Spiritual connections inspire artist’s work

Axis Mundi at MOCRA

By Sarah Weinman

For years MOCRA (Museum of Contemporary Religious Art) has amazed me with its deeply spiritual and beautifully crafted exhibitions.  Its newest exhibition, titled Rebecca Niederlander | Axis Mundi, packs a powerful mystical punch.

The term axis mundi (translated as navel of the world) refers to a physical element imbued with spiritual power by a particular culture. These elements are present all over the world and include bamboo, Mt. Kilimanjaro, the city of Jerusalem, Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia, and totem poles.  They connect the known realm (earth) with the unknown realms of heaven and the underworld, anchoring us to something greater than ourselves.

Artist Rebecca Niederlander explores this theme of divine connection through her two- and three-dimensional works of art.

Cosmic Pillar, the most stunning piece in the show, is comprised of thousands of die-cut white vellum leaves hanging from the ceiling in thick curtain-like cascades.  These leaves, fragile by themselves, are made stronger by their connection to each other.  Each is part of a larger, much more important whole.  The downward pull of gravity on the leaves evokes inevitable mortality, but the soaring height of the piece brings to mind growth and transformation.  On the floor lay great swirls of white and cream-colored cut paper shells, symbolizing “past incarnations shed and new possible identities waiting to emerge.” 


In contrast with this very visible piece, Niederlander created and installed two nearly unseen works.  MOCRA owns a series of permanently-installed stained-glass windows at the top of the museum, always covered to protect the installed artwork.  Niederlander produced two refractive optical films to cover two windows, blurring recognizable biblical images and revealing only the windows’ colors.  By reducing the Judeo-Christian tradition of storytelling to its essence, the artist emphasizes the importance of storytelling in many religions.

The series of four Essential Drawings round out Niederlander’s commentary on spiritual connections.  The artist photographed her own sculptures, then manipulated the images in Photoshop to produce these wall-sized digital prints on vinyl.  Small elements (micro) are made monumental (macro), “echoing Niederlander’s investigations into the relationship of the self to the community.” 

Summer’s Sun, one Essential Drawing, with its greens, blues, and purples, possesses a peaceful aquatic quality.  A plantlike, organic image springs up in the center and extends its thin branches outward and upward.  The background swirls like water.  The sheer size of this piece and the others in the series encourage viewers to concentrate and meditate on them.  If we stand close enough, the pieces envelop us and we become part of the whole.  Every artwork in the exhibition comments on the essence of life: a connection to all living things. 

Rebecca Niederlander | Axis Mundi is on view at MOCRA through December 14.  MOCRA is located on the Saint Louis University Campus at 3700 West Pine Blvd.  Museum hours are Tuesday – Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and closed Mondays. For more information, call 314-977-7170 or visit www.mocra.slu.edu to learn more about the show and to access campus maps and parking information.