Hilma af Klint died in 1944, but she may very well be the art world’s most successful breakout star of the last decade. Her mystical personal lore and status as one of Europe’s first abstract painters helped propel af Klint to the international acclaim she never witnessed during her lifetime. Given her late success, the artist’s work inevitably ascended into the digital realm with the launch of a controversial NFT project last year and, more recently, a virtual reality component.
Timed with the completion of af Klint’s seven-volume catalogue raisonné comprising more than 1,600 artworks, the VR “experience” is now open at Manhattan’s Fotografiska, where visitors can don a headset and see the artist’s work while experiencing the nauseating fear of falling from imaginary cliffs.
The goal of the 12-minute VR, as expressed by its creator Acute Art, is to construct the spiraling “temple” that af Klint not only wrote about but spent nine years creating paintings for. The idea, she said, came to her in a séance in 1906 during which she was commissioned by a high spirit to make art for a spiritual center. She was an avid believer in Rudolf Steiners Rosicrucian theosophy, a popular religion among upper-class circles of her time. With the help of the group she collaborated with, af Klint painted 193 canvases to line the walls of this location, which was never built. At first, the artist claimed she was painting as a medium and communicating spirits’ messages directly to the canvas. Later, af Klint said the spirits were delivering the group messages for them to interpret. It was around this time that they began peppering her works with symbolic and representational motifs, such as doves, snails, and overlapping circles signifying unity.
While af Klint’s body of work is rife with different iconographies, the VR experience begins with an oversized focus on just one — tiny squiggling figures that art historians have interpreted as sperm.
They swim around the viewer’s goggles like tadpoles, prompting a range of reactions among visitors during a launch event at Fotografiska last week. Some laughed aloud in their headsets and commented on the imagery to their friends nearby, speaking over the ethereal soundtrack that emanated from the goggles. The VR medium has been swept into a loose association with NFT bro culture; the enthusiastic school of sperm that appears at the very beginning of the video does little to challenge that stereotype.
Viewers are encouraged to rotate their heads in order to view other flying symbols, which include individual letters — “W,” for instance, means matter, according to Stockholm’s Modern Museet in af Klint’s native Sweden, and “U” represents a spirit. The viewer is flown through this digital stratosphere until they arrive a digital arms-length from the black dog in af Klint’s 1908 work “Evolution, No. 05,” a goofy-looking creature sitting like a human.
Tracey Bashkoff, the senior director of collections and senior curator at New York’s Guggenheim Museum who worked on the institution’s attendance record-breaking survey of the artist in 2018, explained that af Klint’s work is being actively and newly interpreted. “Even when Hilma herself writes about the words and the letters and the symbols in the work, she is very open-ended about that,” Bashkoff said during a talk at Fotografiska.
Eventually, the viewer arrives inside the temple, which stretches toward infinity and displays af Klint’s paintings along its white spiraling walls (much like at the Guggenheim). A pair of swans appears to dance in midair before retreating to two-dimensional resting places on the digital canvases, fitting into the artworks like puzzle pieces. While af Klint’s abstractions are meditative in their own right, the fast-moving VR experience makes it hard to stare at any one work long enough to reflect on it, and the artist’s individual symbols emerge as the most memorable parts of the 12-minute experience.
Af Klint was a student of Steiners Rosicrucian theosophy, established in 1904 within the Theosophical movement founded by Russian-American immigrant Helena Blavatsky in the second half of the 20th century. The melding of world religions attracted some of the time period’s most prolific creators, including T.S. Eliot, Sir Arthur Doyle (who wrote Sherlock Holmes), L. Frank Baum (author of The Wizard of Oz), and Vassily Kandinsky, long considered the first abstract artist before af Klint’s work earned a scholarly glance. Blavatsky established the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in India and was later discredited when it came to light that the miracles she claimed were proof of spirits were in fact just poorly executed magic tricks.
With its $31 tickets, faux-fancy carpeted floors, wallpapered galleries, and location down the block from the New York Harry Potter Experience, Fotografiska feels a world away from a “temple.” No contextualizing information, in the form of wall labels, for example, is available to viewers after they remove their headsets. Without background knowledge, the VR experience turns af Klint’s theosophical fixations into nonsensical doodles.
Af Klint stipulated that her spiritual works would not be exhibited until 20 years after her death. It’s been nearly 80, and of course the artist couldn’t predict the emergence of a technology like VR. In its silliness and somewhat underdeveloped graphics, “The Temple” treats the artist’s individual artworks with a playful nonchalance, even if she took her theosophical symbolism with the utmost seriousness. The feeling of flying through a VR landscape that appears to stretch on forever feels a bit like magic, which might reflect the spiritual mysticism af Klint practiced in her lifetime, but the experience makes it hard to connect with the majestic quality that exists within each of af Klint’s individual canvases.