Secret, museum


Daria Pravda
The Electrical body, 2018–2021

Dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artist

Museum audiences of the first decades of the 21st century were introduced to esotericism in art by the western art establishment. In the mid 2000s, curator Daniel Birnbaum (former director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm) presented Swedish artist and mystic Hilma af Klint as a predecessor of abstractionism, spurring a series of successful exhibitions of the artist around the world, including at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In 2013, blackboards by the founder of anthroposophy Rudolf Steiner with illustrations to his seminars and the Thoth tarot deck by Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris made up an important part of The Encyclopedic Palace, the central exhibition of the 55th Venice Biennale, curated by Massimiliano Gioni.

Daria Pravda presents her own speculation on the esoteric. It does not reveal any “unknown pages” in the history of art but does offer a carefully crafted mystification focused on the activities of a secret society called Torus.

Pravda’s quasi-retro-futuristic installation with elements of steampunk tells a story that is supposedly set in St. Petersburg in the late 19th century. The fin de siècle was a period of technical progress, particularly in the use of electrical current, and also saw a large number of Russian intellectuals drawn to occultism. This was a time when spiritualists, anthroposophists, theosophists, freemasons, Tarot readers, anarcho-mystics, and healers set the cultural (and sometimes the political) agenda.

The protagonist of Pravda’s mystification, Torus founder and medium Elizaveta Dmitrievna Pribytkova, developed a special psychic technique, the result of which was understood as an awareness of a person’s own electromagnetic field and the ability to feel its lines of force in the form of a toroid. Later, members of the secret society traveled to the Arctic, where they vanished in the solar wind. Their disappearance without trace defied the laws of physics and could be interpreted as a breakthrough toward the singularity.

The shape of the electrical body resembles the structure of our world: both the Earth and the Sun have toroidal magnetospheres. Pribytkova’s aimed to discover and understand external parallels to internal experiences. Today, her search could be helped by psychoanalysis. The torus is one of the shapes that Jacques Lacan analyzes in his works on topology. The topology of the torus illustrates certain features of the structure of the subject. In the same way that in a torus its center of gravity falls outside its volume, so the center of the subject is located outside it; like the torus, the subject is de-centered, ex-centric. The central and the peripheral external sides of the torus are parts of an uninterrupted surface. These features illustrate the way in which psychoanalysis problematizes the difference between the “internal” and the “external”.

Pravda’s method (and her surname, which translates as “truth”) brings to mind the title of the autobiography of a key representative of the Leningrad underground art scene, Timur Novikov: Lie Only the Truth! However, her way of using invented characters to tell the story gravitates toward Moscow conceptualism and in particular resembles Elena Elagina’s Laboratory of Great Undertaking (1996), another example of the use of a female character to symbolize a utopian quest. In Laboratory, successful futurologist Olga Lepeshinskaya conducts scientific experiments in an attempt to extend the life of Soviet people.