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.

What’s Latin for “I’m a Hack?”

“You look tired.” That time it was from my friend, Paul-Lee, who I hadn’t seen in a year. The one before that was from a classmate in the elevator. The one before that was from another colleague. I’m pretty sure my cat said it a couple of times lately. I am tired. It’s my last semester of coursework (ever). And I haven’t felt like writing lately.

Every semester I tape a list of projects above my computer, and when I finish a paper I cross it off with a wide-tipped Sharpie and dance around the living room in my socks. Last week, the paper fell and got taped to the floor where it got crumpled and stepped on. I taped it back up two days ago. It fell again. Now it’s missing. This did not bode well for my current investigations of the middle ages.

You see, I’ve been living an urban legend. You know the one in which the person does a couple of years of research only to find that someone else has published a book on the exact same topic within the last three months? Yeah, that one.

So I took a little time off to mourn the loss of my research. Cleaning is good for productivity, right? I conquered my self-pity with ice cream and went on a grand cleaning-out spree. I collected things to get dry-cleaned. I started sewing buttons back on my coats. (By the way, why didn’t someone tell me my black coat has a huge hole under one arm? How long have I been wearing it like that?) I read the New York Lottery Winner’s Handbook, just in case. I even tried pseudo-homework things like starting a bibliography for my next qualifying exam and writing snarky anonymous responses to people who post inane comments on Amazon book reviews. But the pièce de résistance of Resistance came from watching the premiere episode of Game of Thrones—totally academically justifiable because it’s, like, based on medievalism, right? Ack.

So to refocus on academics I went to a lecture by Dr. George Demacopoulos, a professor of theology at Fordham University. He spoke about the translation of the relics of Saints Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom from Rome to Constantinople in 2004. Justification for the return of these relics from the Catholics to the Orthodox Christians was based largely on medieval textual accounts of how the relics got to Rome in the first place. He framed the interaction as one of great cultural importance—an event that brought two religious groups together after centuries of unease, tension, and at times even outright conflict. He also noted the significance of religious treasures being given over to the Orthodox Patriarch of Istanbul because Christians there are a small minority (about 2000 in number); if the patriarch were to go into exile for any reason, the secular Turkish government would have control over the treasures. I made a note to seek out these relics on my upcoming pilgrimage to Hagia Sophia, and Professor Demacopoulos cheerfully reminded me not to miss the Chora Monastery, either. (My things-to-see list is growing exponentially).

Inspired by the talk, I sat at a bar on the Upper West Side with a notebook, a bowl of pasta, and a glass of wine (a ritual I developed last summer) and wrote lots of words on my legal pad, but none of them were my research paper. The lecture got me thinking about the stickiness of studying religion from an academic perspective. It’s easy to wallow in “what could I, an art historian, possibly have to say about a religion that has evolved over two thousand years?” Is it necessary (or even possible) to remain neutral when studying the history of any religion? My thoughts tumbled around a bit more on this theme throughout my way home, but none of it was anything new. One of the most fascinating things about studying the history of religions is navigating ways to study deeply personal beliefs with academic, historical methods. Like art history, this is a study of human nature. So my mental stumbling block was definitely not a crisis of religion. What, then? Two cans of Coke, another cleaning spree, and an episode of Gossip Girl later, I still felt squirmy about completing my writing project. What’s the point?

Eventually the din of my inner procrastinating lunatic was muffled by the tiny voice of honesty in my head. I had lost faith in my own expertise, my own story, my own reasons for studying Byzantine art. Deep down, I didn’t believe that anyone would ever want to pay me for what I do. What if all my ideas were, unbeknownst to me, already in print? What if I never make a living? What if the weight of my student loans squashes me into a little greasy spot on the floor? What if I really suck at this and no one has noticed until now?

