Profane Illumination

When Daniel Birnbaum allies himself with the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg no alliance between matter and spirit seems impossible.

Emanuel Swedenborg’s ear bone. Photo: The Swedenborg Society.

Increasingly, there is a parallel between the spiritual and the virtual in Daniel Birnbaum’s curatorial endeavours. Firm favourite Hilma af Klint is constantly being joined by other historical visionaries, while Acute Art, the VR and NFT art company spearheaded by Birnbaum, produces new works responding to the spiritual theme. The most recent example can be seen in the exhibition Tremulations at The Swedenborg Society in London, curated by Birnbaum in collaboration with Jacqui Davies. The exhibition takes its starting point in the legacy of the Swedish scientist, philosopher, and Christian theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), presenting objects from the Swedenborg Society’s archive, works by an array of historical and contemporary artists, as well as a selection of other objects and videos. The exhibition will unfold in three instalments, each of which will present a new VR work and a changing selection of artworks and objects.

Tremulations (1719) was Swedenborg’s first written account of his visionary metaphysical theory, in which he argues that all living things consist of vibrations or tremulations. Visitors are greeted by an open book with this handwritten sentence on its title page: “Bevis att wårt lefwande vesende består merendels af små darringar thet är tremulationer,” or “Proof that our living being consists mostly of small vibrations, that are tremulations.” The book is a photolithographic reproduction of Swedenborg’s manuscript, and the sentence was supposedly penned by the series’ editor. On a nearby wall is a short version of Swedenborg’s “Nine Rules” in vinyl. Briefly put, the rules assert that everything is vibrations: sound and light, the heart that pumps, the brain that thinks. As a sort of compact mystical summary of this physiology, the fourth rule reads: “The tremulation of a string will cause a synthetic vibration in another string; a membrane similarly affects another membrane; that is, if both are tuned in the same key.”

Meret Oppenheim, Gloves, 1942-45/1985. Photo: The Swedenborg Society.

Occupying two rooms in the society’s Georgian brick building, the exhibition appears low-key. Curious objects are given plenty of space, as if to acknowledge their supersensory dimension. In a display case, a small round box containing what are allegedly parts of Swedenborg’s ear bone lies open. The object is simultaneously a relic and a medium for vibrations – specifically for the sound waves carried to the inner ear – and thus becomes a handy symbol for Swedenborg’s efforts to unite religious and scientific speculation. Beside it is a stack of old newsletters to members of The New Church – the Christian movement Swedenborg inspired – and in a corner stands a metal box which, according to the list of works, previously contained photographs documenting the return of Swedenborg’s remains to Sweden from London in 1908.

Three works of art engage in conversation with the archival objects in the room. One of Yayoi Kusama’s 1,500 mirror balls from the work Narcissus Garden (1966–2001) is placed at the top of a display case containing three shelves. In the middle is a stereotype of The Infinite and the Final Cause of Creation (1734), Swedenborg’s continuation of the ideas presented in Tremulations, and at the bottom is a round mirror. Swedenborg was interested in the circle as form, both in nature and metaphysics, and another round mirror can be found in a display case containing Meret Oppenheim’s Gloves (1942–45/1985) – a pair of blue leather gloves with an embroidered and silk-screened motif of the hand’s blood vessels – placed on top of the aforementioned volume.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Phantoms of Nabua (2009) is screened in a darkened room. The visually striking short film is set in the filmmaker’s hometown in the north of Thailand and shows a group of teenagers playing football with a burning ball in a scene beset by lightning and thunder and flashes from various light sources. The box propping up the projector is covered in mirrors, reflecting the hypnotising light. Light is also a prominent component in a Youtube video simulating Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs’s Dreamachine (1997) – a light and sound simulation intended to create hypnagogic hallucinations – and a version of the very first live broadcast of a TV drama screened on John Logie Baird’s 30-line television set in 1930. As there is no surviving record of the broadcast, which showed a performance of Luigi Pirandello’s play The Man with the Flower in His Mouth (1922), the re-enactment shown in the exhibition is from 1967.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Phantoms of Nabua, 2009. Still from video.

The use of sensory technology is brought into the present with VR works, which can be experienced in a separate room where chairs equipped with headsets are arranged in a circle. The first part of the exhibition, which is the one I saw, is the world premiere of Mark Leckey’s The Bridge (2023). The work takes its starting point in the artist’s childhood memory of a bridge under a motorway, which has also been the subject of several of his previous works – including the large installation O’ Magic Power of Bleakness at Tate Britain in 2019. As I put on the VR headset, I exited a car underneath this bridge. Amidst a mysterious green and pink natural setting, a unicorn, dark-clad figures, and stars were among the things that appeared before I was lifted “upwards” while the surrounding landscape shattered and was transformed into a glitter-like texture. The work is surprisingly captivating, and despite its obvious artificiality, it feels rather like a genuine and poignant experience of nature.

While the connection between VR and the experience economy can hardly be ignored, Leckey here demonstrates the technology’s potential to generate truly sublime experiences – an eloquent manifestation of what I perceive as the exhibition’s quest to set objects and technologies free from a strictly material frame of experience. The analogue part of the exhibition also seems to involve an oscillation between earthly and spiritual added value. There is a clear discrepancy between the modest staging of the works – emphasised by how they are juxtaposed with Swedenborg’s thinking – and the historical importance of the artists with which they are associated. Names such as Marcel Duchamp (who is featured in the next instalment of the exhibition), Meret Oppenheim, and Yayoi Kusama undoubtedly bear metaphysical qualities of their own – informed by the artists’ positions in a complex value cycle – which makes their works more than the sum of material properties.

In Tremulations, Swedenborg’s metaphysics serves as a model for how to relate to objects in ways that reinforce a sense of reverence and appreciation of what lies beyond appearance. The exhibition’s primary merit is perhaps making visible how the profane object relationship that a contemporary art space administers does not entail a complete eradication of our capacity for mystification. In terms of value, it matters little whether the intimations of ecstasy that I experience in Tremulations are the result of esoteric thinking, VR simulations, or a responsiveness to a historical and market canon. In Birnbaum’s cosmology, no alliances between matter and spirit seem impossible.

Mark Leckey, The Bridge, 2023. Still from VR video.