Dwelling between encounters

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Smooth and slimy rocks in the Melendiz stream that flows through the Ilhara Valley.

“What’s with the bum knee?,” a friend commented on my online photo. In it, I was getting ready to wade across the Melendiz, a once-river (now stream) that rushes and trickles through the Ihlara Valley in Turkey. On my back was a pack holding a camera that cost more than my rent and around my knee was a cheap elastic brace, holding my joints in place after an imprudently awkward crawl through a Byzantine tunnel in the tufa. Why is it that at home, I’m afraid to go to the gym three hours after a brunch mimosa—“what if I misuse the equipment or drop something?!”— but on the road I implicitly trust myself to not fall down a mountain or anger a stray cow? Fieldwork is a refreshing time out from the fear of potential ailments and injuries. It’s not sustainable, but neither is garden-variety urban anxiety.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the time in between those glorious adventures. Which experience is closer to “real life”? They say good actors are best judged by the moments they’re on-screen but not talking–reacting, assimilating, living in the scene but not dominating it. What about researchers who leave the ancient sites behind to sit at a laptop, half-buried under a pile of books during the colder months?

The problem with coming home from a trip and readjusting is that I lose that narrator’s voice in my head; I lose the lens of discovery for seeing the world, and I lose the stories that are so intimately etched into my mind now. They will all fade. They are already fading. I feel like The Doctor’s companions once they’re back to their old jobs. I know a few secrets of Byzantium—what it’s like to sit beneath a sixth-century ceiling cross and ponder both eternity and my ineffective bug repellant; what some of those now-damaged frescoes must have meant to monks who climbed the rock-cut stairs into rock-cut cells to sleep and pray; how chilly the rushing stream is that bisects the Ilhara Valley, and how slippery the mossy rocks are at the bottom of it.

When we were kids, every time my grandparents would park the Oldsmobile under the flat-roofed garage in the driveway, they’d drawl, “home again, home again, jiggedy jig,” as if we’d been on a long voyage, even if we’d just popped over to S & S cafeteria for supper. The phrase had a peppiness to it, and their tone always seemed lighter for being back where we started. I’m going to take a cue from their homing pigeon ways and revel in the familiarity of home and fluffy pillows and drinkable tap water. Even though the rigors of formal education can make a person feel pretty cooped up, I’m going to focus on lining my little Brooklyn nest with trinkets of sunny days and small-town evenings, totems to conjure up the stories I need to finish my dissertation.

As you may have noticed, this site has a new name. I think of variants of this blog as multiple volumes of a story that are still unraveling. In the past I’ve tried to write dispatches from the road or tell stories about recent efforts to visit art or historical places. I envision the next few entries as loosely-themed essays about the experiences we create for ourselves and the times in between that are filled with remembered and imagined adventures.


On Top of the World in a Stylite Monk’s Cave

Zelve, Cappadocia. Those dark spots you see in the cones are entrances into rock-cut rooms.

I used to feel sorry for the Cappadocian monks. Tucked away in dark caves, some of them isolated from communities, these men (and possibly some women) lived a life of ritual monotony, reenacting the same liturgies throughout the seasons until they were laid to rest in a hole in one of the mountains so that their spirits could participate in those rituals in perpetuity. What a sad, monotonous way to spend a life, right? Well actually, my travel writing hero, Patrick Leigh Fermor, famously took up residence in a monastery so that he would have a quiet, inexpensive place to finish a book. Entering the arrangement with “curiosity and misgiving,” he fought off nervous energy and insomnia, eventually immersing himself in the peaceful solitude and work as a “new dispensation left nineteen hours a day of absolute and god-like freedom.”[1] He made a good case for the productivity that comes from inner peace, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that a rugged existence, exposed to the elements, could be a thing of beauty.

