interpret. Her work inspires wonder and delight, while her intentions, mystical teachings, and diary entries require careful deciphering. It is the responsibility of the Hilma af Klint Foundation to look after af Klint’s legacy and promote her memory. Making her work accessible is an important part of this, but to throw her headlong into virtual realities is to sacrifice her aesthetic integrity. Perhaps this digital experiment should be regarded as a mere PR scheme? Yet, we know that af Klint saw her paintings as sacred, meant for reflection and spiritual meditation. Nowhere near high-tech revelry. Like all art, they carry something sacred that is meant to be shared – not distorted.