November 20, 2019

Institute Scholar from Greece Finds Surprise Spolia at Battlefield Portico

“SQUEEZES” ON THE BATTLEFIELD: With paper, water, and a brush, Nora Okka, a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), has made “squeezes,” copies of the sculpted surface of the pillars, of the Princeton Battlefield colonnade. Those squeezes will be exhibited at IAS. (Photo by Dan Komoda, Institute for Advanced Study)

By Donald Gilpin

“Spolia,” the focus of Nora Okka’s research over the past decade, are recycled stones, reliefs, fragments, etc. removed from their original context to be used in a different context. And when Okka, a director’s visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) for the 2019-20 academic year working on a Venetian architecture project, arrived in Princeton, she didn’t expect to discover spolia in the area adjacent to the Institute.

“That was a great surprise for me,” said Okka, who blends the roles of architect, artist, and curator in her multidisciplinary work. “I was invited here by the director in order to complete my research on the spolia in the city of Venice, and it was a surprise for me to realize that the portico has a very intriguing spolia story behind it.” 

Okka explained that she made a “squeeze” of the columns — a process with paper, a brush, and water to create a reverse copy of the surface — exactly five days before the 60th anniversary of the Battlefield colonnade, which was dedicated at a ceremony on November 11, 1959. The squeeze process took about four hours, then it dried overnight. Squeezes can be easily carried and stored.

Okka eagerly related the history of this spolia. The colonnade, which now stands off Mercer Road in front of the Princeton Battlefield gravesite and memorial, was originally the entrance of a house in Philadelphia designed in 1836 by Thomas Ustick Walter, a representative of the Greek Revival in America who also designed the dome on the United States Capitol Building. 

In 1901 it was brought to Princeton by canal in order to be incorporated in another building, Mercer Manor, which stood on the east side of the Battlefield. That building was demolished in 1957, except for the four columns of the entrance, which were donated by IAS, the building’s owner, to the state of New Jersey and declared a National Historic Monument in 1962.

Okka, who grew up and lives in Greece, the daughter of three generations of architects, has earned an array of degrees, including an architecture degree from the National Technical University of Athens (2006), a master’s degree in digital arts and cinema (2009) from the Athens School of Fine Arts, a master’s degree in advanced studies in scenography (2012) from Zurich University of the Arts, and a doctorate in architecture curating (2017) from Vienna University. 

At IAS last year she exhibited part of her most recent project, which introduced a new technique of multi-layer squeezes, imprinting reliefs of ancient and medieval spolia from the “Little Metropolis” of Athens, an 11th-12th century Byzantine church whose walls are entirely made of marble spolia, including reliefs with decorative and figurative motifs from a range of different sources, spanning more than one thousand years (ca. 300 BCE-ca. 1100 C.E.).

In creating squeezes, Okka noted, the spolia become movable objects of art, which can be integrated into new architectural settings.

“She creates spaces, objects, and images through which architectural, theoretical, and curatorial frameworks are reinterpreted,” stated an IAS invitation to a talk Okka will be giving on spolia for the Friends of IAS. “Her academic and creative research into the ancient practices and the contemporary legacies of spoliation has resolved into a series of projects and exhibitions.… Her inventive multi-layered squeeze process creates direct and indexical impressions of architectural fragments from the remote past that engender a more emotional translation.”

IAS, Okka pointed out, owns one of the largest collections of squeezes in the world and specializes particularly in ancient Greek inscriptions. “That’s actually the reason I originally contacted the Institute some years ago,” she said.

Okka discussed the unusual, eclectic nature of her work. “I’m not presenting, displaying or exhibiting, but representing, interpreting, and performing architecture, and particularly the practice of spolia,” she said. “The focus is on the spatial experience, to bring the relief of spolia into the exhibition space.” 

She continued, “I always focus on spatial experience. My work is about imprints, paper imprints. I want to use the real scale of architecture, and the squeeze is the medium to bring architecture, and moreover the relief of spolia, into the exhibition space.”

Okka went on to describe how the viewer of an architecture exhibit is not just a viewer, “but a user of the space and part of the performance,” which “has to do with the continuation of the practice of reusing and appropriating something.”

Okka hopes to complete her research at IAS this academic year on the Hellenic spolia in the city of Venice before traveling to Italy next spring to work on site in the city of Venice “with all these different fragments of the past.”

She showed images of magnificent stone horses and lions from Constantinople and Greece. Spolia used to refer to just spoils of war, she noted, commenting on the rich variety of spolia, some famous, many relatively unknown, in the city of Venice. “Statues, reliefs, architectural elements, and less important things incorporated into the walls of the city — are quite intriguing for me to explore,” she said.

Okka mentioned that she is planning to create a digital platform that will be a valuable tool to help researchers find spolia or to connect fragments of spolia from different cities or museums. “Hopefully, my idea about spolia maps will constitute a common ground of research for the entire practice of spolia across all cultures over time,” she said. “It will also open a discussion, especially after the record flooding in Venice, which threatens historical, global treasures.”

Looking forward to her next six months, Okka described the Institute as “an intellectual paradise.” She continued, “There are so many opportunities, and people from so many different research fields.” In relation to her squeezes and her current idea of representing illusion and working with negative space, she mentioned that she is looking forward to an upcoming meeting with a neuroscientist at the Institute.

“It’s a chance for me to understand better the field of neuroscience and convexity, to know more about how the brain perceives forms,” she said. “It’s a very interesting place for me. Of all the places I have studied, the Institute is the best place to be.”