Some of the cave monks modeled their existence after stylites, ascetic saints who spent much of their lives atop tall columns, exposing themselves to the elements in the name of bodily sacrifice for spiritual edification. The stylite cave monks would carve a small cell near the top of a volcanic cone. In a 1935 journey, photographers John D. Whiting and G. Eric Matson captured one of those cones with the caption, “Tripple top cone in Pasha Baja, comprising a complete anchorite home.”[2]

I climbed to the top of that cone. The only entry past the ground floor was through a vertical shaft with shallow hand and foot niches, kind of like a narrow, circular rock climbing wall in a gym but without the safety gear. At first glance, the cone seemed too insignificant to make the climb worthwhile. There was no church in there, just rock-cut rooms going up three stories. Our guide assured us that it was fine to skip this one; he’d seen it several times already. Oh, boy. Not to be outdone by a tenured professor, another student and I put down our backpacks, shook our heads, and looked up through the vertical entryway. Piece of cake, really.

My friend went first because he’s a better climber. The walls felt rough like chunks of fragile concrete that would crumble if you didn’t handle them gingerly. There were no hard edges; all the steps and footholds and niches were defined by the soft curves of ancient carving. The first level had a room and a window cut to allow for the view of several other sandy pink and brown volcanic cones in the valley and a glimpse of blue sky. The hot sun was no match for the shady rock, and breezes rustled through the window openings. Our distance from the ground muffled the noise of voices. On another level (only a few scary steps up), there were sleeping spaces carved in the rock for the monk and his companion, along with a little altar with traces of red painting for when he needed to look inward rather than out onto the landscape.

A voice shouted up, “What do you see? Are there any paintings?” To which we only mumbled a reply because we were busy taking a picture of ourselves with the camera timer. After all, we were on top of the world.

The adrenaline rush of a split-second freefall going back down the entryway was a reminder that the danger and beauty of a landscape like this is a far cry from the mundane stress of urban living. I imagined watching a sunset over the valley a thousand years ago, perched on a stone bench after the toil of a day’s work, a solitary creature surrounded by some of the pinnacles of creation. It is certain that the monks’ daily lives were physically demanding. The scorching heat in summer and snow in winter probably penetrated their bones and their psyches. We don’t have any written records of their interactions, but we do know that they raised animals, made honey and wine, and celebrated their faith, even after the Seljuk Turks came to power around 1071. In contrast to the obvious downsides of provincial isolation, the residents probably also created a certain sense of place by making their homes in the mountains. There would be a comfort in the ritual of a day’s meditation or its liturgical practices. Even when the body was weary and hungry, there would be a nourished soul. I think it’s the book of Phillipians that uses the phrase “the peace that passeth understanding.” As a kid, I thought that was a fantastic tongue-twister. As a Byzantinist, I’m certain that it explains why monks populated the rock-cut landscape of rural Cappadocia. What a glorious, peaceful way to spend a life.

View from a stylite monk’s cell.

Almost to the top. (Thanks to Megan Garedakis for the photo).

[1] Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time to Keep Silence, (1957; New York: New York Review of Books, 1982), 7 and 22-23.

[2] John D. Whiting and G. Eric Matson, Trip to Cappadocia, 1935, vol. II. Whiting and Matson traveled at the request of the National Geographic Society, and the album has been digitized by the Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007675296/. The Pasha Baja is also called the Pashabag Valley or Monks Valley and lies between Göreme and Zelve. See http://www.goreme.com/pasabag.php, the Turkish Heritage Travel website, for travel information.

Toughest City You’ll Ever Love

I left Istanbul with a suitcase full of evil-eye charms, a bag of undeveloped film, and a little streak of homesickness. I landed in New York just in time for the heat index to waver around 112 degrees. While lurking around air-conditioned coffee shops this week, I put together a little photo essay with the hope of comprehending my trip. Like any pilgrim who returns from a long journey, I have souvenirs to distribute and stories to recount. So now as the rain falls on the scorched asphalt and thirsty plants of Brooklyn, I offer images from another city that is as humid and bustling and full of history and humanity and delicious food.

Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque

Hagia Sophia, including its ideal napping spot under the apse and the view from a gallery window.

Topkapi Palace and its amazing Ottoman tiles.

