“Do you believe?”
“Do I believe? No,” would be my most automatic answer, or better, the one I learned to use before I forced myself to honestly think about it.
“As, if I am a Christian, definitely not. Practicing any other religion in an active way? No,” again would be the answer.
“I am an atheist.”
I remember the sound of these words, when I heard my mother say it. It sounded so fresh, it sounded so right and, above all, I felt her burning emotion, when she exclaimed that around a table full of friends, a group of Ljubljana’s best intellectuals in the late 80s. They all conquered it, bravely and strongly. And there it was, I guess, the way all religions in a way get a new circle of believers; the arguments fell right and, above all, you feel something and you feel it strongly.
Visiting the Ljubljana house of modernist architect, Jože Plečnik, the installation of Christs without crosses captured my attention. I had to go back in order to make sure that what I saw was, is really there. I came to know of Plečnik at a very young age, way earlier than I had the capacity to grasp the magnitude and importance of his work. My mother, Darja Mrevlje-Pollak was an architect, and so was my grandmother, world traveler Janja Lap, and so his name was often mentioned; for the mere admiration and in a skin to skin, understanding. My great-grandfather, it was said, used to be his close collaborator, dealing with the trees within his urbanistic interventions, especially along the Ljubljanica (the river running through Ljubljana). I often admired the weeping willows along its bank, the trees with which I developed a special relationship and which were planted by my great-grandfather, or so I’ve been told. At this point, do not take this text as a stretch of history or an appropriation of the merits of the most important Slovenian architect. Take it rather as a walk along the riverside of my understanding of one’s faith, picking up crumbles of memory that, in retrograde, or as an optional landscape, do create my beliefs.
What do I make of a man of whom I heard the most bizarre stories from my family, of his strong religious beliefs, a sort of hardcore fatalism? The story goes that when Plečnik fell ill, he would not accept any extra food or care, because he believed his condition simply had to pass, if that was his fate. In his late life, my great-grandfather used any trick possible to make him eat something, as he was constantly losing weight and strength. With the excuse of work issues, she would pay him daily visits and come up with something that would inspire him. Towards the end, he even went on a hunt for wild pheasants, since for some intimate reason, Plečnik felt a certain connection with those birds, and my great-grandfather would do anything, only to make him eat. I heard the story over and over again, from the mouths of my mother and my grandmother.
“He adored Plečnik. They were silent friends and your great-grandfather was there with him until the end. Remember when he went hunting down some pheasants and came back with two, thrilled, since he was convinced Plečnik would finally decide to eat something.”
So, is it a dance move? The absence of weight, dancing with air and your thoughts, your vocation or the voices of somebody else?
There was another story that would constantly reappear during our adored Saturday family lunches. The story of Plečnik’s bathroom. It was said, again by the two strong women of my family, that he never allowed any light in his bathroom. That what he had to do there, simply had to be done and not mentioned, or better, he had to do it in darkness, so he would not get distracted.
“He would always say, if I need to wash, and would see my, you know…,” saying this, my grandmother would indistinctly wave her hand at the height of a men’s penis, adding a naughty smile. “He always said that if he would see it, he could have mistaken it for a water pipe.”
“Mistake your penis for a water pipe!?” Everyone would repeat and laugh with admiration for the striking rawness of the man.
“Mistake your penis for a water pipe,” echoed so many times in my head. And please do not get me wrong, these anecdotes were not used to ridicule this man. On the contrary, they were stories to show, on a regular Saturday afternoon, besides admiration, a deeper understanding of his work and his persona. For me, it portrayed a man of severe discipline, all in the service of something that I could not fully grasp at the time.
And of course, it also pictured a naked man in a dark bathroom with a water pipe instead of his penis.
A “God complex” is something usually assigned to surgeons. There’s another more visual one: the god’s-eye-view, the architect’s experience while overlooking a ground plan of a section of a city where something might soon change. It definitely is a way to conceive of an architectural intervention, especially in order to fully understand the context, its actual and historical surroundings. This bird’s-eye-view through architectural plans does allow you to make incisive strokes, it enables you to see clear and straight lines, monumentality at its best. But as for the rules of proportion, you always need to create a relation, and that in architecture, as in the case of a surgeon, is the human body.
Is it, then, the weight of the cross?
This strange man, of all dimensions and in all materials, nailed to a cross. With all due respect, for the myth and the story, let me again jump back into the proportion of a smaller body, and let me look through the eyes of a child at this image that so often obsessed and frightened me. It all came back to me in Plečnik’s house, looking at his installation of Christs without crosses. It is a weird thing, if you think about it visually: tiny bloody corpses that inhabit so many houses or hang around countless necks.
