Chicago

View of “Annie Besant,” 2015–16.

View of “Annie Besant,” 2015–16.

Annie Besant

Stony Island Arts Bank

View of “Annie Besant,” 2015–16.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev stages unorthodox discussions about art and its place in the world. Consider the fact that she organized last year’s Istanbul Biennial around the notion of the “thought form,” a concept that was mostly sidestepped by the critics who attended the show. They can be forgiven. After all, this esoteric term coined by members of the Theosophical movement in the late nineteenth century doesn’t figure in the critical vocabularies we learn in graduate school, unless perhaps we are studying comparative religion. But however uninformed or skeptical of it we may be today, theosophy held considerable sway a century ago, when many thousands of people signed on to meditate and reform society through a new model of spirituality. The movement counted among its ranks a number of artists, including Kandinsky, who embraced the power of thought forms as their painting grew increasingly abstract.

At Stony Island Arts Bank, Christov-Bakargiev gave the contemporary viewer a second chance to consider the thought form, through the life and work of one of its greatest proponents, the English feminist and theosophist Annie Besant. According to theosophy, a thought form is a concentration of invisible, vibrating energy generated by a thinker on the mental, astral (emotional), or Buddhic (spiritual) plane, but it can only be glimpsed as an embodied entity when its generator is in a state of heightened awareness. An intellectual thought manifests as a distinct, often colorless form, while a thought form arising from emotion or spiritual devotion vibrates in a different register, possessing a “splendid light and color,” as Besant wrote, that corresponds to its qualities. Thought forms can be transmitted in waves to influence the well-being and moods of others, whether they’re aware of it or not. Occasionally the thought form will transfer perfectly to the receiver, but only when both parties are precisely attuned. More commonly, as Besant would explain, an existential gap exists between the experience of the initiator and his attempted expression of this “inner resonance,” as Kandinsky called it.

Besant’s 1901 Thought-Forms, coauthored with the clairvoyant C. W. Leadbeater, features luminous, abstract images, many generated by Besant herself and rendered in gouache in collaboration with artists. Each figure is intended to convey a different emotion or spiritual state: One, for instance, depicts a warm, carmine-colored “cloud of pure affection”; another,a radiating pink manifestation of “love to all beings.” The drawings attempt to make real what can only be imagined, though Besant warns that neither these images nor any artistic expression can adequately duplicate how a thought form is experienced. To dramatize this disconnect, the show included a series of dialectical exchanges between original and copy, prompted by the recent discovery of twenty-one of the original gouaches published in the book. Long believed missing, they were discovered last October in Varanasi, India. The originals were not available for this exhibition, so Christov-Bakargiev installed photographs of the old drawings in a vitrine, as though the documentation itself was precious treasure. Indeed, just about everything in the exhibition proved to be a copy of something else—from photographs of absent originals, to printed offset copies of those originals framed and hung as original works of art, to handmade painted copies of those offset copies, refreshed with heightened color and detail by the Danish artist Lea Porsager, her hand ostensibly guided by the long-deceased Besant.

The point to this conceptual exertion seemed to be simply to ask us to consider its effects. These multiple iterations of the images suggested the radiating waves that propel a thought form from one thinker to another. Yet the more one stayed in the mirrored land of copies, the more one yearned for the “authentic” (whatever this might be). The cumulative experience made this viewer, at least, long to stand before Kandinsky’s superb Painting with Green Center, 1913, at the Art Institute of Chicago, in the hope that it would kindle a few choice gleams from the astral realm. Surely Besant would have understood: Among the many thought forms generated for her book is a buoyant one meant to convey the “delighted appreciation of a beautiful picture.”

Susan Bielstein