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Stations of the Cross sees 16 artists interpret eternal questions

Stations of the Cross, Various artists. Chapel, Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture. Until March 26.

About 20 years ago I visited the remote central Australian community of Haasts Bluff (or Ikuntji) about 230 kilometres west of Alice Springs. It was Easter and outside the small settlement there is a hill and a simple cross that has great spiritual significance for the local Indigenous community. Aboriginal people were moving around the cross and stopping in places and chanting.

Later it was explained to me that they were following the Via Crucis – the Way of the Cross or Stations of the Cross. There was something very honest about this journey and, until the present, it haunts my imagination – what did these worshippers see or imagine as they made their pilgrimage through the desert? Sadly, now there is a move to erect a 20-metre-high illuminated cross on the hill overlooking this site – I hope the outsiders will fail to gather the million dollars required for the project.

The Stations of the Cross, theologically, is a fairly modern invention, scarcely predating the Franciscans and the later Middle Ages. Originally there were anywhere between seven and 30 Stations of the Cross, until the 18th century when Pope Clement XII fixed the number at 14. What was central to the idea of the Stations of the Cross was a spiritual visualisation of Christ's last journey on Earth as a man – the path he walked on his final day before the Crucifixion along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem up to Mount Calvary. Crucial is the role of the spiritual imagination and the transposition in time and space.

So what would happen if Christ came to Canberra to make his way to Mount Ainslie – what would we witness, feel and experience? The prompts provided for the artists by the Reverend Douglas Purnell, to interpret the Stations of the Cross as a personal contemplation on death, loss and bereavement, as one would anticipate, have been largely ignored by the 16 selected artists, but the prompts may have placed them into a particular zone or mindset. For some of the artists, including Saif Almurayati, Chris Wyatt, Clare Peters and Emmanuel Garibay, their station is universalised; it is outside time and place, and becomes a statement and meditation on suffering.

Other artists have personalised their station, there exists in their work an encoded personal iconography, such as in the work of Catherine O'Donnell, Catherine Kapikian, Paul Hopmeier, John Pratt and Euan Macleod. With John Pratt, the sense of personal mortality appears palpable, while Euan Macleod weaves a narrative about his father, boats, travel and memory. Gregory O'Brien creates a very complex image where the sense of foreboding and the eschatological fear is an undercurrent hidden behind suburban tranquillity.

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Some of the artists have used their station for something cathartic and share with us a profound emotion, possibly hopeful that the clues are too enigmatic for the outside gaze to decipher or correctly interpret. For example, Ella Whateley's Touching, or the pieces by Di Ingram, Chris Auckett and Jennifer Little. All of their surfaces conceal more than they reveal and the meditation is personal and on occasion deeply felt.

The painting that stopped me in my tracks is the peculiar canvas by Julie Dowling – simply titled Warangguwa – given in translation as Falling as prompted by the brief that Purnell provided the artist. However, in the composition there is very little about Christ falling and instead I am reminded of Julie Dowling's painting Gabi Warangguwa – Waterfall (2014) that I saw a couple of years ago in Brisbane. It depicts a defiant woman, a freedom fighter, standing with bolt cutters who is about to sever a lock on a farm gate. Armed with this knowledge, is it possible that Gabi Warangguwa is the presiding woman in a red costume shielding a child in the background accompanied by the Wandjina figures belonging to the spiritual world? Are we witness to the fall of Indigenous culture which the frightened Aboriginal youth are forced to face? Perhaps it is very much a question of what would you do if the Wandjina appeared to you now.

Chris O'Doherty is a crowd favourite. Like Greg O'Brien and Euan Macleod, O'Doherty is a New Zealander. Exhibiting under his "nom de guerre" Reg Mombassa, his figure of Christ is the most literal and strangest in the whole exhibition. Once his garments have been torn away by claws, Christ is shown with what appears to me as large protruding breasts and his hands are in stocks on a cross that appears like a wired-up top of an electricity pole, but one that has been truncated and placed on wheels. Here Christ is choked by pollution and is being stripped bare by the climate change deniers. The lyrics from Mental As Anything's Good Friday, that I think Martin Plaza wrote in 1985 and was released as the B side to Live It Up, come to mind. O'Doherty was a vocalist in Mental. In part, the lyrics proclaim: "Good Friday in Dead City/ Is no place to be/ Good Friday in Dead City/ Much worse than Calvary."

One of the strengths of the Christian narrative in the 21st century is that it is something that is very familiar, universal, fluid and yet deeply personal. This is an engaging exhibition by 16 artists who have brought their own perspective to the eternal questions raised by the Stations of the Cross.