LONDON — Entering the Serpentine Gallery from the cacophony of Hyde Park feels otherworldly. Apart from occasional whispers, camera shutter sounds, and visitors’ footsteps moving through the constellation of rooms, there is no noise. I’m sitting in the Gallery’s central domed chamber; its concentric structure parallels the symmetrically arranged, abstract geometric drawings that hang on the walls around me. The drawings’ colorful, repetitive shapes fan out from centerpoints, like quatrefoils in Christian churches. Every single one is satisfying to look at, and the Gallery’s quiet, cathedral-like atmosphere enhances their ethereal quality.
The exhibition, Visionary Drawings, tells the story of Emma Kunz (1892–1963), a Swiss healer and spiritualist. Her works were only exhibited after her death, and she herself believed that her art was destined to be viewed by later generations. In the last few years, her drawings have been shown alongside the works of artists such as Hilma af Klint and Agnes Martin; however, Kunz’s practice does not easily fit into the history of the development of abstraction. Perhaps this is because art in itself was not her primary occupation; she considered it a means for the exploration of the astral plane.
Just over 40 drawings are displayed in the show, which constitutes a small portion of Kunz’s legacy. Although she didn’t incorporate art-making into her spiritual practice until her forties, she managed to produce hundreds of works. Each one acts as a portal between the earthly realm and the transcendent realm. Spreading out on checkered sheets of graph paper, these “energy field” drawings have an intricate but technical look to them. They were made with a technique called radiesthesia, in which the artist used a divining pendulum to plot the compositions. At times, Kunz would work on them continuously for almost 24 hours, and she considered them to have the potential to give different readings at different times.
More than anything else, Kunz was a naturopath and advocate of a holistic worldview. Her lifelong search for the divine in the natural world sometimes contradicted the laws of science, but also reflected her extraordinary sensitivity. Her drawings reflect her beliefs about the universe, as in “Work no.12,” which is often called “Philosophy of Life.” This diagram is based on two intersecting axes, forming a crucifix; at the center is a human, acted upon by cosmic forces. The vertical axis represents a path to enlightenment, while the horizontal one symbolically positions man between evil on the left and good on the right. While the particularities of Kunz’s symbolism might not be apparent at first glance, the drawings seem to emanate a healing power. Their meditative capacity lies in their dynamic presentation, showing both micro and macro perspectives on the world.
Around the outbreak of the Second World War, Kunz made a drawing, “No. 20”: dozens of red rays fanned in a circle, intersected by two sets of thick black lines. While creating the work, Kunz asked her pendulum about the future of world affairs and outcomes of political negotiations. According to her contemporaries, she predicted that the US would develop a weapon with the potential to destroy the world — a prediction often thought to be related to the atomic bombs detonated in Japan in 1945.
Only when I’m halfway through the exhibition do I realize that Kunz’s drawings are not the only artworks on display. Intersecting the space like commas are six benches made by the Greek artist Christodoulos Panayiotou (b.1978, Limassol, Cyprus). In Panayiotou’s practice, materials are usually loaded with cultural, historical or political meaning. The benches he created for Visionary Drawings are made of AION A, a mineral that Emma Kunz discovered in a Roman quarry in Würenlos, Switzerland, which was later named the Emma Kunz Zentrum and Grotto. Kunz believed this stone possessed magnetic, therapeutic powers that could boost health and relieve all sorts of pains, and she named it AION A after the Greek word for “without limitation.” AION A is still sold in Swiss pharmacies, in the Serpentine Gallery, and is promoted by curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Panayiotou’s benches are in a silent dialogue with Kunz’s drawings; like these drawings, they have a practical purpose. Instead of distracting from the works, they serve as viewing devices.
Emma Kunz: Visionary Drawings transforms the Serpentine Gallery into a refuge from the fast-paced London life. By tracing Kunz’s colorful, precise lines across checked paper, one might feel transported to a divine realm. Leaving the gallery, I felt that, through her art, Emma Kunz managed to share with me a small portion of her special gift of sensing networks of mutual influences and non-empirical forces. Walking back into Hyde Park, I begin to understand how the artist considered her connection to her environment to be a form of spirituality.
Emma Kunz – Visionary Drawings: An exhibition conceived with Christodoulos Panayiotou, curated by Melissa Blanchflower and Natalia Grabowska, is on view at the Serpentine Gallery (Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA) through May 19, 2019.