But at 3:01 am today I received a bill amounting to $0. Huh? It was a pre-ordered copy of Steven Pressfield’s aptly titled book about fighting creative Resistance, Do the Work. I went to Prospect Park this afternoon and lay down on the damp grass. When the sun got too bright, I rolled over and took some pictures of the trees. By then I had a better refrain echoing in my subconscious: “do the work.” Yes, I’ll get a job eventually; I’ll teach art history to many people (some of whom will like it and some who won’t) later; I’ll give lectures and make small talk and wear spiffy outfits and design PowerPoint presentations many times in the future if I’m lucky. I’ll embrace my love of art and all its revelations about human nature. But first, I must do the work. I have to write the papers before I can make a career out of them.

I dusted off my rumpled sweatpants (please don’t judge my fashion; it’s spring break), bought a coconut water, and ambled home from the park with words in my head that have finally made it to paper. Thank you, Steven Pressfield; your forward-thinking book has sent me back to Byzantium where I belong.

Wall-kicking: Contemporary Art and the Middle Ages

Last time I wrote about ways that we construct history, interpreting facts to produce varying mental images of time periods. I’d also like to add that time periods are in an of themselves constructions. Sure, we can’t change the earth’s orbit, but humans have measured it in myriad ways. The western Gregorian calendar we use now is a sixteenth-century system. The impending Maya apocalypse? Really just the end of one of their calendar cycles. All of which is to say that I am intrigued by the wave of recent scholarship that considers art beyond the contrived borders of any particular time period.

For instance, postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies is a relatively new academic publication in which “contemporary events, issues, ideas, problems, objects, and texts serve as triggers for critical investigations of the Middle Ages.”[1] Hmmm, sounds a bit like my impetus for starting this blog, albeit theirs is in a peer-reviewed format. At present, there is an exhibition of reliquaries called Objects of Devotion and Desire: Medieval Relic to Contemporary Art at Hunter College that incorporates objects from the middle ages to the present. More than a mere ‘reliquaries through the ages’ show, it offers observations of memory and presence that consider the objects’ origins and audience as part of a human experience that transcends the practice of any given age.[2]

I like to think of art history as a contemplation of human nature. How sad is it, then, that I often feel more comfortable talking about Byzantine icons than the art that is being created now? A few recent projects have shaken my tendency to live in the past, thank goodness. One was the catalog essay I mentioned in November. Next came a conversation with my friend Zane. At the opening of his show last month, I struggled to give him a mid-cocktail party critical assessment of the work. (When you look at art for a living, “super cool” doesn’t really count as a contextualized acknowledgment). The result was a lively email conversation and a short piece that I wrote as a more articulated response than what I could conjure up on the fly. I’m publishing it here with the hope that you will check out the show’s closing this Friday (February 18) at Centotto and will join me in kicking down the walls between historical and contemporary art, at least for a day.

Selected works from Zane Wilson's Portrolio X Appunti at Centotto (clockwise from top left): Untitled (Anchor); Drawing for Ground Quiver; Untitled (Box, Noose, Nails); Untitled (Rubber Tree).

Five Responses to Zane Wilson’s Portfolio x Appunti at Centotto
by A.L. McMichael

On Friday, January 21, Bushwick’s Centotto gallery, recognized for its curatorial emphasis on dialogue and text, inaugurated a new exhibition format into its rotation. This format, called Portfolio x Appunti, is one in which an artist’s work is “mediated by a five-tiered framework of specific visual and written appunti, or ‘notes.’” Brooklyn artist Zane Wilson is the first to be featured in this configuration. The exhibition formula offers a structure in which the artist can experiment with specific tiers of information on a worksheet: the pieces on exhibit; five lines of text about concepts and contexts; five more on materials and processes; five lists (of inspiration or sources); and five studio shots. In light of the five-themed structure, I offer commentary on five elements of the sculptural exhibition.

1. Tactility. The show’s most striking object, a large wood and latex anchor, has the texture and color of skin. There’s an icky and mesmerizing feel to the latex coating many of the surfaces in the exhibition. More than a few viewers felt an uncontrollable need to touch the art, to interact with it, to see each piece from multiple angles. How many people couldn’t help fondling the tip of that anchor tantalizing them from above? How disconcerting is it to touch what looks like wood grain and feel rubber? This art demands action as much as vision. Everyday objects from tools to fingers are imbued with a lively tangibility.

