Klimt in Virtual Reality | See Frederick Baker’s Klimt’s Magic Garden at the MAK

Frederick Baker’s tour de force Klimt’s Magic Garden premiers a work and a technology.

This is not the Klimt that launched a thousand place mats and filled the bottomless shelves of souvenir shops … This is Klimt as you have never seen him before. If indeed it is Klimt.

Frederick Baker, an Austro-British filmmaker and media all-rounder, has created something unique at the Museum für Angewandte Kunst (MAK, Museum of Applied Arts) that defies easy description. The museum’s publicity calls it variously an “experience” and an “experiment” – both partly fitting, but neither quite describing the whole. “Transported” is an over-used word in the world of art/entertainment, but for the price of admission and a few minutes of your time, you will truly find yourself in another, timeless place, Klimt’s Magic Garden as Baker has conjured it at the MAK. His starting point: Klimt’s 1910 oil sketches for a legendary set of mosaics at the Stoclet house in Brussels, now in the MAK’s collection. Lifting design elements from a high-res scan, Baker set about producing a virtual reality adventure in a world that never existed.

“Everybody thinks they know Klimt; I wanted to refresh their eyes,” Baker said. The technical process is impressive, but the result is awe-inspiring. The larger-than-life cartoons depict the three figures of Expectation, Fulfillment and a Knight set in a familiar Klimt landscape of abstract spirals, stylized flowers and other magical moments. These hundreds of details were digitally cut out and used to create a totally original virtual world.

Another World

“I’m really grateful to the computer gaming industry,” Baker said, “whose technology made this possible.” But Baker is not re-creating Klimt, although this could be what the artist might have done with access to today’s technology. He feels a pent-up energy in Klimt’s works, a dynamic of movement he has tried to set loose in a virtual experience. “I don’t direct people’s gaze,” he said of the virtual reality experience, “I direct the possibility of their gaze into digital infinity.”

Even virtual reality begins with reality. Downstairs in the MAK Forum, a huge flat screen runs in a continuous loop: the director’s cut, Baker’s own journey in the world he created. In a smaller, cordoned off area two home-sized monitors show the experience of whoever is currently inside (you may have to wait). Friendly museum staff help you into your VR helmet (keep your glasses on if you are short-sighted) and reassure you if you feel giddy.

And suddenly you are truly on your own, the strangely flattened female figure of Expectation gliding ahead, seducing you into a thicket of weirdness. The first impression is the startling clarity of hyperreality, the unnerving immediacy of what you are seeing. Your rational brain tells you it’s all just digital, but somehow…

Baker mentioned the parallel with Alice in Wonderland and yes, behind the beauty there is a sense of menace (“Off with his head!”, snapped the Red Queen). Klimt’s gentle spirals become crisply real, made of some indefinable material, perhaps on another planet. There is none of the soft golden glow of Klimt’s familiar world; this is a strange place of hard edges, hiding unseen things where anything could happen. You look down and suddenly you are standing on the edge of an abyss, but look up and the sky is a reassuring summer blue with wispy clouds.

Frederick Baker has certainly created a fascinating, alternative Klimt universe, ten minutes with disturbingly vivid images, liberating and unstable. It is hard to picture these as souvenir trinkets, which is surely just as well.

Through Apr 22, MAK. 1., Stubenring 5. mak.at

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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