I always wondered, “Is he dead already, or is he there on this tiny cross, still suffering?” During different winters, when my family would pay visits to the various far-flung cousins and uncles, or the same bunch of decadent intellectuals with whom I had the privilege to grow up, we would rent a house somewhere deep in the countryside. An old house with thick walls, low ceilings, rough surfaces and, above all, ice cold bedrooms. Each of these bedrooms had a consistent detail, besides the aforementioned elements: a cross, a small one usually, overlooking the whole room from the center of the wall. Every time we had to go to bed, the thought of being in the same room with “him” started obsessing me, the “is he dead or still suffering” just could not leave my mind. So usually, in the midst of feverish thoughts, I would climb out of the bed, come up with whatever I had to in order to reach out and grab the cross. The sole gesture was so extremely frightening, so close, that it always took me a while before I found the guts to do it. I would concentrate on the pulsing image in the darkness and then finally reach out, grab that tiny crucified body, and hide it in the nearest drawer. Like a little thief, I would then run back into the bed, cover my head, calm my breathing and, eventually, I would fall asleep, with the distant music and celebratory chanting of my parents and their friends.
In the morning, I would secretly take the cross out and try to place it back, and every time, it was so easy to find the spot, since there was an obvious difference in the white color of the wall. The cross spotlessly shining from the wall.
What does all this tell you? Plečnik removed the crosses. Why? Maybe he only needed the crosses for himself, and what we see today are simply the remains? Perhaps, he was bothered by the man? A child removes a cross in the night, the cross with the bloody little man, goes to bed with parallel strings of thoughts and a notion of a hidden tiny body in a drawer, only to discover a brighter white cross incised in the wall in the morning.
So please tell me: What is a man’s faith, the deadly weight of the cross, or a dance move?
Nikola Tesla spent his last period, betrayed, abandoned and marked as a mad man high up in the tower, barely eating but still working, inventing and producing until his death. Many follow the idea of mind over matter, or the conception and understanding of the body simply as a vehicle for one’s mind. If I go back to the origin of this text, to Jesus, he literally sacrificed his own body to his idea. Religious or not (or better, Christian or not), it is hard not to admire the power of his will, the decision to give himself up to Romans hands, knowing perfectly well what he had to undergo. Eventually, the idea outlived the body. Who does not desire that? Is this image, this concept of literal sacrifice of one’s own body (if only as a vehicle of your will), so embedded in our society, an unavoidable attitude towards eternal materialization that, religious or not, it is still present? Or has the knowledge and understanding of vital forces of the creative process freed us enough to see it as dancing, and not necessary as suffering, as the only proof of our actions as relevant and lasting?
Going back to that brunch in the mid-80s, to the decadent group of intellectuals in Ljubljana, it definitely seemed like that, and not only to an enthusiastic child. It was mere enthusiasm that fueled that atmosphere, a pure notion of options, options that a creative mind lays down, for yourself, for those around you. Yes, those were different times. It did seem that, despite a potential lack of material goods, intellectual achievements had a certain non-metrical value. And I do not want to glorify the “golden” days of ex-Yugoslavia, even though it does seem that, especially compared to today's inexhaustible dictatorship of individualism and capitalism, socialism was doing something right for the delicate tissue of day-to-day society and community.
We were born into the post-god, post-utopia, post-isms, only to embrace the concept of x-society, where you pick your own gods and goods. Laid out like this, it seems almost impossible not to flirt with an obvious need for something firmer, a constant lookout for some kind of structure, a sense of intellectual freedom that implies demands: demands to be creative, every step of the way. The further you go, the more you know and understand, and only then, somehow, you are able to decide and define greatness. Think of Picasso’s Blue Period: It was a necessity, and his only option in the wake of possibilities, the need to close his self into only one option, one color, something he could control; so, later on, he could embrace everything else. I am sure that, in many cases of amazing minds, the further they went on their creative path, the stricter they became. On the other hand, something had to be sacrificed, somehow, in order to keep the balance. Somehow, you need to sacrifice yourself.
In my understanding and feeling of greatness, the gradual decentralization of yourself is a very natural process, and I can perfectly understand why a man of Plečnik’s stature needed a firmer structure. Religion, at the end of the day, does provide a structure that can make you feel less alone, and closer to your notion of greatness. On the other hand, you might feel closer to the idea of throwing everything out of balance within your creative process, so you can finally dance, to lose yourself and consequently build a structure from within.
I had to go back to Plečnik’s house and investigate this issue that stuck in my mind. I had to look at those tiny bodies carved out of wood, frozen in their (in)action. I had to rediscover what, in a way, I already knew. It is a frozen moment of a specific action. Arms high in the air are still balancing. It is the action of a high-wire walker, high on many parallel and braided straight lines of meaning, purpose and action. Plečnik’s versions of Jesuses, in combination with my memories, all of a sudden represented all of this to me, in one loud crack of my mind. Due to my viewing point, a group of Christs, or one captured in different moments, of constant balancing, does seem like a plural incarnation of “coming to terms with the understanding of one’s options.”
An image of measurement, just like the wire walker.