Posts Tagged ‘Kyiv’

illusions of difference

October 16, 2007



st patrick wdwS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

In Germany they speak German and in China they speak Chinese. You can have romantic fantasies about how languages and countries are superior or inferior to your own. Or you can just see them as different – with their own advantages and disadvantages. I feel the same about technology. I have become a digital professor, using Powerpoint and the Internet instead of slides, despite the fact that I still have 15 linear feet of slide notebooks at home. In 1994 you used slides and in 2007 you use Powerpoint. You can have romantic fantasies about how these media are superior or inferior to each other. Or you can just see them as different.

There is a gulf, a chasm that we have all crossed, and we can call it modernity. We crossed it the moment we left tribal, village-based society, handicrafts and oral folklore and joined global, interconnected society, industry and mass media. Modernity has a lot of cohorts, conditions that accompany that transition. One is the impulse to preserve the pre-industrial, pre-Modern past. Another is Romanticism, that wistful apprehension of times and places removed and thus desirable. So we see the past and foreign countries through a romantic lens, believing they have something we have lost. Hence David Lowenthal said the Past is a Foreign Country.

Another cohort of Modernity is the idea of progressive history – that funny idea that things get better over time. This is a nearly indisputable article of faith among all of us, and in certain aspects – notably medicine since 1850 – it is pretty hard to dispute. But the idea of Progress is Romantic by association, and thus somewhat wistful and wishful.

My Powerpoint wasn’t working today so I used some slides. There is a virus in the lab computers. I like Powerpoint, not because it is better than slides – it is certainly not faster – but because it is different. And portable. Some things are easier, some are harder. It is less Progress than fashion – you get tired of the same clothes or haircut after a few years so you change – not because it is better, but because it is different.

Traditional societies have a circular view of time, even highly organized ones like the Khmer with their Vedic epochs and the Maya with their circular calendars had an apprehension of the passage of time that had nothing to do with improvement, or if it did, it was circular, with golden ages followed by dark ages ad infinitum.

The disillusion with Progress that characterized the last third of the 20th century gave birth to this idea of difference – no judgment, no hierarchy, no superiority. Like the idea of Progress, this has had very felicitous aspects, notably calls for diversity, racial and ethnic tolerance, although arguably these redressed grievances caused by an earlier phase of Modernity, when the idea of the nation and the people was crafted in the 18th century Enlightenment. Lowenthal has written extensively on this trend, a succession of presidents and popes apologizing for slavery, racism, colonialism and the like. He observes our current identification with the oppressed, the marginalized and the historically wronged and concludes “heritage increasingly belongs to the losers. Even victors now aspire to a legacy of defeat.”

There is no preservation without progress and there is no diversity without difference; the legacy of colonizations both macro and micro. 300 years ago we created that difference in order to exploit it and today we exploit that difference in order to perpetuate it. Our identities are all bound up in ideas of heritage that seem timeless but are in fact completely timebound and timecrafted and rarely more than a generation old in their everyday.

But the more you travel to foreign countries and the past the less exotic they seem, the less different. Their romantic allure dissipates like fog and the bus in Kyiv becomes just a bus, although in my memory it is a magical bus of sparkling interactions as I make change in this exotic new language amid a whorling disorienting darkness. I treasure that romantic memory, even though in the cold light of day I know it is no more than the precondition for the tumors of nostalgia.

The Visible Past

December 4, 2006



lavra layers

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Another thought from my recent journey in the Ukraine. On my first night there, I took the subway (more crowded than Shanghai) to the center with Professor Piotr Krasny and wandered around St. Sophia cathedral. There I noticed that in portions of the walls of the church, the stucco or render was left off, revealing the stone and brick construction beneath. Krasny said it was something they did there. I saw it again on my last morning in Kyiv, at the Pechersk-Lavra monastery, on the recently rebuilt Church of the Dormition. It is like peeling back the layers of construction, or perhaps of time.
The revealed segments of Kyiv churches are a kind of interpretation that makes the past visible. These reveals tell us immediately that the building is not new, and they hint at its history. These subsurface reveals in Kyiv churches seemed to me like an inverse plaque that you put on the building to landmark it. Given that most of the signs are in Cyrillic, which I can’t read, I want to be able to understand these reveals in the same non-linguistic way one knows that the pebbles in the mortar at a Mayan or Hellenistic site signify anastylosis (that it where you put the crumbled bits of a ruin back together).
But even these reveals, where they expose a portion of the original surviving building, still make choices about which periods of history and construction. According to a UNESCO report:

To define the fragments which should be exhibited, the construction evolution of the building
was analyzed and the most characteristic stages of it were defined, represented by the
remaining parts. After that the fragments to be exhibited were defined.

As in my previous blog, the danger is that current political issues reframe history into heritage. Let me rephrase that: The danger is that current political issues reframe history into heritage too much – we can never escape the occluding lens of presentism, only limit it.

Next semester I am teaching a graduate seminar on interpretation of historic sites, a topic I formerly explored in undergraduate classes. We will discuss how we make the past visible, and I will use the examples from Kyiv, along with many others. After all, one of the reasons we save old buildings is to make the past visible.
Preservation is in itself a kind of interpretation – the mere fact of a thing begs the viewer to ask why this remnant of the past is still there. It suggests that it is significant.
We do the opposite as well: we mark things that are long gone. (Heck, in Ukraine they rebuild them.) Perhaps one project would be to mark the 115 sites in Chicago where a Louis Sullivan building was demolished.
Over the last 20 years interpretation has gone way beyond plaques – the opening of the Jorvik Center in York, England in 1985 was one of the first salvos in a pair of decades that has brought us the rise of heritage areas, the rekindling of archaeology and the populism of preservation. There are projects that restore, and some that actually distress a building or allow parts of it to reveal aging and decline; to interpret the passage of time rather than to attempt – a usually futile venture – to take you back to a specific period.

I always liked the idea of peeling back layers of history on buildings – if you go into the Rookery light court in the Loop, you can see a patch of floor and a portion of a column that hint at the original 1886 Burnham and Root design – buried in a rehab 19 years later by Frank Lloyd Wright. At the Monadnock Building floor panels allow a view of the original tile floor, sunken several inches below the surface. In Vienna’s Michaelerplatz or Paris’ Notre Dame you can see the archaeological layers beneath the surface.

And I liked seeing the little bits of back wall on the Church of the Dormition that had somehow survived the Soviet destruction (if it was the Soviets, and from a heritage point of view, it was) and even the old Byzantine layers on St. Sophia that let you know it is not simply a Baroque composition. I like the messy layering of history and attempts to make that chaos visible, and permanent.