2. Materials. There are combinations of materials that really shouldn’t really make sense coming together to form cohesive objects. The materials themselves make these objects into more than what they represent. Materials that carry social connotations—wood (life, nature), rubber (protection, sexuality, waterproofness)—make a viewer linger.

3. Objects. The chosen objects carry social connotations, shown in ways that are contrary to their roles in the ‘real’ world. The anchor, a weight, hangs above our heads by a rope, an element that can keep you anchored or pull you to safety. It can also be wound into a noose. A unicorn horn, a symbol of purity (or the loss of it) is made from a drill bit. Is it mounted to the wall or piercing its wooden base? These are not a collection of ‘real’ objects and not mere re-creations. They’re references to objects made with a layer of inherent meaning conveyed via the chosen materials.

4. Playfulness. (And its very sharp edge). There’s liveliness and joviality in a chunky latex saw that couldn’t cut down trees or in arrows that droop over their ground quiver. There’s a chuckle in fingers emerging from records on the wall or in the play on words when you realize Wilson has made a literal rubber tree. These serve as an unspoken dialogue between artist and viewer. The witticisms have shadows lurking in their corners, however. The vitality of the drill bit horn is crowned with a hot pink noose. The color laughs in the face of morbidity. The floppy arrows are incapacitated weapons. Nearby a hanging faux bois box holds hand-carved nails large enough to crucify or drive a railroad stake, but there’s nothing inside to be pierced. Is the measure of darkness or cheerfulness in these juxtapositions a reflection of the artist or of the viewer?

5. Words. Or lack of them, on the part of the artist. He shares many of his influences and inspirations in the five written appunti. However, he offered very little in terms of interpretative commentary on individual pieces during his artist talk. He lets the work speak for itself, leaving it open-ended. Part of me wants to howl until he explains every object, and the other part delights in filling in those gaps for myself. He gives hints in the titles; a pink rubber hammer for someone “all thumbs in love” plays on words and alludes to human fragility. The objects and their symbolism to the artist are an example of the personal made public, silently reminding us that there’s a soul behind these creations, but we’re only allowed a glimpse at it. Aspects of this show are reminiscent of the artist’s past work—which included images of genitalia or cartoons, for instance—but the references have evolved in their emphasis of the body and nature and manmade objects interacting to convey a sense of humanity throughout the show.


[1] From the Facebook page of postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies. Accessed February 14, 2011, https://www.facebook.com/pages/postmedieval-a-journal-of-medieval-cultural-studies/117178721653018. See also http://www.palgrave-journals.com/pmed/

[2] For the exhibition catalog, including images and essays by my professor, curator Cynthia Hahn, and her students at Hunter College, go to www.objectsofdevotionanddesire.com for links and a downloadable PDF. Better yet, go see the exhibition at the Bertha & Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, now through April 30. (Open Tuesday – Saturday 1:00 – 6:00 pm).

History Hugs a Tree

I love it when news articles report instances in which someone had to call in the medievalists. Is it such a stretch to imagine us en masse, swashbuckling our way through the crowds with manuscripts and Latin dictionaries in hand to save the day? Today’s adventure comes courtesy of Paul who sent me a BBC article describing a direct connection between success or failure of Roman society and changes in its climate. [1] You may also recall how intrigued I am by geology and its relationship to art and history. This week, Mount Etna began to grumble and spew fire, a reminder that the survival of anything– art objects to entire civilizations–is in many ways subject to the forces of nature.[2]

The link between climate change and human achievement in Rome has been deciphered using tree rings from wooden artifacts. Traditionally, dendrochronology (using tree rings to date materials) in archaeology is considered precarious because it tells you the date of the wood, not the object.[3] For instance, the rings on the wooden beam of a church tell you when the tree was cut, not when the church was built. Also, the survival of medieval wooden ships, beams, or furniture is rare. However, the good thing about these elusive medieval tree rings is that trees don’t lie. A tree gets a new ring each year, and the width of that ring is determined by many factors such as temperature, precipitation, fire, wind, species, and habitat.[4] Enough samples have been documented that comparing even partial tree ring evidence to archived samples yields reliable results, and it can be used in conjunction with radiocarbon dating.

