Flaten art exhibit displays work from 18-year-long project

During the Interim program of 1998, St. Olaf Professor of Art and Associate Dean of Fine Arts Mary Griep led a group of students through France and Italy to study Roman ruins, Romanesque architecture and Gothic cathedrals. She returned to St. Olaf with a hundred small drawings of architectural monuments. Those drawings were the beginning of a project that would continue for 18 years, through the present day and now on display in St. Olaf’s Flaten Art Building.

Her first drawing depicts the Chartres Cathedral of France, but in a stylized manner. Rather than straightforwardly drawing a view of the building from the front or side or interior, she incorporated multiple perspectives to represent the experience of moving through and around the building.

A project grew around her original work: “Anastylosis,” named for the process of deconstructing and rebuilding an old monument. This series of large-scale drawings attempts to convey the feeling of medieval buildings. For each drawing Griep selected a building that was originally constructed in the 11th or 12th century that still exists today. She researched the building to see what parts of the original were destroyed and what has been added on, as well as the building’s different purposes during its 900 years of existence. Then she found ways to spend time living near that building – through grants, St. Olaf’s international programs or working as an artist-in-residence. While living there, she created many small sketches, testing different ways of depicting the structure. Finally, she created a large drawing incorporating all that she’s learned. Each large drawing took approximately one to two years to complete.

Her early works of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Thatbyinnyu in Myanmar and Mexico’s El Castillo present a straightforward idea of the building’s size and structure. Certain rules are in place: one inch of drawing equals two feet of the original building, the architectural ground plan is represented somewhere and blurred lines indicate sections of the original building that have been lost.

Those constants get broken down in the later works, which see increasing abstraction. Griep found Turkey’s Great Mosque’s floor to be its greatest aspect, so she “unfolded” the building and made the floor its center. The Agios Dimitrios of Greece has a plain exterior and an ornately decorated interior, so her work merely hints at the presence of the outside.

In her most recent project, the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, Italy, she focused exclusively on its ornate tessellated floor. The symbolism of the original floor drew on literature as well as Oriental and Western textiles, so the drawing’s collage features fragments from medieval books and tapestries. This most recent project, titled “The Marble Carpet and the Ocean Floor,” is composed of two wall-size drawings. The first depicts the “Carpet” in its colorfully vibrant glory. As she was finishing this drawing, Griep read about rising water levels in Venice and their likely effect on the Basilica. She created a second drawing of equal size, retracing all the ornate outlines, but leaving almost all color out, to demonstrate what will likely happen to this ancient floor when it sinks below the sea.

Griep calls this drawing “a departure” from the Anastolysis project thus far. Although she has often depicted past destruction of buildings, this is her first projection into the future, a reminder of the power humans have over the monuments of history.

The Manitou Messenger had the opportunity to interview Griep and ask her a few questions about her work on the Anastylosis Project:

Manitou Messenger:After working on Chartres Cathedral [the first drawing], when did it become clear to you that this was a bigger project?

Mary Griep: I finished that piece in 2000, and I was leaving that fall to lead a term in Asia with St. Olaf. I knew that Angkor Wat had been built at the same time as Chartres, so I thought that might be an interesting thing to look at – a building built at the same time, opposite sides of the world, people who wouldn’t have known each other. And so that might be an interesting project, to do the same scale, try to do the same kind of thing, but to a very different kind of monument. I had thought that Chartres was going to be a one-off. But then I got to Asia, and I was so amazed at Angkor Wat, and I ended up doing that, and not realizing how big it was, too.

MM:After the first drawing, you started adding elements from the previous drawings [to new works in the series], to show how there was a conversation between them. What was an unexpected connection in terms of buildings very far away being related to each other?

MG: There are actually more and more of them, and I realized after I’d done this awhile that I’m most interested in places that are crossroads. Where different cultures did run into each other. So for example, the [Great Mosque of Turkey] drawing, what really interested me about this was that this is really the end of the Silk Road. The masons who built this building, that the Amir brought in, were Christians and their only examples of buildings were Christian churches in Armenia, so its built on a Christian plan. But the person who carved those beautiful doorways and portals clearly had been to the East, because it’s a tree of life and there’s a lotus carved in there, which is highly unusual. So that idea that there were places that people either had been somewhere else, or they had met somebody who’d been somewhere else: Turkey is a spot, northern Greece is a spot, I did a piece from there, the Southeast Asia in general, it’s a crossroads, and my next piece going to be from Sicily, in Italy, because it’s a real crossroads. This place in Sicily was built by the Normans, who came from Scandinavia, via northern France and England. When they got there, the Arabs were already there, so the building is an Arab-Norman building, so it’s like, “Whoa! That is incredible!”

MM:What differences did you discover between your first and second drawing?

MG: I had thought about Christian churches, so I just assumed when I got to Angkor Wat that it would be a building in the way we think of a building, but actually there’s almost no interior space. It’s three nested buildings; you worship by walking around those interior ways. I think of both of them as being cosmological maps. [Chartres] tells us a Christian idea about sacred space, that it’s walled off from the outside, it’s highly decorated, and it’s making a new reality. You go inside, and it’s a holy place. So that tells a lot about how the building is a shell which encloses sacred stuff. When you get to Asia, it’s a cosmological map in the same way, except it’s an open room, right? That’s what’s holy. So it’s a picture, it’s a map of their idea of what the cosmos is like and how we experience sacred space. So you are walking around because all the space within the compound is sacred. And you’re walking around and you’re meditating on the stories. It was built to be a Hindu monument, but now it’s Buddhist. So it’s a really different way of thinking about what it means to be sacred space. And I wouldn’t have known that unless I’d gone there to draw.

In the [Turkey] mosque, I had a really hard time resolving how to figure out how to make that drawing, and one the things that I realized finally was the important part of the mosque is the floor. So you prostrate yourself toward Mecca, you pray. So it was important for me to show the floor. So I ended up unfolding the building.

MM:In the 19th century, both Chartres and Angor Wat underwent restorations by the French. How has the process of restoration changed from the 19th century to now?

MG: It changes in a lot of ways. For one thing, the French at that time were totally in the Neo-Classical phase. They were really interested in Greek and Roman ruins. They were really interested in everything being stone. So they sandblasted! So there was color, on both of them. The Gothic or Romanesque cathedral was highly painted inside, and the French decided that they like that look of classical ruins, so they sandblasted them and got rid of the color on both of them. And we don’t do that anymore. We like to try to get them back to the way we think they might have been. And so if we have to fix something, we’ll make it a different color. We don’t pretend that this was original. And that was more the sense that they were going to remake these. Part of my idea is that every culture remakes these monuments in their own image, and we’re more interested in verisimilitude at this point. We want to see if we can make it more realistic. And so that’s a really different idea.