In the unlikely setting of the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank in Manhattan, seeping into the ceilings, floors, walls, and recesses of the hall, projections of Gustav Klimt’s paintings are now set on an hour-long loop. Built between 1909 and 1912, the bank’s interior retains many of its original decorative elements, which include elegant glass panels, patterned limestone carvings, and brass detailing. Contrary to what its facade seems to convey about what happens inside — mysterious and important affairs of the economy and the state — people inside are huddled and seated in clusters on the ground and on chairs in darkness, hushed and sedated by a carousing Johann Strauss waltz.

The immersive experience Gustav Klimt: Gold in Motion opened in New York City in mid-September. Included in the exhibition are some of Klimt’s best-known paintings, such as “Judith and the Head of Holofernes,” his famous 1901 contribution to that famous biblical theme in painting; “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” his 1907 painting of the Jewish Viennese socialite who he represented several times in his work; and, of course, “The Kiss” (1907–1908). Some of his images that translate best to the immersive format are less iconic, like an impressionistic, textural painting of a fecund apple tree, and focused details of his 1902 “Beethoven Frieze.”

Klimt’s paintings populate the walls, columns, floors, and ceilings of the bank.

Guests who streamed in on a recent Friday afternoon came from all over. Two mothers visiting from Maryland said they learned about the exhibition from their adolescent children, who sat near them. “It’s mesmerizing,” one of them said, and expressed interest in doing more immersive art experiences. Two young women from New York who seemed to be immersive art veterans listed this show, and Artechouse in Chelsea, as among their favorites of all time. Everyone I spoke with indicated that they had found out about Gold in Motion online or on Instagram.

With Klimt immersified, movement is key, something the exhibition’s creators must have focused on when titling the show Gold in Motion. Klimt’s apple tree is no longer a static tree but a living organism with leaves sprouting up profusely to fill the space. The houses in Klimt’s painting of a village steadily rise from the ground up the Emigrant’s limestone pillars and walls. The garment around Adele Bloch-Bauer’s shoulders expands to wrap around her more fully before exploding into a million tiny pieces. 

With immersion and animation, one doesn’t have to know where to look in a gallery, or what to notice in a confounding work of art. To be completely surrounded and to be fully engaged by continuous change permits willful surrender, something visitors were evidently embracing, transfixed by the sequence that played. And at $30 per adult ticket, Gold in Motion is slightly more affordable than the steeper $39.99 to $69.99 adult ticket price that the Immersive Van Gogh that visited New York City last year commanded. (Pricing for that exhibition depended on variables like timing and ticket package.)

Some Egon Schiele paintings, such as “The Embrace,” were also included in Gold in Motion. Klimt was one of Schiele’s artistic mentors.

Hall des Lumières, a new permanent digital arts center in New York spearheaded by the French private culture and heritage company Culturespaces, is responsible for the reimagination of this historic bank’s foyer into an immersive digital art space. What would Klimt — who was himself a student of architectural painting and whose early art involved representing architectural ornamentation, interiors, and ceilings — have thought of this creative repurposing? 

On one hand, he may have rolled his eyes at a number of choices the creative team behind the exhibition made. A suite of Romantic greatest orchestral hits plays at loud volume, nakedly designed to rouse sentiment among crowds. A pair of contemporary immersive films ostensibly unrelated to the life, work, and legacy of Klimt are confusingly interspersed with his oeuvre. And photographs personally taken by the exhibition’s creative director collaged with Klimt’s paintings distract from the aims of a show that need not pretend to be documentary or educational.

Visitors say they were “mesmerized” by the experience.

On the other, Klimt might have found it pleasing for the staid financial institution to be supplanted by his unruly, erotic pictures, which liberated gold from its utilitarian function to signify so much more. The exhibition is an unlikely addition to the area around City Hall in Tribeca — a decadent dead zone that is an embarrassment of Beaux Arts and Art Deco architectural riches visited by no one. One might be surprised to see tourists, girls in late summer floral dresses, and families with young children disappearing into the entrance of the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, a stately early 20th-century H-layout building armored in the same Indiana limestone that bedecks most buildings that surround it. Relaxed and happy, these visitors draw a stark contrast to the suited employees on the block who form a permanently eerie, spectral presence in the area.

“When I walked in, my heart started to pump. I got so excited,” said a woman from Westchester, accompanied by her daughter and her friend. “Maybe I’ve seen Klimt in museums, but I’ve just passed by them.” She said she liked seeing art in movement. 

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.

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