A Manifesto of Sorts

Art is to be experienced.

Quick, think of a piece of art: is it a painting? A sculpture? How do you treat that object? Do you envision yourself standing in front of it in a museum? How about hanging it over your sofa? Maybe you secretly want to touch the smooth marble while the guide averts his gaze in the gallery. Maybe it’s something your kid glued together for a class project. Perhaps it was the pinnacle of a journey of some sort—Stonehenge at sunset or Macchu Piccu through the haze. Close your eyes and envision the last time you came in contact with a piece of ‘visual’ art. Were your eyes enough to fully help you appreciate it or did you long to do more in order to understand that object?

To think of art as something merely visual or as something to be seen, even observed carefully, is to ignore its multi-sensory presence.  To create a piece of art in any medium, an artist must feel the materials; he must combine them in a variety of methods that require him to mix the paint with his hands and a paintbrush, or to chisel away marble, or to shape clay, adding and subtracting a wet substance, letting it dry into a cohesive message. The artist cannot merely look at materials; she must engage with them using techniques that include sight, certainly, but also touch and hearing and instinct.

A poster of Monet’s water lilies will never give you the depth and heft of the paint he left on that canvas. You have to see it from across the room as well as from a few inches away in order to fully appreciate the way your eyes interact with the materials. The Statue of Liberty is far more compelling from a rocking boat, hazy and dirty in the distance while you silently recall her poem, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

We think of architecture as art, too, but it doesn’t translate well into two dimensions. I spent much of last summer enamored with the peace and tranquility of Assisi. A large part of that came from the juxtaposition of music and frescoes with architecture in a setting that permeates the psyche with goodwill and thanksgiving. The setting provides a cohesive sensory experience that stirs the soul’s senses in order to usher a little of the peace of Saint Francis’s legacy into the days of present-day pilgrims. Giotto’s art in that basilica would be enough to make me jump for joy if a saw it only in a museum, but its intended use is to enhance the experience of the faithful, inviting the pious and the weary into medieval chapels, calling us to prayer or thought or meditation.

My career as a student was capped off by a course this spring in Medieval Visuality. Its purpose was to examine ways that viewers in the middle ages perceived of vision in a cohesive, socially-constructed way. In other words, how did people comprehend art in the middle ages? From this, I’ve begun an exploration of the way people used art in the late Roman period and how this changed as they headed into the so-called “middle” ages. (The term medieval was, of course, applied much later). What makes something “medieval” as opposed to “ancient”? I’m interested in ways that early Christians and viewers in the third and fourth centuries used art. My next few years of research will be devoted to the ways that artists and patrons communicated with saints and managed to depict a deity that was invisible yet present in daily life. Objects played a variety of roles to these people: images on sarcophagi or in catacombs invoked the presence of unseen holy beings; they offered blessings and miracles; they told stories and offered hope of redemption. Images were seen, and they were used and experienced in myriad ways.

It’s time for all of us—art historians, students, naysayers, bankers, artists, travelers, people—to stop relegating art to the walls of society. The aspects of life that matter are the small encounters that stay in our memory—a cold beer and good conversation on the patio on a June evening, church bells ringing over a valley on a lazy weekend morning, bright colors that jump off a canvas to invoke the warmth of summer islands during a New York City blizzard.  Art can give us these vicarious experiences; it enables us to navigate the wider world through perception and contemplation.

Tomorrow I set off for Cappadocia, the mountains of eastern Turkey, where Byzantine monks carved architecture out of the soft terrain in the tenth and eleventh centuries. My premise for this trip is a workshop on Byzantine art and architecture. My ulterior motive is to understand these structures from standing in and around them rather than from books. I simply cannot envision the rugged ‘lunar’ landscape and its abandoned monasteries without feeling the walls of tufa over my head. I will cap off the trip with a pilgrimage to Hagia Sophia. I know its images well—the mosaics, the capitals, the dome rising over the ring of light—but printed images are not the experience, and I long to stand in the hallowed shadows where Justinian rebuilt an empire after the Nika Riots and Empress Zoe recorded her gifts for posterity.

