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Stations of the Cross: Julia Nema.

I FIRST SAW STATIONS of the Cross by Julia Nema at almost the same time that I stumbled upon Minimum, a book by British architect John Pawson. (1) There is always a touch of magic to such coincidences.

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Looking at Stations of the Cross (2) we have good reason to suppose that they belong, in a wider spatial and temporal context, to the same sphere of thought as John Pawson's reinterpretation of the tradition of (foremost) Donald Judd and of Le Corbusier in architecture. It is no accident that the common denominator of the artworks Pawson has grouped together, however heterogeneous they might be in terms of art history (3) is not Minimalism but minimum, a category coined by Pawson himself. In a similar vein, it is probably minimum, rather than Minimalism, that can serve as context for the broadest and most authentic understanding of Julia Nema's Stations of the Cross. Radical and clear-cut, its simplicity never degrades into decorativity but remains continuously an essential characteristic of the work and simultaneously contributes to its function. The deep complexity of tradition makes it difficult to assess what the function of the Stations is. At any rate, Nema's Stations of the Cross serves to purify our perception and, perhaps consequently, our thought. Both in the individual pieces and in the seriality-based totality of the work as a whole, the autonomous reality of the Stations of the Cross comes into contact with the autonomous reality of life and it does so without vindicating attention to itself. Part of this gesture presumably harkens back to the attitude of medieval and Eastern artists, with the implication of not only the reduction and the elimination of all distracting elements but also the distancing of the artist's person and personality from the work itself. At the same time, all of this seems inseparable from the desire that the clarity of forms and materials shall have repercussions on the viewer, on the clarity of senses and thoughts.

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It is as if Nema, in her Stations of the Cross, had been aiming at the creation of a space of meditation, without the pretension of wanting to become meditation itself--as if the utmost it wants to achieve were to guide others toward the state of internal composure, purity of thought and senses. I mention space of meditation here because I want to point out that contemplating the individual stations reveals the evidence of a certain architectonic thought that enables each piece to spontaneously offer the viewer a special kind of space. A space that is much more than just the space created by the plasticity of ceramics. Their seriality determined (and limited) by the function establishes a poetic framework that is based on the variations of the shape of the cross.

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Historically, the first stations appeared in Jerusalem, on the route where Jesus is traditionally said to have reached the site of his execution. Tradition speaks about 14 stations and relates various events to those. Some of these events are mentioned in the Scripture and some are not. Christians on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land walk, from the Middle Ages to the present day, through the stations of Jesus' path, the Via Dolorosa, on to the site of the Crucifixion. For those who could not travel to the Holy Land, the custom of walking along Stations of the Cross was invented by the Franciscans. They were the ones who installed them in (and around) churches all over the world, which was the reason why the Catholic Church for a very long time insisted that anyone wanting to build the stations should get a license from a Franciscan guardian in jurisdiction. As an interesting side note, most of the time it was sufficient to install 14 wooden crosses at certain intervals from each other and there was no need for figural representations or pictures of the stations.

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In this respect Stations of the Cross by Nema is essentially faithful to tradition, since it consists of variations on the shape of the cross until the 11th station, Nailed to the Cross. Her crosses, however, seem to be modelled by the folds and creases of a shroud or a snow-white surface. Creases become the traces of life--permanent creases. And even though the series is not narrative, it does not imply being devoid of events. The events are born from the form itself, from its displacements and variations and the questions that arise. What we see is neither entirely abstract, as it works with a symbol anchored in culture, nor is it figurative because the Stations of the Cross are represented as not only the Via crucis of Jesus but as literal 'crossways' as well, as crossings, as crossroads, as imprints left by the processes of life or soul. This, in turn, enables a reading of the work that is not preconditioned by any knowledge of Christianity.

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At first sight, I was struck by the purity of these stations. By their whiteness. By their being radically devoid of wanting to entertain. (How many times do we look at a picture without getting any deeper than the identification of the event portrayed? In a gallery, we read the name of the painter, the title and the year the artwork was made and on we go. Having thus pigeonholed pieces of art, we tend to say we have seen them.) Stations resists this process. White on white. Almost indiscernible. It addresses viewers who are able to wonder at a shadow on the wall, at the 'relief' of a surface. And that is where it begins to 'speak'. But before it starts to speak, it creates a state of clarity, as if it had only one word with which to tell everything.

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While directing his last movie after he had suffered a stroke, the old Antonioni could hardly utter more than a few words and yet he managed to express everything most precisely. (This despite the fact that film directing is far from being a simple process.) To someone thinking in names, titles and years, this frail old man, calling all women by the same first name left to him must not only have seemed strange but outright ridiculous. The staff who worked with him however are said to have experienced the entire film shooting as a miracle.

So what do Julia Nema's Station images tell us in their silent way? Is it appropriate to try to identify and 'interpret' them alongside the events they represent? They almost certainly do 'work' that way too; what is more, it is highly probable that their creation was preceded by personal meditation upon the passion of Jesus. Directly, however, they lead us somewhere else. Which means we do not necessarily have to 'decipher' them. And even if we choose to do so, we will not have to be satisfied with a single interpretation. Made primarily not for our brains, this Stations of the Cross holds no promise of joy as the joy gained from the solution of a difficult mathematical problem. The only criterion of its laconism and authenticity is the ability to guide us toward "a state of total clarity where the eye, the mind and the physical body are at ease, where nothing jars or distracts." (John Pawson (4)) Observation, contemplation, listening silently to form, light and shadow, I think, will after a while lead to meditation. And if we stop truly attentively to take some time in front of it, if we do not want to understand and decipher it, but simply behold it and dwell in it, we shall indeed find our place in the world.

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Footnotes:

(1.) John Pawson: Minimum, Phaidon, London. 1998 (2nd ed.)

(2.) Julia Nema's Stations of the Cross includes 14 pieces, 24 x 24 cm (9.45 x 9.45 in.) each made of high-fired paper porcelain.

(3.) In fact, in Pawson's book we find photographs of a large number of objects or buildings that resist to any classical kind of art historical classification.

(4.) John Pawson: "The Simple Expression of Complex Thought", El Croquis 127, 6-7. See also http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2004/apr/19/guesteditors1/print.

Julia Nema earned her MFA in 2002 at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design Budapest, Hungary, where she is a teacher and doctorate (DLA) student. Her sculptural works, reliefs, design products and paintings were featured at a number of national and international solo and group exhibitions. She has also designed and produced large-scale ceramic works for architectural use. A regular attendant at international conferences and symposia, she has been awarded the Hungarian Design Prize. (www.julianema.com)

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Translated by akos Czigany.

Photos by Gabor akos Varga.

Based on the Bible of Andre Chouraqui (La Bible, Desclee de Brouwer, 1989).

Matyas Varga is a Benedictine monk, teacher, poet and essayist. His primary interest is the religious reading of contemporary art. He is working on his PhD dissertation about the relation of devotion and aesthetic sense.
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Author:Varga, Matyas
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:4EXHU
Date:Mar 1, 2010
Words:1522
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