In the article, scientists from the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape have gathered enough data to deduce that “wet and warm summers occurred during periods of Roman and medieval prosperity. Increased climate variability from 250-600 AD coincided with the demise of the western Roman empire and the turmoil of the migration period.”[5] It’s not particularly surprising that people thrive when nature cooperates, but a study like this adds scientific explanation to common sense theory. Medieval history has added weight to the findings of these paleoclimatologists as well.

The juicy part of all this interdisciplinary intermingling is that so much of history is the writer’s own construction. For instance, there are scholars who would argue that Rome’s ‘chaotic’ migration period could just as easily be seen as one of transition and communication. Lawrence Nees, for instance, promotes art in the early medieval west as that of tradition and transformation, dispelling the notion of “Wandering Tribes” and calling the period “a time of ethnogenesis, the cultural creation of new ‘peoples’, not of the migration of stable populations.”[6] Other scholars concur, saying “the [Roman] empire had never isolated itself from the Germanic peoples they called barbarians, recruiting them as soldiers for the Roman army and developing commercial and diplomatic ties with their leaders.”[7] In other words, the migration period was not necessarily one of constant migration of groups of people, but one of people collectively choosing and asserting their identities. When scholars disagree on the facts, it makes aligning historical events with scientific measurements even more complex. Could measuring climate changes via tree rings compel us to reconsider historical theory?

And how is this remotely useful to an art historian? Right now I’m writing about early Christian baptism, a sacrament that was still evolving in the third century. According to scientist Ulf Büntgen, “distinct drying in the third century paralleled a period of serious crisis in the western Roman empire.”[8] It remains to be seen what impact a drought may have had on art depicting a water ritual, but I like that the discovery is sending my art historical research down a scientific path.


[1] Mark Kinver, “Roman rise and fall ‘recorded in trees,’” BBC News, January 14, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12186245

See also Ulf Büntgen, et al., “2500 Years of European Climate Variability and Human Susceptibility,” Science (January 14, 2011), DOI: 10.1126/science.1197175.  Find the abstract online at http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2011/01/12/science.1197175.abstract.

[2] For a fantastic photo by Antonio Parrinello (Reuters), see “Etna Aflame,” National Geographic Daily News, January 14, 2011, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/01/pictures/110114-mount-etna-eruption-pictures-italy-volcanoes/.

[3] A description of the pros and cons of using dendrochronology as evidence can be found in Leslie Brubaker and John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era (c. 680-850): The Sources (Aldershot Hants, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001), 5.

[4] For an extensive but user-friendly website on dendrochronology, see Henri D. Grissino-Meyer’s site, The Ultimate Tree-Ring Web Pages, http://web.utk.edu/~grissino/index.htm.

See also National Park Service, U. S. Department of the Interior, “Dendrochronology,” Archaeology Program,    http://www.cr.nps.gov/archeology/AforI/howfig_abs3.htm.

[6] Lawrence Nees, Early Medieval Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 14.

[7] Melanie Holcomb, “Barbarians and Romans,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/barb/hd_barb.htm (October 2002).

All’s Fair in Love and Architecture

Not long ago I got a Facebook invitation from a group petitioning to get Hagia Sophia turned back into a Christian Church. My gut reaction: sure, and then should we dig up Raphael and turn the Pantheon back over to the pagans? It irked me on a surprisingly deep level. It was an attempt to wipe away half a century of the structure’s history. The imperialization of history is often one of intolerance.