To this end, I have renamed my blog 34 Encounters. My journey in the upcoming entries will entail my experiences with art and architecture, my perceptions of objects that affect life and understanding beyond the visual.  Please join me as I look at and breathe in and listen to and grasp at every crumb the middle ages have left for devouring. Bright and early tomorrow morning, I’ll be sailing to Byzantium on a big, silver bird.

34 Encounters Introduction

This post was originally the About page for the 34 Encounters entries on this blog, which were posted in 2011.

In September of 2009, I made a birthday vow to myself that I would escape from reality, if only for a few weeks, to find the real art and medieval history that I’ve been scrounging for in my ever-expanding pile of library books and graduate school assignments. The result was a partially-solo trek around the Mediterranean last summer, documented in my 32 Adventures blog, which is still archived here.

That September I settled back into the familiar, albeit with tiny souvenirs punctuating the drudgery of coursework and part-time jobs—a pen from the Aqua store in Dubrovnik one day, earrings from Florence’s San Lorenzo market on another. I’ve been making an effort to view my chosen field from the outside, from the perspective of people who don’t live among the masterpieces or study them for a living.

Sure, academics love to believe that our chosen fields are important, that a humanistic love of learning makes the world a better place. But is that all? Is it fair to expect anyone outside the field to find the middle ages and Byzantium relevant or are we just beating a dead empire, so to speak? Armed with a fading tan, good stories, a shoebox full of lomographic photos, and pebbles from the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, and Mount Etna, I’m feeling more grounded and wondering how to comprehend ‘real’ medieval art and history in a way that is relevant to everyday life.

Over the summer, and on many occasions since, I have found myself discussing the middle ages or Byzantium to people outside the field. From sci-fi novels to Roman aqueducts, evidence of a medieval legacy is in the ether. Clearly, the allure of this time period is more than a bleep on our cultural radar, but it is often far outside the comfort zone of the general public. How and when are the middle ages relevant to us now? How should they be approached, taught, pondered? Is there anything for the general public to gain from this knowledge as we trudge through the rat race? The next year’s incarnation of musings and meanderings was christened 33 Conversations, a collection of dialogues and diatribes about the middle ages and its art. This year, I’ve once again tweaked the blog’s moniker in order to embrace my belief that art and the middle ages must be encountered with all the senses. (See my post entitled “A Manifesto of Sorts” for my philosophy on that). Welcome to 34 Encounters.

Stained-Glass Graffiti

Remnants of the Berlin Wall (at the top of the hill) no longer enclose the area, now called Mauerpark (Wall Park), where a crowd watches performance art and a flea market operates weekly.

I’ve been thinking about graffiti lately. In Berlin, that means I’ve also been walking past it and leaning on it and using it to navigate neighborhood streets.  At home in Brooklyn, often-tagged blocks or subway stations are the ones I avoid when I’m alone at night because they’re obviously a bit desolate. Here, graffiti is the wallpaper of the city, a colorful backdrop of identities and egos and urban layers, not nearly as rough- or degenerate-looking as it was probably intended to be.

There’s an exhibition of contemporary art called based in Berlin showing now in several venues. Over eighty “emerging” artists contributed work, and while the quality of work varies greatly, the entire show oozes with joie de vivre. The premise of the show is a political one, part of an ongoing conversation about whether the city needs another Kunsthalle. Outside the exhibition’s Atalierhaus in Montbijoupark, a haphazard vertical maze of metal scaffolding (the ‘canvas’ for Oliver Laric’s work) lets viewers glimpse over the park to the Berliner Dom and the Bode-Museum. Like a metal nest above the trees, the whole structure sways as the wind blows and people plod across it.

