A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Using leftover pizza boxes and trash from the streets of New York, artist Liz Glynn constructs and sacks the ancient city.
Twenty-seven-year-old artist Liz Glynn has literally built Rome in a day. Twice. Out of cardboard and wood, that is. She first constructed a mini Eternal City at an art space called Machine Project in Los Angeles in 2008. This past April, she proved again that it could be done, this time at the New Museum in New York City, as part of the exhibition Younger Than Jesus, a show featuring a diverse range of artists under the age of 33. The Harvard graduate—and daughter of an architect and an engineer—was glad that ARCHAEOLOGY had picked up the story. "It's very exciting, actually, to have non-art people covering it," she told managing editor Eti Bonn-Muller, who became an instant fan of her work. "It appeals not only to a contemporary art audience, but those from a variety of disciplines, including archaeology, architecture, and the classics." Glynn and a small army of volunteers sacked the makeshift city at the end of the project. The flattened forums are on view through July 5, 2009.
What inspired you to rebuild Rome?
The truism "Rome wasn't built in a day" was being used a lot in political contexts, in relation to Iraq—the Iraqi reconstruction—and also the challenges of rebuilding New Orleans. I was interested in proving that it could be done and shifting the scale so that this massive period in history became accessible in a really hands-on way. I took upending the truism as a challenge and set out to see what that would involve. It was an experiment at first. I didn't really know what would happen.
How'd the experiment turn out?
It can be done! It's really a question of scale. I tried to do it once with very minimal research, but when I just started looking into the history of Roman architecture and how "empire" was really manifest in the buildings, and the cycle of building, I found that you could trace many aspects of the political and military history of Rome. They were really rendered directly in the architecture. For me, it became an interesting way to look at all these issues of empire in a physical form.
How close is your constructed Rome to the layout of the "real" Rome?
We do our best [laughs]. We're working with Platner & Ashby's Topographical Dictionary of Rome as we construct the piece. We start with the seven hills, and then we try to build in order, proportionate to time and at a relative scale—or we scale the buildings to each other as the project evolves in the space.
We're not necessarily measuring, so it's a little bit of eyeballing. We work with a number of maps, so mistakes are made along the way. Often, things need to be moved around or some of the volunteers get confused about north and south, and put one of the imperial fora in the wrong place, so sometimes there are adjustments that need to be made. But we get the general sense of the urban development in the project.
Where exactly do you start—with the hut of Romulus [Rome's semi-mythical founder] or ...?
Yes, that is exactly where we start—753 B.C. We do the hut of Romulus on the Palatine, and then the hut of Remus on the Aventine. Some scholars have suggested what Romulus's hut might have looked like, but there isn't much to go on for Remus's hut. When we don't have an image, we look to textual references in the history and work based on that.
How much historical research did you do? Did you read any of the ancient texts?
I did about six months of research going into the project. I looked at the major architectural historians. Axel Boeethius and J. Ward Perkins's book on Etruscan and Roman architecture is excellent. I think George M. A. Hanfman's text is another authoritative one. I also looked at some primary sources and historic texts, mostly Livy, and Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall. But really, the material that was most invaluable to the project were the topographical dictionaries because they're very comprehensive. When you're looking at an architectural history, they're talking mostly about the iconic buildings and the points where materials shifted. For example, in Nero's Golden House, the Domus Aurea, they perfected the use of concrete. That is very interesting. But, in fact, having the more comprehensive source can give you information about some of the buildings where there is very little left—or it just gives you a dedication date and what the temple might have looked like. References like that actually help complete a bigger picture of the city.
So do you have cutouts or tracings of the buildings? Or is it more freeform? How do you construct them?
Oh, yeah. One of the more interesting aspects of the project is having people work from a variety of historical images. I have them on laminated cards, which correspond to a slide show that's timed and running as the project unfolds. People take a laminated card that has an image of a building that might be a photograph of the existing state of the ruins, an architectural schematic, or a sketch based on an excavation. It's kind of whatever I can find, from both archaeological and art-historical sources. The volunteers interpret based on that. It's interesting because often you end up with a structure that looks more like the photograph than perhaps what the actual building looked like in antiquity. But in other cases, architects who volunteer to work on the project are often very good at translating the plans into realized models.
You said—they were drawings from excavations or actual photos from excavations?
Actually, both. Especially with the Archaic material, there just isn't a lot to go on. There are photos of the Lacus Curtius, which is a manmade lake in the area of the early forum. We have a photo of that, which is basically a bunch of rocks. And then in other cases, there are sketches of what the earliest versions of the Temple of Vesta might have looked like. But really, what you're looking at are a few lines on a piece of paper.
What's in the slide show, then?
The slide show is all of the images in order.
So as the buildings are being built, in chronological order?
How many volunteers showed up? And was it hard to find them?