Hagia Sophia, the church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, rebuilt by the emperor Justinian after the riots of 532, is at present a secular museum.[1] The church’s Byzantine glory faded when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II rode his horse into the sanctuary in 1453, claiming his place as the new heir of the Roman Empire. Robert Nelson has traced Hagia Sophia’s modern history, giving the building its due as a cultural icon, beyond any one group that has played into its ongoing rich web of participants.[2] Now nineteenth-century Arabic medallions sit beneath the “floating” dome that allows an ethereal light into the vast space. The Virgin and Child mosaic still gazes over the basilica, unlike other Byzantine mosaics that were plastered over by the Ottomans who shied away from figural imagery. There are three forces vying for cultural claim of the sacred space: Muslims, Christians, and the secular Turkish government.

The groups haven’t always played well with each other. In 2006, Turkish protestors demonstrated against Pope Benedict XVI’s visit.[3] Last September, a group of Greeks caused a stir by insisting on holding a religious service there despite the illegality of such an act.[4] While the notion that civic and secular control of the structure sounds like a cozy compromise to someone who grew up with a firm separation of church and state, critics are quick to point out that state-sponsored secularism can be oppressive in its own way. Others suggest that Christians and Muslims simply share the space.[5] (On one hand, I’ve seen it happen: the Dome of the Rock is claimed by three religions and is still standing, and there’s at least one church/synagogue in Park Slope. But two issues make me cringe a little as well. First is that shared space can also be a precarious topic; the intensity of the debate over the potential Ground Zero Mosque comes to mind. The other is that I’m not Muslim or Orthodox. Would the rest of us have even less of a claim to the grand location, despite inheriting Hagia Sophia as part of our cultural [art historical] inheritance if not our national or religious one?)

This cultural tug of war leaves the building somewhat accessible to the public—for the price of a ticket the museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 9 am to 4:30 pm. But accessibility does not equal security. UNESCO cites pollution and urbanization as constant threats to Istanbul’s treasures.[6] Fergus Bordewich’s 2008 descriptions of Hagia Sophia’s grime and decay and delayed preservation efforts due to funding made my soul sink a little.[7] I immediately began filling a change jar, saving up for a plane ticket to make my art historical pilgrimage before an earthquake swallows it whole.

What remains unclear is who is ultimately responsible for the preservation of this monument, who owns culture. It is a delicate structure that requires vast amounts of money and specialized labor to maintain, much less restore. Is any government capable of such a task? Will UNESCO prevail? Hagia Sophia’s duality as both secular and sacred space has complicated its process of being properly monumentalized. Although every structure is in some sense, a living organism—the use of it, even now, is part of its history, part of what Nelson calls a “performance” that has been “threatened with reclamation and revival.”[8]

What is fascinating to me as I tiptoe through this complex debate is the tangible presence of a medieval building in today’s society. Do we treat its medieval religions as the same ones that continue today? Byzantine Christianity was quite different from any denomination practiced today, but its traditions live on. Islam has changed since the fifteenth century, but descendants of the Ottoman conquerors feel connected to that past. Government involvement in the structure began with Justinian, so that tradition is a medieval one as well. Hagia Sophia is not merely a medieval object that sits on display, but a still-relevant, beloved entity in the twenty-first century. The issue here is not one of faith or rightful ownership. It is one of survival, of preservation. Ah, yes, the middle ages live on.

 


[1] For tourism information see Sacred Destinations. http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/istanbul-hagia-sophia

[2] Robert S. Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 1850-1950: Holy Wisdom Modern Monument, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[4] Today’s Zaman. 2010. Liturgy at Hagia Sophia plan stirs tension. September 17. http://www.todayszaman.com/news-221875-liturgy-at-hagia-sophia-plan-stirs-tension.html

[5] Akyol, Mustafa. 2010. Let’s just reopen Hagia Sophia as church/mosque. Hurriyet Daily News. August 27.

http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=let8217s-just-reopen-hagia-sophia-as-churchmosque-2010-08-27

[6] UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Historic Areas of Istanbul. World Heritage Convention. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/356

[7] Fergus M. Bordewich, “A Monumental Struggle to Preserve Hagia Sophia,” in Smithsonian (Dec. 2008).