The catalog entry that caught my eye, however, was that of Vietnamese graffiti artist, Akim. His work “underlines the impossibility and absurdity of representing graffiti culture within an exhibition.”[1] His exhibition space is not in Montbijoupark but in the Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, a museum of contemporary art housed in an old train station, so Matt and I made the trek especially to see his work. (Of course I paid a quick tribute to Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis in the permanent collection). I had high hopes for the kind of energetic work that would require a remote location and embody the culture clash of public museum and outsider art. Drama! Intrigue! Splashy display! (I was pumped). After a bit of searching, I located the artist’s label on a bare wood column on which a small TV showed footage of groups of people spraying subway cars. Hurried, sneaking (was it playing in fast-forward?), the figures with covered faces (to hide their identities or to block out fumes?) painted over windows and ads, often with two spray cans at a time. The room was bare except for the TV and a fire extinguisher. It made me uneasy. Whoever thought of graffiti as a group activity? How could something produced so hastily be a craft? That its spartan set-up underscored the unease and conflict inherent in the relationship of graffiti and “high” art was brilliant.

Graffiti feels more at home on the walls of Kunsthaus Tacheles. This former department store, Nazi prison, cinema, and artists’ squat is a metaphor for the city, unabashedly reinventing itself and continuing to evolve. Since the Wall came down, artists have lived, worked, sold art, and commingled there, facing down eviction as recently as last April and looking toward an uncertain future even now. You can enter from Oranienburger Straße any time, step around a few strategically piled chunks of concrete, and wander into a number of open studios. Last week I hesitated to take pictures, but a box labeled “photo ops” was stashed in a corner so I dropped in a coin and snapped a few. The prints for sale, bar, and obvious commercial elements in Tacheles would be easy to criticize as somehow compromising the ‘pure’ creative element of a studio practice, but I’m impressed they’ve used the space to make a viable living. Also, I regret not buying one of those prints.

My favorite part is actually the stairwell that winds up through the reaches of the vast concrete. The grimy, spray-painted panes of glass in the dim hallway reveal gemstone colors in spots, with black lines crossing them. The stories of past visitors and residents play out like a stained-glass backdrop in this cathedral to urban decay and redemption.

As a medievalist, I often have the luxury (or laziness) to ignore issues of contemporary artists and the context in which we view art. These encounters have recharged my awareness of the continuities that face art historians of any time and place. For instance, is it okay that I, an art historian, call graffiti art yet am incredibly peeved that some jackass tagged the Bode-Museum in blue spray paint?

Historically, inscribing images or words has been a means of claiming space, marking territory. For instance, early Christians would at times “seal” a space with a cross. The act required no particular artistic skill, but claimed the space, relying on the symbol’s perceived power to protect them. In a well-known instance of this procedure, Symeon the Stylite (c. 389 – 459) used crosses to mark the space of a village, demanding crosses on every house, in order to fend off wild beasts. In doing this he created an apotropaic seal around its inhabitants.[2] Byzantinist Lyn Rodley uses graffiti in her examination of underground spaces in medieval Cappadocia. She concludes that if a particular set of labyrinths in central Turkey had been used for people to hide from raiders, “frightened people confined in uncomfortable underground space would surely have scratched their prayers (or, if illiterate, signs and symbols) on the walls.”[3] In this vein, contemporary graffiti seems to straddle the traditional mode of claiming space or asserting presence while expressing a person’s or group’s creative vision.

In every Art History 101 class, we have that discussion of “what is art?” Every semester there are one or two students who take a stand that everything–even spilled paint–is art. The point of the discussion, of course, is to help students come to the realization that art is the creative outcome of human expression. But to be art, shouldn’t there be a positive force? Isn’t creativity about bringing something into the world, not destroying it? These are the thoughts I wrestled with in front of Akim’s video in the desolate white exhibition space. Yet the laws of physics remain: lapis lazuli had to be ground up for Giotto to paint the Scrovegni Chapel; pounds and pounds of marble had to be chipped away for Michelangelo’s Pietá to emerge. Energy and matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Even great art, it seems, blazes a trail of recreated substances. The product may ultimately be judged a masterpiece or a nuisance, but both destroy to create.

While artists and critics continue to discuss the merits (or lack thereof) of contemporary graffiti as an art form, I’ll plead the middle ages and take a longer view. It’s a sign of life, a marker of a particular place and time, a thought that simply had to be replicated in a more tangible form. Like a preliminary sketch of a master painter, graffiti conveys fleeting ideas that needed to be captured.

Stained-glass graffiti at Tacheles.

The winding staircase at Tacheles.

