I first had the idea for the Stations of the Cross exhibition when I was preparing my book 'Art and Religion in the 21st Century'.
During my research into contemporary images of Jesus, I came across fascinating works from artists from a wide range of backgrounds. In addition to works by practicing Christians, I found numerous pieces by atheists, such as Wim Delvoye, who reenacted the Stations of the Cross using X-rays of dead rodents! There were also a number of Jewish artists, including Leni Diner Dothan, who created a series of sensitive self-portraits of herself with her young son as Christ. And perhaps even more surprising were artists like Zhang Huan and Lachlan Warner, who found ways to blend the symbolism of Christianity with Buddhist concepts and iconography.
My interest in the theme of the Stations of the Cross crystallized over Lent last year. My wife Dr Carolyn Rosen was then in the discernment process to become an Anglican priest, and religion was unsurprisingly a big topic at the dinner table. In fact, even our adorable Newfoundland got drafted into our dinner debates. I, of course, insisted Ramsey was a Jew like me and would be celebrating Passover with a little matzoh crumbled into his dog food. Carolyn had the strong suspicion Ramsey (named after her favorite Archbishop, Michael Ramsey) was actually a Christian. Out of this joking around, we got to discussing the opportunities and problems that arise when Christians celebrate Passover, and what sensitivities this brings up. We co-wrote an article for The Church Times about this issue, and started thinking about how it might be possible, especially using creative tools, to bring interfaith dimensions into the contemplative season of Lent.
As an academic who focuses on religion and the arts, I naturally began to think of the Stations as a chance to visualize and stimulate interfaith and intercultural dialogue.My ideas about how to do a Stations of the Cross exhibition varied at first. Inspired by the layout of the original Stations in Jerusalem, I gradually settled on the idea of placing fourteen stations around London. The idea immediately clicked with associations of London as a sort of new Jerusalem, something which had become a sub-theme in a book I was editing with Prof. Ben Quash and Dr. Chloe Reddaway.
All of these ideas were percolating, but still in rough form, when I received an email from the artist Terry Duffy. Terry shared with me an exciting project he already had underway, in which he was touring his towering painting, ‘Victim, no resurrection?’ (1981) across the world. It was exciting to hear about the different reactions the work had received in places ranging from Cape Town to Dresden, and how the imagery of the Crucifixion had served as a successful tool for focusing discussions about social justice in the communities that exhibited the work. As the refugee crisis deepened and spread from the Middle East to Europe, Terry and I began to see the potential to use art—including his existing Crucifixion—as a way to contribute to discussions about what it means to experience the shattering trauma of displacement.
It was clear that Terry and I had shared interests—he as an artist and me as a scholar—and that together we could draw on our areas of expertise to conjure a compelling exhibition. I believed it might take another a year or more to organize but Terry, in his indomitable way, insisted it was possible to put this exhibition together within six months. It meant a crazy amount of work, but he was right! There has been something feverish but exciting about staging an exhibition in what, by art world standards, constitutes light speed.
Of course none of this would have come together without fantastic artists who shared this creative drive. I was immediately encouraged speaking to Michael Takeo Magruder and G. Roland Biermann. I had worked with Michael and Roland before on an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in London, and I knew they both had very sophisticated and nuanced approaches to religion. They made it clear that the Stations represented an almost inexhaustible trove of inspiration for the right group of contemporary artists, and in the ensuing months we approached many others. Amazingly, everyone we approached said yes! This could be testimony to Terry and my amazing powers of research and investigation, but I think it’s more likely a sign of these artists’ talent, energy, and generosity of spirit.
As we had discussions with artists, we also began investigating sites. The problem was how to make a trail through London that was entirely within walking distance, followed a logical and compelling route, and touched important works and sites coinciding with the correct station. We began to draw up a list of possible sites and started to try out each one, often by walking around London together.
The more sites we examined the more we realized how important it was not just to incorporate new works of art responding to the Stations, but to find ways of activating new meanings in existing works.
To tell the Stations of the Cross as a London story didn’t just involve placing that story onto the city’s landscape, but finding ways in which that story was already being told in existing locations. We began to catch glimpses of the suffering Christ all around London—from paintings in the National Gallery to Cathedral altarpieces and public statues. We felt our job was to connect these images with works by the artists we were meeting.
One of my great hopes for this exhibition is that visitors experience the same sense of delightful discovery that we had as we looked for the perfect place to situate each of the stations. London is a wonderfully illogical place, with far more nooks and crannies than most modern capitals. It’s a city perfectly suited to eccentric wanderings. I hope this exhibition proves a new way to discover and experience London. Along the way, I hope that visitors also allow their minds to wander, making connections that we as curators may never have imagined.
Top image: Station Eight: John Cocteau, 'Our Lady's Chapel', 1959