reflections on seeing

I am currently trawling through my Facebook notes and want to share some of my favourites here with you. I wrote this in 2009 after travelling through Turkey and Greece on a study tour. Enjoy!

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As I have traveled this summer [May-June 2009] I have seen many things that until now were only images in a lecture slide show or maps in a text book. Sculptures, mosaics, sarcophagi, buildings and whole towns came alive as I finally saw them in person for the first time. I tried to experience these things how the ancients did. I asked myself questions constantly. What did the ancients see and feel and smell and hear as they walked down this street, gazed at this sculpture, crossed this mosaic floor or sat in this theater seat? What did they think about their surroundings—or did they consciously think about them? What view did they see from this sanctuary or what landscape surrounded that monument? Along with these questions, though, there was always one more: What does it mean to see a sculpture (or building or town) first hand rather than as a picture in a text book?

The simple answer is that it means you can experience it rather than just see it. Art and architecture are not static things; they interact with their environment (both built and natural) and they interact with you, the viewer. It is only in experiencing this first hand that one can really understand it. If a picture is worth a thousand words then an experience is worth a hundred thousand pictures. No photography, film or diagram, no matter how skillfully executed, can ever replace the experience of walking through the same physical space that the ancients did.

How can a photograph capture the sense of anticipation when walking the Sacred Way into an ancient sanctuary? Or the thrill of standing in the Asklepieion at Pergamum and seeing the acropolis rise sharply into the sky? Can a textbook properly convey the taste of water from a sacred fountain or can words capture the soothing breeze at Cnidos? No map in any book is able to convey the sense of wonder when you turn around to see the Athenian Acropolis perfectly framed by the Arch of Hadrian, nor can words capture the sense of serenity as you stand at the topmost terrace of the Asklepeion at Cos and looks across the narrow waters to Asia Minor. There is no way to understand the bulk of the Temple of Apollo at Didyma save to wander through its columns. The Alexander Sarcophagus might hold a viewer’s interest for a moment or two as an image in a slide show, but when seen in person in the Istanbul museum all time stands still and it exerts a powerful, irresistible pull. Is there any way to understand the importance of a sculpture’s size and orientation than to be dwarfed by a Roman emperor or a Greek god? It is not until you see Alexander the Great’s sculptures in person that you realize he will never look at you—his gaze is forever fixed on his next distant conquest. To physically move through the buildings of Cos’ ancient agora and harbour district, knowing that your feet tread where others tread thousands of years ago, creates a sense of closeness to the ancient people who really weren’t that different from ourselves.

And that is, perhaps, the most important bit of all: the realization that these were real people who moved through these spaces and wandered around these monuments and worshipped at these sanctuaries. They were like us: They sought to create beauty in their lives and surrounded themselves with beautiful spaces and filled those spaces with beautiful objects. These objects and these spaces have lives and stories of their own and are a direct link with the people of the past. They are not static images in a book or on a slide and to know them only as such is to know but a shadow of the real thing.

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