Secret Beer. Yep, that's right--there's a restaurant on the Asian side that technically doesn't sell alcohol, but if you ask nicely, a large cold beer in a metal tea cup will appear.

Fishing the Bosphoros.

The Blue Mosque, one of my favorites for its lovely tiles and peaceful natural light.

Hagia Eirene, another piece of Justinian's legacy, now within the confines of the Topkapi Palace grounds.

Graffiti; taxi; all the protection you could ever need from the evil eye; and Sirkeci train station (bottom left), Istanbul's stop on the Orient Express.

Galatsaray, far from the touristy chaos of Sultanahmet.

Nobody’s Business but…

My relationship with Istanbul has been a bit dysfunctional. Most notable was my awkward first encounter with Hagia Sophia, known as Justinian’s Great Church and our grandest inheritance from Byzantium. Surely this was to be expected; I’d seen its online profile one too many times and felt intimately acquainted with it before our meeting in real life, always a recipe for disappointment.

The date went well at first. I spent a few minutes staring at it from afar, glimpsing the dome as it rose over the park and fountain and carefully pruned trees. A closer glance, however, revealed piles of concrete bricks outside and a bright yellow bulldozier. Oh, dear. I waited two days to actually cross the threshold.

Prior to making the acquaintance of Istanbul, I spent two weeks at a graduate student workshop in Cappadocia, the mountainous region of central Turkey. The program description had hinted that we would do “a lot of walking,” but that translated into days of hiking up mountains and down valleys, crossing creeks on homemade bridges, creeping inside Byzantine tombs and crawling on hands and knees through dark corridors. The reward for taking the Physical Challenge was a series of Byzantine structures cut from the volcanic landscape, mounds of dirt and rock on the outside and carefully constructed architecture on the inside. Many of the churches have paintings on the walls, glimpses into the lives and beliefs of long-forgotten individuals and their communities. There’s transcendence in the thousand-year-old narrative scenes that still convey the melancholy of Crucifixion, the joy of miraculous healing, or even the unwavering piety of an anonymous bishop.  Many of them damaged and weather-beaten, the paintings fight to hold on to their color and figures, their plaster clinging to the cave walls through snow and dust and visitors. The voice of reason, “holy crap, you’re too old for this,” gave way to the voice of wonderment: “Why am I here? What on earth have I done to deserve experiences like this?” I know that on the coldest days of a New York winter, these will be the images that haunt me, that drive me to keep studying for my next qualifying exam and to get some research funding and tackle that dissertation.

After the exhaustion set in and we couldn’t hike any more mountains, it was time to reenter urban civilization. I spent two days in Istanbul getting harrassed by a variety of pesky street vendors in Sultanahmet. I didn’t realize that staying in this part of town is essentially staying in Times Square. It’s noisy and busy and there’s nothing authentically Turkish about it. Tourism abounds. Everybody knows that the street vendors are just trying to earn a living and even sales clerks who follow you around stores are just practicing a trade. But the really creepy guys are the ones who see you pull out a map and insist on asking where you are going and if you’re traveling alone, even after a polite “no, thank you.” I’ve gotten in two shouting matches with men who were insulting and rude after I declined their help. It’s like seeing the effects of chivalry on steroids, so angry and insecure.

This is not to say that people here are generally creepy, by the way. I’ve made some good friends on this trip. One of them sent my friend and me home in a dolmuş shuttle van after dinner one evening and told the driver that we were his American cousins and needed a taxi to the hotel after the shuttle ride. The driver was generous enough to hail the cab and give directions, and our new cousin waited up for our email to make sure we got back all right. Cousins, kindred spirits, same difference, right?

