Byzantine Time and American Wilderness

September 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

After my paper on Friday, I kept thinking about time and Byzantium. In particular, I spent part of the weekend mulling over the idea of the wilderness as space of hybridized time where past and present (and in some cases the future) combine in strange and wondrous ways.

At the same time, I was alerted to a recent article by Glenn Peers: “Utopia and Heterotopia: Byzantine Modernisms in America” in K. Fugelso ed. Defining Neomedivalism. Studies in Medievalism 19 (2010), 77-113. Peers uses Foucault’s idea of the Heterotopia to help to describe the engagement with Byzantium by the 20th century art world. While I will not even attempt to get all “Kostis Kourelis” on this topic (and my knowledge of 20th century art is effectively non-existent), I did find Peers use of Foucault’s notion of the heterotopia as a “counter-site” to the idealized utopian vision. Heterotopias, for Foucault and Peers, are inverted utopias inscribed into real space and governed by real time constraints. Like the wilderness in our saints’ lives, heterotopic space is hybridized through its allusions to (and dependence on)  a utopian vision of reality. Utopian space is effectively timeless whereas the heterotopia is embedded within our lived experience.

One of the examples that Peers uses for a heterotopic space is the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum in Houston.  The museum was built to hold a series of frescos from a small Byzantine chapel in the village of Lysi which the Menil family foundation rescued on the art market and restored after they were looted from the chapel which lies in occupied northern part of the island. The Menil museum displays the frescoes in an elegant and innovative architectural outline of the church building that represents their original architectural setting with translucent walls. The liturgical use of the reconstructed chapel has “consecrated” the space and the entrance to the space reinforces the sacred nature of objects and the setting.  Thus, the heterotopic nature of Byzantine religious space where the heavenly utopia finds expression in the earthly realm, becomes the centerpiece of another heterotopic vision as articulated by the display of the disembodied, but very present church in the Menil collection.

Making the experience of the Lysi church (which I have not seen or visited) even more poignant for someone who has worked in Cyprus and, in particular, around Larnaka is the very real presence of refugees from Lysi. We have worked closely with individuals from the Lysi community who resettled in Larnaka and their village and its famous church is source of tremendous, melancholic pride.  In fact, another model of the famous Lysi chapel has been built near Stavrovouni. Thus, this twice reconstructed church has become a symbol for the community of Lysi in exile and the plight of looted antiquities in northern Cyprus.  As a symbol, the idealized character of the chapel became a perfect symbol for a series of political realities. As an object it could exist in both in ancient context and in a modern context with distinct, if dependent meanings.

The past and the present intersect in the wildness of Byzantine saints’ lives as visions, dreams, abandoned buildings, sacred objects, and real places overlap to create a space that is between a sacred reality and imagined everyday life. The hybridized sense of time contributes to a heterotopic vision where the real and the ideal conflate to create the disturbing, terrifying sense of the uncanny.

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