ghosts of byzantium

Literature and Medicine |  Vol. 16, no. 2; Fall 1997 by Christina Saj

As an artist I have had my fair share of part-time jobs. One summer working as a medical assistant I was asked to clean out an old filing cabinet. It turned out to be a cabinet filled with ghosts. Among the X-rays, I began my search for immortalization. Behind each X-ray there is a life and a history that urges me to explore a connection between reliquary and bones, between Byzantium and modern medicine.

My works began as a study in collage with abstract compositions made up of puzzle pieces of partial skeletons, various internal organs with occasional literal references to bodies. Colorful enamel surfaces, filled with geometric patterns of human anatomy or their shadows emerging from behind them explored the formal elements of abstract composition. (Figures 1-3). In time, I developed my technique in these enamel paintings, with their highly polished slick surfaces, into complex compositions with direct reference to the formal aspects of traditional icons (Figures 4-5). Through my inclusion of metallic halos, the later works have been transformed into richly patterned modern adaptations of traditional works.

As I evolved my work it came to incorporate other symbolic aspects. I grew interested in reinventing mythologies that enable the viewer to understand the specific sense of my work’s origin and it’s inspiration (Figures 6-11). Incorporating images of bones as a reminder of ancient religious reliquary was a means of connecting the viewer to the ancient subject. I began to work much more consciously with the symbolisms carried by the X-ray itself rather than by using it only as a compositional element.

I have found a distinct conflict between my studies of Byzantine icon painting and my work as a “contemporary artist.” In order to assimilate the ancient vocabulary of icons I have had to somehow capture their mystical quality. This was often conveyed through stylized drawing, rich color and intricate rhythms. The representation of personages in traditional icons was formalized, stylized, dignified and detached to express a sense of the invisible. It’s purpose was to exhibit transcendence from this world to the next.

Arguably, insofar as they can be used in artistic expression, X-rays create tension and introduce the realm of the unknown and the mysterious into contemporary art by making the invisible more apparent. They are means by which their viewers can be given access to an otherwise unseen inner likeness. Thus, X-rays, which gesture towards everyone’s body, can address the human figure from the inside out, while at the same time they can refer to somebody’s body in particular. Using them in my art I hope to portray the essence of the human spirit while addressing the particular selves who are giving an audience to my icons. My paintings are meant to be interactive; they seek to bring the spirit of Byzantium to life for their viewers by reawakening an ancient tradition though modern medium.