The Anastylosis Project
Since 1998 I have been working on a series of large-scale drawings of sacred spaces of the medieval era. The drawings represented on this website are from the series The Anastylosis Project. This term from art history, which describes “a method of restoring a monument distinguished by often dismantling and, in theory, rebuilding the structure using the original methods and materials,” reflects the essence of my attempt to capture the wonder and majesty of the original buildings. To date I have drawn the Christian example of Chartres, the Khmer Hindu Angkor Wat, the Buddhist temple Thatbinyinyu, the Mayan Palace of the Governor(Uxmal), Chichen Itza’s Castillo (two versions), the Great Mosque of Divrigi, Turkey, and the Stav Church of Borgund, Norway.
The Anastylosis Project had its genesis when I accompanied an undergraduate academic program in France and Italy exploring the idea of Classical Beauty and its manifestation in Roman ruins, Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals. My interest was primarily in how classical ideals and formulas were applied in constructing the various monuments. I brought 100 small pieces of drawing paper, which I used to draw at sites, on buses and trains, and in hotel rooms. I found myself there originally as a “scholar,” an omniscient observer. Yet as I began to create intimate drawings of details of the buildings, I found that I was quite literally drawn into the conversation initiated by a successful building. I was intrigued by the physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual experience of these sacred spaces.
Returning to the studio, I became unsatisfied by the small scale of the drawings and began drawings that concerned themselves with the experience of the space of the buildings. Given that it is impossible to see all aspects of a space at once, a successful building transforms “spectators into committed players.” who must travel around and through the spaces, interacting in both intimate and more distanced ways. And as a “committed player” I have continued to work with medieval buildings, finding many monuments created in that era to be sacred spaces that continue to have a voice today, continuing a centuries-old conversation about the nature of human experience and its constant ambition to express and experience the sacred.
The first large-scale drawing, completed in 2000, is a 14’ by 9’ drawing of the west façade of Chartres Cathedral (Façade, 2000, Christian Cathedral.) The layered sections and textures present a series of views that cannot be seen from a single vantage point, but instead capture the experience of the building from multiple points of view, both interior and exterior.
The drawings need to be large because the buildings represented are too large, too decorated, too much; far beyond mere utility. It is ultimately this uselessness that “aims for the liberation of human faculties from the oppression of our personal, limited vision.” and “enlarges human awareness directly with new ways of experiencing the universe.” On a practical level, a panoramic drawing that is too large to see all at once gives the viewer a sense of the actual space, where the viewer approaches to see the details and retreats to view the whole.
In 2000, I began what turned out to be three and one half years of travel, study, and creative work in Southeast Asia. The experience of sacred spaces in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand was both intrinsically stimulating and deeply resonant with my experience of European medieval buildings. From 2001—2004 I was based in Thailand as artist-in-residence at the Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture of Payap University. During this period I worked on a series of drawings of Thai, Lao, and Khmer temples, as well as a large-scale drawing of the west façade of the main temple of Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia (Anastylosis, 2002. 32’ by 8’, Mixed media. Built as a Khmer Hindu Temple) drawn to the same scale as that of the Chartres drawing. The correspondences between the Angkor temple complex and Chartres Cathedral are striking. The two sites are contemporaneous; both are known for their west facades, are sited to mark celestial events, reflect a high point of their respective cultures, and are surpassingly beautiful and awe-inspiring.
In 2002, I undertook a research trip through Myanmar to explore medieval Buddhist structures. From Bagan I have drawn the Thatbyinnyu Temple (Thatbyinnyu. 2003, 8.5’x7’) to the same scale as Chartres and Angkor.
In 2005, I traveled to the Yucatan in Mexico to research Mayan monuments. I am currently finishing a large-scale drawing of the Palace of the Governor at Uxmal (14’x3’.) The choice of this particular Mayan monument is based in part upon the effect its reproduction at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 had upon Frank Lloyd Wright.
In 2007 I traveled to Turkey to research and do preparatory drawings of the Great Mosque of Divrigi. A mosque is the logical continuation of this project, exploring the world-view of a variety of cultures and spiritual traditions. The Great Mosque of Divrigi, a little-known UNESCO World Heritage Site, ranks high among the most important early works of Islamic architecture in Anatolia. As the Rough Guide notes, the site is “stuck in the middle of a mountainous nowhere,” an inaccessibility that may have contributed to its longevity. As the first drawings of the Anastylosis series are of justifiably famous buildings of the period, it seems appropriate at this juncture to examine sites not often seen.
With the support of the Nygaard Foundation and St. Olaf College I spent the summer of 2008 at the University of Oslo studying Norwegian art. While there I researched stav churches (the oldest wooden Medieval buildings.) Switching to drawing woodcarving after years of exploring the visual properties of stone was a challenge, but one that opened new avenues of research and drawing.
Of course, medieval buildings no longer look they did originally. All of them have been cared for, neglected, damaged by humans, damaged by the environment and, most certainly, restored and rebuilt. No one knows just what they looked like when they were newly built. Scholars have various theories about the decline and restoration of each. These monuments have been restored at different times in ways that often tell us more about the point of view of the restorers than that of the builders. (It is interesting to note that Angkor and Chartres owe much of their present form to rebuilding and restorations done in the 19th century by the French.) Every age imposes its own ideas on these monuments. Millions of people — scholars, tourists, photographers, vandals, armies, restorers, robbers, artists, and pilgrims have had a part in the dismantling, rebuilding and re-creation of these places. Who knows what is or was original? Does it matter? Do monuments retain meaning? What do they tell us about the builders? About ourselves? Are these buildings living sacred spaces, or merely nostalgic artifacts?
As this project progresses, I have found drawing a powerful way of exploring and expressing the experience of these spaces as a “committed player.” A drawing immerses me in the particulars of each site and helps me try to understand and express the underlying nature of the sites. I am looking for an understanding of the correspondences and differences that goes deeper than the surface details. I am trying to give visual expression to the worldview and traditions of the builders. Each drawing subverts linear perspective to try to show more of the experience of traveling through and around the spaces. To this end, each piece has multiple levels of drawing that represent both interior and exterior spaces, and the repetition of details that occurs over time as you explore a site. Each mixed media drawing is a collage including drawn and photographic fragments of the previous drawings. Given their overlapping construction dates collage is a way of keeping an overt conversation between the drawings.
These buildings awe, not only because of their size. There are many large structures that do not transcend, that are merely impressive. But the particular buildings in this series hold a sense of the sacred, of the enduring mysteries of human understanding of the cosmos. In the details and ornamentation of each building, I catch glimpses of the time, effort and love that have been lavished on them over the past 900 years. I am not trying to represent the monuments but rather to meditate upon them and reflect their long and numinous lives. The act of drawing on such a scale is a contemplative act that mimics the role of these buildings as a way of concentrating attention.
Martin Heidegger once wrote, that there is no disinterested observer: “…the prejudices of the interpreter…are precisely what make understanding possible….understanding involves direct engagement with the world rather than self-conscious reflection on the world.”
Dawn Rooney, Angkor (Hong Kong: Odyssey Publications, Ltd, 2001) 294.
Lindsey Jones, The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture: Volume One/Monumental Occasions (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000) 80.
Quoted in Jones, 8.