The vibe of the city got better. I unclenched my fists while walking and learned a few choice phrases in Turkish. Another friend took me to the Ottoman sultans’ Topkapı Palace to see the blue-tiled harem rooms and the jeweled weapons in the treasury. She pointed out that elections had been held recently, hence all the construction work. Newly elected politicians want people to see them accomplishing something. I quipped, “so basically we lose a few inches of Byzantium every time there’s an election?” Essentially, yes. The Hippodrome, a race track since the days of Constantine, got paved in the last year. It’s a common phenomenon amongst Byzantinists, actually, to find the city unnerving at first glance. We know Constantinople and its monuments so well that it’s disconcerting to mentally peel off the layer of modern Istanbul to uncover the remnants of the Byzantine capital underneath. The site of the Chalke Gate, once the entrance to the emperor’s palace, lies somewhere underneath the Four Seasons. I rode under the Roman aqueduct in a taxi.

Armed with an ipod and multiple cameras, I decided at last to enter Justinian’s Great Church. I cranked up The XX’s “Intro” and stepped through the threshold, ready to be brought to tears by its magnificence. Some of the windows in the “floating” dome were blacked out. There was a guy carrying a plastic bag of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and empty water bottles. Much of the ceiling was covered in mustard yellow plaster with a post-Ottoman folk-art-looking floral design. (I felt so stupid for assuming from photographs that it was all going to be gold). It was crowded. Two cats were napping on the sisal carpet that now covers the alter area near which Mehmet the Conquerer rode his horse when he conquered the city in 1453. From the north gallery, there’s a perfect view of an archangel in the apse. His eyes looked forlorn, an expression of how many bizarre events have taken their toll on the structure. The guard looked at me funny when I saw covered mosaics peeking out from a chipped section of plaster and burst into tears.

Avoiding a second rendezvous with Hagia Sophia, I spent hours in the Chora Monastery absorbing the frescoes and mosaics there, and I trekked out to the Pammakristos church with some friends, moseying a long way through neighborhoods whose residents seemed baffled and amused to see tourists at all. Not wanting to neglect Ottoman sites, I went to the Blue Mosque, proud of myself for remembering to quickly remove my shoes and tie my hair back in a scarf and for wearing an outfit that passed the modesty inspection. But as soon as I got inside, my shoes broke through the flimsy plastic bag, falling onto the carpet, and I accidentally stepped on the hem of someone’s burka. Good one, A.L. Way to be culturally sensitive.

A thousand souvenirs later, I had seen the Archaeological Museum, taken a ferry to the Asian side, checked out some mosaics and cisterns beneath hotels and carpet shops, and conquered public transportation. I felt guilty, though, for neglecting a perfectly nice monument just because its accessories looked a little shabby. When my friend teased, “I am walking around with someone who does not like Hagia Sophia,” a do-over was suddenly and desperately in order. Oh, no, no. I can’t get a reputation for that. Disappointment is not dislike. It was time for a second date. This morning there was no demure greeting. I forked over 20 lira and channeled my inner Byzantine.

There’s a long, winding slope of slippery, timeworn stone leading up to the gallery level of the church where empresses and other women attended services. I wondered how much effort it took Theodora to get up there in the sixth century, particularly when she was dying. Did someone help her? Was she carried? Did she—the one who refuled to flee during the Nika Riots, declaring that imperial purple is a good color to be buried in-—insist on trudging up the dreary hall unassisted? Perhaps she just stayed home. It’s interesting that her portrait lives on in Ravenna’s San Vitale rather than here. From her box in the gallery, the various Byzantine, Ottoman, and modern elements have the effect of a summer house that has been in a family for so many generations that the decoration gets ecclectic but sentiment keeps them from being rearranged. I appreciated the lifelike emotion in the mosaic of John the Baptist, the initials in the capitals on the lower level, the sheer height of the dome, a true feat of engineering. The archangel looked bemused today, a weathervane of sorts.

As I write this from my hotel terrace facing the Blue Mosque, there’s a cool breeze and an imminent sunset. Sea gulls are soaring over the Bosphoros and boats in the hazy distance have anchored for the night. Calls to prayer from a variety of mosques are drifting over the horizon, fading in and out as if they’re singing in a round. I’ve made my peace with Istanbul. We’ll remain friends, but Hagia Sophia is not my academic true love after all. It seems I’ve left my heart in Cappadocia.

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.

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).