The Edge of Beyond
ACUTE ART DIRECTOR DANIEL BIRNBAUM IN CONVERSATION WITH ARTIST R. H. QUAYTMAN
The pioneering artist Hilma af Klint secretly spent years visualising the intangible. Now virtual reality is having a turn.
As one of the world’s most prominent curators and director of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, Daniel Birnbaum found himself as something of a Hilma af Klint ambassador – ‘the pioneer of abstract art that turned away from visible reality’. Written into her will that her progressive works would not be made public until at least 20 years after her death, that she was bypassed as a pioneer of early 20th century abstract art before Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich was perhaps inevitable. But she was in fact playing the long game, having herself spent the last decades of her life processing what she’d done. The world had to catch up.
The American artist R. H. Quaytman has long been a fan of the artist exploring hidden dimensions – since the 1980s, in fact, a time the idea of an af Klint retrospective at the Guggenheim would have seemed as unfathomable as her canvasses. In 2018 (running through 2019), it happened – and Quaytman was invited to create a (much lauded) show in response, working with the particular geometry of the building.
When Birnbaum left his role at the Moderna Museet last winter to join the virtual, augmented and mixed realities experimental hub Acute Art, it was seen as a bold move. For the man who has versed himself in af Klint rigorously, perhaps the ultimate move is pushing so uncompromisingly into the unknown.
Quaytman has worked to create her own VR experience, placing af Klint emblems into an immersive realm. Whilst the digital technology is so cutting-edge even the company is still working out exactly what it is, where it sits and how, in the future, we get there.
Daniel Birnbaum We start with your piece in virtual reality, for most of us an entirely new technology, shown as part of the program called Electric that I put together. A very basic question: what is it?
R. H. Quaytman Well, that’s the whole thing that became very deep and complicated to understand what it is, exactly, as an artwork. I began to think of it more as a kind of drawing.
DB It’s almost like you enter Hilma af Klint’s temple. One enters into her art rather than looking at her art, so to say. I mean she often refers to her key works – 193 paintings – as if it would be one piece, her temple. But you’ve been interested in her long before she became a well-known artist in a more mainstream world.
Recently, you exhibited +X, Chapter 34, in tandem with this big af Klint retrospective, a very successful show actually, at the Guggenheim in New York. As someone who has also worked on af Klint, I would say in many ways it felt like a homecoming because the building seems to have rules that are compatible with af Klint’s own rules.
There’s some sort of esoteric philosophical thinking that has to do with logarithmic spirals and whatnot.
When you first hinted at doing something with this new medium that I’m working with, you said that you had the feeling af Klint was working with dimensions that aren’t totally visible in the actual physical paintings. This sounds very speculative but I’ve thought it could be that certain artists actually had some sort of prophetic capacity, not in the old romantic sense but in trying to do things that aren’t quite possible because the technologies don’t exist yet. I remember that in Walter Benjamin’s famous text on reproduction, there is the claim that some artists are actually anticipating things that can only be done in the next art form.
RHQ I do think her work was prophetic but I wanted to see it without the mysticism – to look at her work, you know, the way Mondrian or Malevich or Kandinsky might be analysed. Luckily there’s a lot of information in her notebook.I focused on one notebook in particular (#1179) and tried to use it to decode the unfolding geometry. It was in this close reading that it seemed to be describing a process in time and space. That’s why I thought VR would be a good tool to try and analyse her work – also VR interests me because I’ve always been interested in the history of perspective. I did a lot of reading into the history of diagrams and relationship to science and maths. It interests me how very complicated facts in physics and science are explained diagrammatically. So I felt it would be so great to try to build a diagram and see what that feels like – make feelings facts.
DB Hilma af Klint is often described as a mystic, but on the other hand she was also a very meticulous, scientifically oriented person. So if she was a mystic, she was almost like a mathematical mystic – and there are other examples of that, actually, in that little program I put together. We also have a virtual reality rendering of Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass, and Duchamp was famously interested in occult forms of mathematics – those things were very fashionable.
So actually almost at the same time as af Klint was doing her work, he was a member of this group called Section d’Or, the Golden Ratio, and they were speculating about non-Euclidean dimensions.
RHQ But Malevich was a mystic also. We still don’t get overwhelmed by that claim to also see other things in his work. And the reason it’s important is because I want to use it, you know, or learn from it – what does it do? How does it enact an image? Or how different were her ideas vis-à-vis geometry and how do those different approaches to thinking through diagramming an idea help me get beyond our current cul-de-sac? I guess, I thought of VR as a way to think about painting.
DB This makes me think of other examples of artists who somehow have premonitions or who actually in their work anticipate visual and creative possibilities that aren’t yet maybe fully available. There has been talk of Jorge Luis Borges’ stories as somehow anticipating hypertext fiction. And I heard a lecture about how Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was actually in a way anticipating cinematic imagination before there was film.
RHQ I heard that. It was the first time in the history of story telling, let alone film, that a story began at the end. Another spiral.
DB Af Klint was discovered in the late 1980s and you did something with her in the 80s, right?
RHQ I think it was ’89. Maybe ’88. My father, who went to Sweden to show his work with Nordenhake, found out about her work through Åke Fant and he knew I would love it – because I do tend to like the history of geometric abstraction in general. And I did need a few more female heroines. Also, like me, she combines
representation with abstraction. I love that her work is open to think about, in a way, while I find some art of that period is not. It’s been amazing to see her sure but steady rise.
DB You paint in series, or chapters you call them, where you often revisit moments in modernist imagination. How did that start?