“http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/Fading-Glory.html

[8] Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 214.

“There Is No Such Thing As an Art History Emergency”

We’ve all heard someone announce, “I need a good lawyer,” or request that “any doctor or medical personnel aboard the plane report to a flight attendant.” How many times have you timidly asked a pharmacist friend for advice about medications or a landscape designer why your roses look wimpy this year? These are useful jobs, practical ones. No one has ever asked, “is there a Byzantinist in the house?”

I’d love to be able to tell you that I chose my career as an art historian because I’m simply called to do it and wouldn’t be happy with anything else. The truth is, it’s not even my first career, and when I decided to go to grad school, there were several fields I considered: architecture, urban planning, history, English, interior design, journalism. Ultimately, I picked this one because I wanted a job in which I had some amount of creative control over my projects, and because I want to be a writer. I also like the fact that travel is necessary. On a more existential note, my friend just quoted on Facebook a colleague who declared,“at my most cynical, I feel that the powers of this world want to see the humanities and social sciences eliminated from education, as it is these disciplines which encourage students to think about their society and culture, as well as those around them. So, perhaps pursuing a PhD in the humanities is now a subversive act, and should be encouraged as such.” Yet, graduate schools are flooded with applications from PhD hopefuls in all of these disciplines. Ha! Take that, cynical universe.

In a less dreary frame of mind, I’d also confess how thrilled I am when a student tells me that she fell in love with the Metropolitan Museum of Art after I required a visit there or how delighted I am when a student takes an interest in his own religion after seeing its artistic origins in the medieval works we discuss in class. My favorite conversation went something along these lines:

Medieval Art History Student on the last day of class: “You know, I liked this class a lot more than I intended to.”

Me: “Er, thanks. Why exactly?”

Student: “Well, I just expected it to be a bunch of Crucifixes but there’s a lot more to it than that.”

Indeed.

On days that are less rainy and gloomy than this one, I’d also tell you that I believe studying art teaches us something about humanity; it is a gauge of a society’s values and a valuable vehicle for discussing religion and politics and human rights and war and the economy and every other issue that plagues and elates us as humans. Do you think the bullies of the world might back down a little if they realized without gay misfits, we wouldn’t have Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or Andy Warhol’s excellent quote about everyone having fifteen minutes of fame? Would the Middle East be in better shape politically if the leaders of Allied powers after WWII had had a clearer notion of the cultural differences inherent in the ethnic groups–whose roots extended back to the middle ages–they were haphazardly assigning to geographic regions?

Recently my curator friend organized a show of two artists whose work incorporates palimpsests, layers of visual information that build on each other and develop a rich experience for the viewer. He asked if I would write an essay for the catalog because he knew that as a medievalist, I might have something to share about manuscripts and the way that medieval scribes would often scrape away a text on an expensive piece of parchment in order to record something new on top of it. Is there a medievalist in the house? Oh, yes! And for once, my expertise was not just a way to conjure up the past, but an opportunity to shed light on two contemporary artists whose work is part of a great tradition of palimpsistic, layered creativity, and whose show is (in my own words from the exhibition catalog) “an invitation to both viewer and artist to question and process visual information in all possible ways, to appreciate the inherent cycles of creation, to find new information in the repetition of a familiar object or practice, and to make the creative process a conversation rather than a monologue.” [Please check out their work in Marksmen and the Palimpsests at www.centotto.com and if you’re in the city, stop by the opening this weekend].

So, yeah, I do think understanding the middle ages contributes to a greater understanding of society today. And while I hope the rest of you keep saving lives and building bridges, I’ll keep plugging along. I may not be on the front lines of negotiating world peace, but I can remain subversive and inspired and hopefully, at least, shed some light on human nature.