We had about 120 volunteers on the project. It's challenging to get the ball rolling. New York is not a city I live in right now, but I reached out to volunteers through person-to-person contact and also contacted a number of the classics departments at universities in the city. The information about the project was forwarded through various friends to different architects and archaeologists. In the end, what's really exciting about the project is that it doesn't limit itself to an art audience. At any given point at the site, I think we had more than one classicist or at least a student of the classics, we had one or two people with MAs in archaeology, and a number of poets or literary people. What happens in the space is that a lot of conversations occur between the volunteers who are trying to explain and figure things out or sort of share what fragments of knowledge they have with other people and construct the story of Rome that way. It's just a very informal, peer-to-peer form of education. You can be very honest about it because people can share what they know or come up with new questions and realize what they don't know. And it happens for me as well. Because at any given point, there's someone who can build a building better than I can or knows the Latin history in more detail. So I actually get an enormous amount out of working with everyone else.
What is everybody talking about as they work?
It's really a variety of things. It's also a social space and it's meant to be casual and comfortable. Sometimes people are having side conversations about art school or where they're going for breakfast afterward. But also, people will teach each other how to build different things, which is interesting. Some people get very involved in the crafting of the buildings, to the point that a building might be late in appearing in the history because someone is putting so much energy into it. We had a really beautiful rendering of the Porticus Aemilia—it's a storage warehouse on the Tiber River—I think it arrived about 100 years late because the two people working on it were very careful to cut all the arches. It was beautiful at the end, but it does happen in the process.
The project was completed over the course of 24 hours straight. Is each hour divided into a time period?
We're going 1.238 years per minute, which means...it's approximate. I have a timeline that has all of the buildings in order and all of the times that they're meant to be dedicated. I try to get someone started on a given building that's coming up, so that it will be completed roughly in order and on time. It doesn't work completely, but it works pretty well—to give you a sense of it. But there are times, like during the Republican Period, when the Punic Wars are happening, and such, there are a lot of foreign conquests going on, so not a lot of building is happening. And we talk about that in the space. We kind of mention it and say, sorry, we don't have a lot to build right now because this is where the energy's going.
But then during the era of Augustus, there's a lot that gets built—and a lot of the buildings get renovated as well. So we usually manage to get a little bit off track around then, which at that point in the project is about 9:00 in the morning, and everyone's on the ground building different things. Some of the things you're putting up become a little sloppier because you're trying to get all the buildings up in some form. And, of course, a number of them are renovated or they're destroyed by fire. But then we'll renovate them and add paint or...we switched—we used cardboard as an analog to brick and wood as an analog to marble. The saying is, Augustus found a city of brick and left it a city of marble, and so we try to switch to wood at that point. That's when the empire really comes into being.
Do you stop to dedicate each building as it's completed?
We take a Polaroid, actually, and if you visit the museum today, what you'll see on the wall is a history of all the buildings in Polaroid. I try to get people to label them. But as it gets frantic, that doesn't always happen. You can sort of see what occurred, roughly scaled to time, and the photos are put on the wall in chronological order.
So, until what date do you build?
I think one of the final buildings we build is St. John Lateran. But Rome is sacked by the Visigoths in A.D. 410, and that's when the project ends. All of the major invasions of Rome are marked by musical performances. We had a noise artist named Shahzad Ismaily perform as Rome was being sacked by the Visigoths.
What kind of music is it?
It's this kind of droney, atonal noise. The performances are instrumental and not vocal. They provide a soundtrack to the destruction that happens.
Have you had any feedback from other archaeologists or classicists?
Not formally. Informally, as the piece happened, a number of classicists were present for it. And I think for them it's really exciting to experience the history in a very different way than they're used to. I've gotten very positive feedback from the classicists who've worked on the project, who've said, "Well, I've never thought of doing it this way, but this is really neat, and I'm absorbed in this building in a way that I never was before." It's kind of this tactile engagement that I think is really different than their usual expectation of the experience of Roman history.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the materials you used?
We used cardboard and wood, salvaged from the museum's waste stream. A lot of it was used in the production of the exhibition or just in the museum's daily operations. The reason we use salvaged materials is, in part, this analog to using what's available on the site or what was available in the city. In the case of Roman history, there were times when they would run out of marble or when marble was brought back from the conquests of different territories, and so they were able to build a lot more. In our case, sometimes, we're sending out—one or two of the volunteers will go out on a mission to get new material for the site. So they'll go out into the street and gather up more cardboard to continue the construction. It's a lot of fun.
How big is the work?
This version of the piece occupies about 450 square feet. The models go up to about four feet high, with Trajan's Column perhaps being the highest. Some of the others are more around 30 inches tall. The smallest is only about 12 inches.
How involved were you personally in the construction?
When it gets busy, I'm not able to build too much and I do mostly supervision and coordination. But during the slower times, I complete a few of the buildings. Or often, I'll get down and help someone get started. I do a lot of demonstrations of different building techniques, such as how to square the cardboard to create curves. I'm good at explaining things, like how an arch is constructed in brick—because it's a form that the Romans perfected—and also how to translate that into a simple-to-create cardboard model.