Akim, Leistungsschau, 2011, Videocollage. based in Berlin exhibition at the Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof.

Kasia Fudakowski, It's like déja vu all over again, 2011. Stahl, Harz, Rattan. based in Berlin exhibition at Montbijoupark.

[1] “Akim” in Moritz van Dulmen, ed., based in Berlin, (Berlin: Kulturprojekte Berlin GmnH; Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König) 22-23. See also http://www.kulturprojekte-berlin.de/publikationen/ for ordering the catalog.

[2] Robert Doran, Theodoret (Bishop of Cyrrhus), and Antonius (monk, disciple of Simeon Stylites), The Lives of Simeon Stylites (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 1992), 141, http://books.google.com/books?id=7arYAAAAMAAJ.

[3] Lyn Rodley, Cave Monasteries of Byzantine Cappadocia, (New York: Cambridge University Press), 1985.

The King in Any Language

The spirit of Elvis follows me wherever I go. (Hey now, no calling me crazy until you’ve heard the whole story). Years ago, on the first trip I took in the name of art history, I spent an evening in Cairo with friends drinking vodka-cranberries and dancing on stage to a one-man band. We tried (and no doubt failed) to emulate the graceful, sensual, but never overtly sexual, moves of the Egyptian ladies to songs in Arabic. Then “Blue Suede Shoes” came on and we all let loose. One thing I’ve learned is to never let the ‘wrong’ outfit stop you from dancing. I was wearing trekking-through-the-desert shoes and dusty linen pants. No one noticed. The trip to Cairo was a segue to Ravenna, Italy where I was making a pilgrimage to see Theodora’s imperial mosaic in San Vitale. The familiar, velvety voice of Elvis in the most foreign adventure I’d ever had made me feel more at home in the world somehow. And last year, when it was time for my adventures to wind down, I glimpsed an Elvis poster in a coffee shop in Mola di Bari, shifting my thoughts toward home.

This year’s adventures got off to a rocky start. Matt headed to Berlin two weeks before I did. His first hostel was crawling with bedbugs, so he spent an entire day exterminating. (Thank goodness for the Germans and their temperature-controlled appliances). Meanwhile I wrapped up my last semester of coursework in a frazzled haze of research and packing. You know that dramatic scene in movies showing the protagonist running full-speed through JFK airport with a heavy wheeled suitcase, backpack, and messenger bag flying behind them? Well it’s only fun when the passenger makes the flight. My flight had been booked through one airline but was actually on another. I got to the first airline’s gate just in the nick of time but they sent me away. I got to the other gate two minutes late and couldn’t get a boarding pass. The gate attendant delayed his break to help me but took his sweet time looking up my account, mentioning several times to the colleague beside him that “this is why we never get to eat.” In solidarity, I volunteered that I’d hardly eaten all day, either. All I got was a glare. This is also the guy who had to count on his fingers to determine which month of the year September was, and he came up with eight. Yet he had no trouble calculating the exorbitant amount that I’d be charged for rebooking.

The string of four-letter words playing through my head like a soundtrack increased in volume as I made a last-ditch effort to beg the other airline to decrease the rebooking fee since I had, after all, made it to their gate on time. Instead I got a ten-minute lecture from the ticketing agent about how she would have called ahead to find out which gate and she would have arrived earlier. She stopped short of calling me an idiot, but the message was implied throughout the long list of things that she would have done differently. I vowed that next time I wouldn’t be too cheap to take a car to JFK instead of public transportation. Sadly, those weren’t crocodile tears that I shed. Although he couldn’t do anything else to help, my travel agent did agree to flag my account with a note reminding me next time that I despise both of these airlines.

Trying hard to reset my karma, I headed to the gate for the later flight, stopping off at the most generic airport sports bar I could find. As my friend later reminded me, the best ten-dollar Bud Lite you’ll ever drink is the one after a missed flight. I opted for a Corona, but the effect was the same. Trying hard to squash the timid voice in my head asking, “is this trip doomed? cursed, perhaps?” I tried hard to shift into cheerful mode. The guy beside me attempted to strike up a conversation, saying “that dish looks delicious; what is it called?” Er, nachos. On my other side was a guy reading a photocopied article with barely-discernible sketches of ancient things that must have been dug up somewhere. Art history! Material culture! Ah, a kindred spirit. Turns out he was headed out on an archaeological dig in Nairobi, looking for spear heads.