Forgetting to Remember

I’m not gonna lie—it took a long time to unpack from my summer journey. In fact, I think there are still a few toiletries stashed in a cardboard box in the back room and some plastic bins in the basement that haven’t returned to their previous homes. Why bother, really, when I spent six weeks living abundantly out of a now-ratty, silver-grey Target suitcase?

Indeed, why bother coming home at all? There are few things the Mediterranean sun can’t cure, and I’ve never felt more alive than prowling around the museums where my favorite paintings are stashed or the churches housing objects that are sacred to an art nerd like me. Well, the little grey cat, my best drinking buddy, and the nice boy who cooks were among the most compelling reasons to return home. And also there’s the issue of that pesky PhD in art history that I simply must finish. One more year of coursework and I can take my final qualifying exam and start my dissertation.

And seriously, the PhD, for all its stress and agony, is something I truly want to accomplish. But my summer travels added another layer to my reasons for pursuing the subject of medieval studies—an interest in its relevance today, in ideas that manifested themselves centuries ago and never went away. The Renaissance, that so-called Early Modern period, wasn’t a rebirth of anything, really; in many ways it incorporated new ways of interpreting ideas that had been hanging around for a long time while temporarily sweeping other ideas under the rug. In the present, we can ponder some new ways of seeing those ideas.

For instance, not long ago I ran across an article in The New York Times claiming that moving your studying location from one spot to another can help you retain information better than having a permanent, predetermined homework location.[i] Associating various places with information helps to burn it into memory. As both a student and a teacher, I found this inspiring. You mean it’s okay for me to sneak off to the park or the house where I’m cat-sitting to do homework because I’m just too bored to keep reading at my desk? And why did science take so long to share this wisdom? My first exposure to a ‘work smarter, not harder’ mode of thinking actually came from Scrooge McDuck, but apparently the concept is much older than a 1980s cartoon.

When I shared the article with a friend who teaches writing to high school students, he reminded me that both ancient Greeks and medieval Europeans were well aware of the connection between location and memory, citing the ancient technique of memory rooms and medieval monks’ technique for learning Stations of the Cross. The method of loci was invented by Simonides of Ceos, a poet who lived around 500 BCE. He recalled a long list of individuals by memorizing their locations within an imaginary building; moving around that imagined location served as a mnemonic device for him to conjure up their names.[ii] In the middle ages Christian pilgrims would often pray at the Stations of the Cross by pausing before each of a series of images of Christ’s passion, “physically retracing this path and meditating upon the events,” in order to experience and remember each scene of the narrative.[iii] Humanity’s great thinkers to have spent much time considering the most effective ways of controlling and organizing memory, including Cicero, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas who wrote, “whatever a man wishes to retain in his memory he must carefully consider and set in order, so that he may pass easily from one memory to another.”[iv] In centuries when literacy was rare, flashcards were unheard of, and multitasking hadn’t been invented, mnemonic devices were not only useful but necessary means for maintaining knowledge.

Ah, putting my thoughts in order. Forming a strategy for studying. Not getting buried under a pile of books. These are things a harried grad student often forgets to do. And strategies many students never really learn at all. (I’ve lost track of how many undergrads have claimed they’re “just not good with names and dates.” Join the club, folks). So of course the ancients are a good starting point for how to tackle a pile of homework and avoid the often-ephemeral character of just-read pages. The Times articles is just one more contribution to the wisdom of the ages on a subject that is just as relevant now as it was two thousand years ago.


[i] Benedict Carey, “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits,” The New York Times, September 6, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/health/views/07mind.html

[ii] “mnemonic adj. n.”  A Dictionary of Psychology. Edited by Andrew M. Colman. Oxford University Press 2009. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.  CUNY Graduate Center.  22 October 2010  <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t87.e5144>

[iii] “Stations of the Cross,” in Leslie Ross, Medieval Art: A Topical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenport Publishing Group, 1996.

[iv] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Volume 3 (Part II, Second Section), Q. 49 Art. 2. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007.