Is there a particular building you really wanted to build yourself?
I love the Domus Aurea. I did a little bit of the painting on that and helped make some of the side rooms to the octagonal central hall. But there were two other people with whom I collaborate, Mark Allen and Mariechen Danz, who completed it. I was just more of a painter who was sometimes getting in the way as they were trying to figure out how to make the dome, which is one of the hardest forms to do.
Why was that your favorite building?
Nero was a very angular figure in Roman history. This house marked a perfection of concrete and then was only around for a very short period of time in its entirety. The Colosseum is actually built on part of the ground of the Golden House. This is a bright spot in history, but it goes out very quickly.
You said the dome was particularly difficult to make?
The domes are very difficult to make. You can do it by very carefully scoring cardboard in a lot of ways, but I think the dome was improvised between a cardboard and packing-tape structure.
So after all of that hard work, how did it feel to sack the city?
It's incredibly painful. It's a very emotional thing for me. Empires fall fast. It's difficult to think of yourself as a destructive force, but I think that the capacity for destruction and even the joy in destructive acts as kind of a moment of catharsis is something that's a very human quality that everyone shares, whether or not they want to admit it. And so for me, to see a number of people who come together and build this amazing thing, but then destroy it in the blink of an eye is a very intense thing to think about. I think it's a really important thing to consider when one's thinking about the reasons why great civilizations rise and fall.
How exactly did you go about doing it?
As the music rose, we slowly stomped into the city. In the beginning, people are sort of stomping on the cardboard buildings—kind of crunch, crunch, crunch—and then it becomes more violent. I sort of step aside at that point. But then some people really want the city to fall, and so they go after anything left standing, like the solid structures, the wooden buildings. There were some cardboard weapons used. Also, people started picking up pieces of debris and using them against other buildings. There were two teenage boys at the end, who really took it out on the final bits of the columns. It's really interesting to watch. It's a little dramatic.
How long did it take altogether?
Oh...probably, about, maybe...two minutes. It's very quick.
That must be hard to watch!
Yeah, I mean, it's so hard to because, at that point, it just looks gorgeous. And there are all these flowers scattered around the city. It just looks great.
Did you actually get real flowers?
Yes, there were live flowers. And we had this large feast prepared by Melia Marden and Meredith James who run a catering company called Looking Glass Catering. They did this massive feast with a roast and fresh fruit and figs, and we took part in the feast, actually, to mark the era of Caligula. So we took a break from the building and then returned to the building and then bits of the feast were incorporated into the model.
And what kind of flowers did you use?
There's some laurel—that was the most Roman flower—and myrtle, and then just a variety of whatever fresh flowers we were able to obtain in the neighborhood.
Have you ever visited the real Rome?
I have, but not recently. I actually hope to go back. There's a terrible irony...I was in residency in Italy for about two months leading up to the project and was traveling. I went to the excavations at Herculaneum and saw all sorts of work at different sites in Italy. I ended up putting off my week in Rome to work on this piece [laughs]! I hope to go back later this year.
You did the same project in L.A. last year. Were there any differences?
Yeah, all the collaborators are different. And the site makes a difference. Machine Project is an intercultural space that merges science, technology, poetry, music, and art. The musicians were different, the food was different. I think the scale of the museum version of it was a little more dramatic. But the version at Machine was perhaps more anarchic. I think both were interesting, but in different ways. L.A. is also a different artistic context than New York.
Do you plan to do it again in the future?
I'm only interested in doing it again if I can change something more about the piece. I'd like to do it much, much bigger. So, perhaps, if an opportunity to do that became available, I'd consider it. But I think part of what was so interesting about the piece was getting at whether it could be done. And now that we've done it, perhaps that question is answered. Now I'm beginning to look for new questions.
How would you characterize your work in general? Do you usually look to ancient cities or art or archaeology for inspiration?
To some degree, yes, but it's always using ancient source material as a vehicle to look at the present moment. I think the reason I go back to ancient material is to look at the evolution of change over time. My work is ultimately concerned with cycles of growth and decay, change and possibility. And so, for example, one source that I've been really interested in with this project is—the British botanist Richard Deakins created a taxonomy of the fauna and flora of the Colosseum. He catalogued more than 450 species of plants that were growing in the Colosseum when it was in ruins in the 17th or 18th century. The idea that this building witnessed the flowering of the empire and then was just completely left to rot, but then later became host to this whole other form of life, I think, is incredibly interesting. And so for me, the ancient provides...it gives us positions to look at...it gives us more of a bird's-eye view of history and allows us, maybe, to see ourselves in different ways.
Eti Bonn-Muller is ARCHAEOLOGY's Managing Editor. Photo contributor Zack Sultan's website can be seen at www.nymoon.com.