The rest of the flight and layover were uneventful except for the family with an exceptionally cute pair of twins who kicked my seat all the way from France to Berlin. In a jet lagged haze, I landed at Berlin-Tegel airport during the height of the e. coli scare. Instead of the usual “hope you’re having fun” messages from home, I received emails with the subject line, “Deadly e. coli in Germany.” Super. ‘Cause I’m definitely not paranoid enough. Taking vitamins to ward off scurvy, or whatever it is you get when you’re afraid of normal things like cucumbers, I slept off the jet lag and surveyed my new temporary home.

Settling in was easy. Matt had already rented an adorable apartment from a guy named Sven. It has wide-planked floors made from reclaimed timber and one sage green wall serving as a backdrop for our conversations and TV watching. The neighborhood, east Kreuzberg, is one that a ten-year-old guide book described as one of the “rougher” ones that “feel more dangerous than they actually are,”* but now it is full of Turkish immigrants and artists. On my second night here, we went to a poetry reading sponsored by a local English-language literary magazine. The second reader was the dad of the cute twins who had ridden the plane from Paris with me.

This was all well and good, but my justification for this whole production was that Berlin would be a less expensive alternative to Brooklyn for studying for my last qualifying exam. And so far, the middle ages were completely elusive. To remedy this (and the fact that I was completely dysfunctional on German public transportation alone), I left the apartment and vowed not to return until I had a) bought a watch and b) done something remotely academic. (For the record, reading about art in our usual café didn’t count). Finding a Swatch in Alexanderplatz was easy. I just went to the giant department store and conducted the entire transaction in my English-German brand of gibberish that the locals are generally kind enough to tolerate. Feeling awfully accomplished, I ordered a bratwurst (in German!) from a stand outside and soaked up some sun. While eating, a guy from New Zealand struck up a conversation because he could tell I speak English. (So much for my language accomplishments). We chatted for a while and were headed off in the same direction. He was en route to the Berliner Dom (the lovely neo-Baroque church at the center of town) and I to Museum Island, located directly behind the Dom.

Museum Island is just as geekily fantastic as you would expect. All of the country’s official collections are housed in a number of structures on the Spree River. Built in 1904 and rebuilt since the 1990s, the Bode-Museum is a delicate mix of history and minimalist display. And therein lies the Byzantine collection. Its striking, domed entryway stretches to the farthest point of the island, making the building a triangular shape. It looked closed when I stepped under the shady entry way; its heavy, intricately-carved wooden door stood solidly between me and the remnants of Byzantium. But when I headed up the stairs, the wind blew the door open, creaking just a little, welcoming me toward the ivories and sarcophagai and even a transported mosaic from Ravenna.

I left feeling refreshed, like a legitimate art historian again. The sun was still shining but a perfect breeze beckoned me to sit on the stone bridge overlooking the river for a while. A spot opened up. A few tourists shared a snack. Two art students sketched. I glanced at my new watch and wished I’d brought a notebook. The woman who had left my spot arrived at the center of the bridge and took out a trumpet. She serenaded the day cruisers who passed under us and the passersby who pretended not to notice. Under the bright sun, Berlin finally seemed right. Art, food, weather, and experience had finally caught up to one other. And then the trumpeter broke into a rendition of “Can’t Stop Falling in Love.”

I took the long way back to the U-Bahn, past the riverside lido of locals drinking beers in lounge chairs and kids watching the boats go by and ernest teenagers in the park with guitars and poetry books. I was so absorbed in the experience that I almost didn’t hear New Zealand Guy greet me as I circled around the Berliner Dom again. We compared stories about our respective tiny adventures and talked about how new and young the city feels, especially for one that has been around for a few hundred years. As I ducked into my subway stop he said, “see you later,” which seems entirely possible.

*Jack Holland and John Gawthrop, The Rough Guide to Berlin. Updated 6th ed. London: Rough Guides, 2001.