Making Sense of Shifting Reality Through Art and Spirituality

By Reena Devi

In her third piece for GRC exploring global public spaces, Reena Devi ventures into the spiritual and mystical realm through art. Beginning with the hermetic paintings of Hilma Af Klint (and her widely attended retrospective) to artists of our time and their predilection for understanding spirituality through art, Reena looks at this exploration of human consciousness in our contemporary age of rapid development and decline.

Daily life of Azazel-San, Lu Yang, 2019. Image courtesy of Lu Yang.

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When I was 30 years old and trying to figure out if it was remotely possible to lead a meaningful, impactful life on my own terms, as opposed to society’s dictates, I wound up in Tokyo, Japan. There, I took to visiting many of the city’s shrines, from ones located in quiet neighbourhoods to those in major shopping districts such as Meiji Jingu.

Surrounded by crowds seeking New Year blessings, observing the characteristic Shinto or Buddhist architecture, iconology, and deities, while absorbing the rich spiritual and cultural history, I finally found my sense of self. It was no spiritual awakening, but rather, the beginning of something potent and infinite that took root within, that slowly but surely began to suffuse my life, till today.

Now you must be thinking, why is this brash millennial arts journalist who interacts regularly with the highly affluent art world and decompresses with a good meal at Marina Bay, Singapore, going on about shrines and spirituality like an ascetic in a Himalayan mountain cave?

The truth is I’m not the only one.

There is a growing sense that the solace we seek for the issues we grapple with, both on an individual and global level—climate change, political unrest, dehumanising technology, mental health, and social ennui—can be found in ancient spiritual practices and ideas. This has never been more apparent than in our online space, through social media, apps, and lifestyle brands, which have rendered previously “counterculture” notions such as tarot cards, reiki, astrology, numerology, fengshui and more, mainstream. (There is an argument to be made about how only the privileged can afford spiritual exploration but this warrants a piece of its own.)

Art is also increasingly becoming an important way of processing this need for something lofty and esoteric, yet internal and distinct to each of us in our 21st century world of disparity and disruption.

New York museum Guggenheim’s most-attended exhibition of all time was this year’s Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, a survey show of the Swedish mystic painter born in 1982. The museum reported 600,000 exhibition visitors from October 2018 to April 2019, four days before its closing.

Af Klint’s abstract paintings filled with esoteric shapes and astrological symbols were inspired by “female-centered spiritualist spaces”. She was part of a group of women called the Five who used to go into trance states and carry out channelling with a psychograph. She also drew inspiration from the Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians, a classic European occult literature published in 1785 about an alleged secret order exploring ancient mystic traditions and alchemy.

Her work was shrouded in secrecy as she insisted it would only be revealed when the world was ready. Her art, which began to draw attention in the 80s, was not even recognised as part of the art historical canon as recently as 6 years ago and is only now critically acclaimed.

Why now though? The answer lies in the parallels between our time and the time she lived and created her art.

The fact is Af Klint was not alone in her spiritual exploration and fascination with the occult. She was part of a larger movement in Western cultural history known as Theosophy, a New Age philosophy founded in 1875 involving “advocacy of a universal brotherhood of man; interest in non-Western philosophy and religion as a source of renewing wisdom; and a belief in communing with ghosts.”

These ideas took root, especially amongst the intellectuals and creatives, because the 19th century was a time of “concussive changes” with the telephone, electric light, telegraph, and other types of technology changing people’s everyday lives while shifting their paradigm all at once. Sound familiar?

Over the past decade alone, seismic developments in the public sphere, especially in technology, have upended the way we live on a daily basis, including the way we perceive and process our individual and collective lives—in other words, the very nature of our consciousness.

Marc Glimcher, the president and chief executive of Pace Gallery which opened its New York outpost this year with a shaman blessing, told The Art Newspaper that there is a “growth in search for an expansion of consciousness today” and artists are most likely to recognise and articulate this before the rest of society.

The same article also reported on the rise of the esoteric during Frieze, an international contemporary art fair, and concurrent exhibitions in London this year. For example, internationally renowned British artist Damien Hirst’s show at leading art gallery White Cube was inspired by mandalas.

In fact, over the past few years, major contemporary art exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale (2017 edition in particular), São Paulo Biennial, and Whitney Biennial have reportedly moved towards exploring “forms of collectivity, self-care, shamanic rites”.

More recently, from October 2019 to March 2020, MAXXI, the national museum of contemporary art in Rome, Italy, is organising an exhibition titled On The Spiritual Matter of Art. Featuring leading figures from the contemporary art world such as Shirin Neshat, the exhibition explores the following questions: what does it mean today to talk about spirituality? Where does spirituality fit into a world dominated by digital and technological culture and an ultra-deterministic mentality? Is there still a spiritual dimension underpinning the demands of art?

Predictably, commodification of this burgeoning interest is not something the art world is shying away from either. London art gallery Sadie Coles HQ sold gems and minerals with “healing” propensity at its pop-up show during the aforementioned Frieze week with American artist Andrea Zittel.


Images: Hilm Af Klint Exhibition at Guggenheim. Image courtesy of Guggenheim. & Daily life of Azazel-San, Lu Yang, 2019. Image courtesy of Lu Yang.

Such attempts to place all-encompassing, esoteric practices, objects, and ideas within parameters of consumerism, online culture, and contemporary society have intrigued artists in our part of the world. Chinese artist Lu Yang is known for her use of diverse religious iconography melded with quintessential online aesthetic and imagery in works described as a “cosmological cocktail”. Her recent paintings are no exception. In Daily life of Azazel-San (2019), the artist used the imagery of Hindu deity Vishnu’s avatar Narasimha to provide the physicality of Azrael, the Angel of Death in Islam and Jewish lore, going about his daily life in his palace.

Closer to home, the exploration of the spiritual through art by Asian millennial artists such as Lu Yang, Tianzhuo Chen, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Ruben Pang, Tsuyoshi Hisakado was highlighted by Singaporean curator Khai Hori in his essay ‘Spiritually Millennial’ and a talk of the same title at the Asia Now Paris Asian Art Fair in France this year. He pointed out that “artists of the millennia (are) returning to art as mystics, contemplating personal and social salvation, as if in a search for hope, impassioned human connections and the magic of divinity”.

The evidence is insurmountable. The spiritual realm has proven to be irresistible in times of great transformation and uncertainty throughout the course of human history. Our time of technological upheaval, ecological crisis, and social division is no exception. Meanwhile, art seems to be an intriguing lens for exploring this confluence of contemporary and ancient, especially as we move into even more unchartered terrain.

This year, a 400 year old temple in Kyoto, Japan, used an A.I. robot  to deliver pre-programmed sermons from the Heart Sutras, a Buddhist text, to visitors. This is another crucial step in the long and arduous road exploring the depths of our consciousness, perhaps even unlocking the answer to the question we have grappled with our entire existence—what does it mean to be human?

Art and spirituality in the 21st century could be the very key to this mystery.

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