RHQ Her concept of all her work being one was what gave me the first idea of chapters. That idea stuck in my mind as a good to use in opposition to what the art world and the whole system makes – dictates – about the individual art object and the schedules of it: shows and so on. I liked her idea to take the accent off the individual painting. As a way to retain one’s own work. [Laughs].
DB What number is the af Klint chapter?
RHQ 34. The Chapters started in 2001, later in life like her – she started around 40, making the work that we think of as her main body of work. After those 10 years of intense production she spent the next 20 or so years of her life trying to understand what she had done. I became especially interested in the later work which I hadn’t had access to before. The way the notebooks are so carefully laid out – you realise they’re trying to get at something in motion, because of the geometry and how the geometry relates to the edge of her canvasses or images. They always push out a little beyond.
DB Way back, I remember reading one of the earlier negative reviews of af Klint. Hilton Kramer dismissed her work as just diagrams depicting some sort of cult science.
RHQ I remember getting into an argument with Pontus Hultén about it at the Institut des Hautes Études in Paris in ’89. He felt strongly she simply wasn’t an artist.
DB But now diagram has become a very positively charged word in certain theoretical forms of writing. I read a definition of it: it’s in the nature of the diagram to be abstract yet representational, it’s a way of coding information pictorially that is not dependent on naturalism, though realistic elements are readily incorporated into its symbolic vocabulary. So it’s abstract but it can still depict the world or processes in the world.
RHQ Yes. That’s what I intuited about her. I liked the art historian Hanne Loreck’s essay called Spiritual Alphabetism in which I think she tries to take what she’s doing in these paintings quite seriously as a formal issue, not a mystical issue.
DB And also Briony Fer. Briony is very interested in them being some sort of ecstatic diagrams, I mean she actually says that they are diagrams of visionary process that should be situated within an ecstatic rather than a rationalist paradigm.
RHQ I really wish that geometric drawings were incorporated more into art education or museum education. Understanding the incredible symmetries feels like magic when you start just doing basic things, like how to draw an oval for example. The mathematics of a spiral and all these kinds of things are embedded beautifully in her work because she was so well educated with science and maths, and interested in trying to understand biology, botany and flora and fauna. I think that’s also a very important thing to think about. And atoms, she loved the idea of atoms. These things forced me to scramble for quick science updates. I did a lot of reading about the history of physics and what’s happening with maths.
DB One would maybe think that you are a rather unlikely artist to experiment with this new medium, virtual reality – you’re not an artist who comes from video installations. My understanding is that you want to go beyond the object, or the picture, to create an environments that you can inhabit. Since you’re a writer, a painter, a historian of sorts, I’m very fascinated with this piece that you’ve done because it has nothing to do with the kind of spectacle that VR actually easily becomes.
RHQ I used it more as a tool to try to understand if there was a way to look at her ideas, or start thinking about them the way an artist would think about looking at another artist’s ideas. What are they doing? What is the model they’re making? VR seems to offer this as a useful tool.
DB I like it a lot because it’s not overwhelming. You’re in the space and for a microsecond you wonder: ‘Where is it?’ You look up and see some spiral disappearing in the sky. It’s very geometrical and very sparse and I guess mathematical is a good word, because that’s the feeling you have. But then suddenly you introduce pictorial or emblematic elements. There are two swans. Why did you pick them?
RHQ Well that was from the notebook that I started analysing for the show. I really examined that notebook. It began with this fight between two swans. A black one and a white one. It seemed like they had sex and then something terrible happened. It was very violent. It culminates in the beautiful DNA spiral. It’s incredible that she sees that then! That really was prophetic.
DB At the Guggenheim I almost felt that the spiralling movement of the individual works continued in the building itself. That’s what made it so special.
RHQ Also, a spiral is very VR. It’s in every direction but you need to have a direction. Having to start work on this VR was so confusing because where are you as the artist? We can’t do the programming or the drawing exactly. And you don’t even know what it’s going to feel like. What is the goal? Is there a goal? There’s so many questions in VR that I hadn’t even thought about before I started doing it.
DB I think it’s somehow typical of when a new visual medium appears. I mean, when photography appeared one didn’t know if it was science or occult science, or if it would kill painting. There were all these confusions.
RHQ The question of photography being a mortal blow to painting is still open. There is always a confusion of where is the artist and I think that’s still very much an open question in VR: where is the artist? And it does seem, for art at least, that is a poignant question.
DB Totally. This is still very early in VR, and we will find out. I was just at a conference in Germany on virtual reality and other such technologies and Sanford Kwinter, who used to edit at Zone Books back in the 1990s, gave expression to his – what do you call it when you have a love-hate relationship with something?
DB Exactly. Or ambiguity. That on the one hand there are experiences you can have in VR that are really some sort of sublime synthesis of subject and object coming together. I think he would love your piece because it’s really about that, all the dualisms coming together. On the other hand, we observed from the outside with these ugly headsets. It is a really vulgar package that promises a sublime experience.
RHQ Well that’s the whole thing, you’re blindfolded. I think the whole problem of VR is a metaphor for the bigger problem of making art or thinking about art that I am faced with at least… Where are we located in space and time and all? If you really start to ingest what science tells us, it’s pretty virtual, don’t you think? Even the problem of how to envision 4D space, let alone 3D space. We’re realising with VR, it’s in your body, which is so interesting. So how to make vision with your body. And how quickly we want to leave the world behind. It is striking how easily we leave the room we are in and enter another one in the VR space. As if we want that.