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Issue 220

The Healing Effect of Emma Kunz’s Drawings

A group show at Aargauer Kunsthaus demonstrates that the late Swiss researcher’s interest in alternative knowledge strikes a chord with a new generation of artists

BY Chloe Stead in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 08 APR 21

Despite being the author of around 500 works on paper, Swiss healer and researcher Emma Kunz, who died in 1963, didn’t consider her large-scale drawings – currently the focus of a group exhibition at Aargauer Kunsthaus – to be art. Rather, she created them using a pendulum and consulted their geometric patterns during healing sessions with clients in a bid to divine the causes and treatments of a variety of illnesses. Also known for creating tinctures and preparations from plants, herbs and minerals, Kunz’s holistic and cross-disciplinary practice, as this extensive exhibition shows, strikes a chord with a generation of contemporary artists interested in alternative knowledge and histories.

Mai-Thu Perret, Untitled (after no. 067), 2020, neon signs, 3.5 × 47 m. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Francesca Pia, Zurich; photograph: Conradin Frei, Zürich 

Spread across 13 rooms, ‘Emma Kunz Cosmos’ places 60 of the Aargau-born visionary’s drawings alongside works by 15 contemporary artists. The result is a mix of previously existing pieces with resonant themes and new commissions inspired directly by Kunz’s life and work. Even the most literal contributions, such as Mai-Thu Perret’s Untitled (after no. 067), (2020), a striking neon version of Kunz’s Work no. 067 (undated), offers a fresh take on its subject material. As the last in a trilogy of neon works – with the initial two works inspired by Hilma af Klint and Agnes Martin – Perret’s sculpture envisages Kunz as a part of a sisterhood of abstract painters. A similar feminist historical reimagining is at play in the sculptures of Goshka Macuga, who places Kunz – represented by a vase in the shape of her head (Emma Kunz, 2020) – in dialogue with the controversial Russian spiritualist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky whose cloaked body levitates between two nearby chairs (Madame Blavatsky, 2007).

Goshka Macuga, Emma Kunz, 2020, rubber casting, 29 × 25.5 × 27 cm. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Conradin Frei, Zürich 

Some of the most compelling contributions, however, are those that relate to Kunz’s legacy as a healer. In the museum’s courtyard, Lauryn Youden’s Peering through a Half-Open Door (2021) is made out of limestone from the Emma Kunz Grotto in Würenlos, which Kunz believed had healing properties and ground it into a powder she called AION A. With its focus on non-traditional medicine as a gateway to possible relief, Youden’s installation, which also contains an audio piece featuring electromagnetic waves emitted from the grotto, continues the crip queer artist’s own research into survival strategies for living with chronic illness.

Lauryn Youden, Peering through a Half-Open Door, 2021, sandstone from the Roman quarry, Würenlos, black Plexiglas, black foil, dimension variable. Courtesy: the artist 

Elsewhere, an entire gallery is given over to Rivane Neuenschwander’s The Name of Fear (2013–ongoing), a collaborative project in which the artist holds workshops with school children. In these sessions the children’s fears – from atomic power plants to the coronavirus – are discussed, drawn, and then subsequently used by a designer as inspiration for a charming set of superhero capes that in Aargau are strung up across the exhibition space like protective amulets.

Can art heal? In an interview published in the exhibition’s catalogue Neuenschwander doesn’t seem so sure: ‘I believe in the transformative power of a project like this. However, to speak of healing seems somewhat pretentious to me.’ Although the artist’s opinion might initially seem to go against the premise of the exhibition, it actually reflects that of Kunz, who described herself as a researcher above all and rejected the use of the word ‘miracle’ because she believed that such healing powers and abilities that lay dormant in everyone. As ‘Emma Kunz Cosmos’ successfully demonstrates, her legacy isn’t one of remedies and cures, but investigations and studies. What makes Kunz’s drawings contemporary is that they are – despite the esoteric way they came into being – inherently social, building a cosmos that can be used as inspiration for all those seeking alternative ways of being in and of the world.

‘Emma Kunz Cosmos’ is on view at Aargauer Kunsthaus until 24 May 2021.

Main image: Emma Kunz, work no. 333 (detail), undated, coloured pencil and oil pastel on blue graph paper, 106 × 105 cm. Courtesy: Emma Kunz Stiftung, Würenlos 

Chloe Stead is assistant editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.