Timo Nasseri in conversation with Britta Schmitz

Britta  Schmitz:  You  have  been  producing  the  series  of  works  entitled  Muqarnas/

Epistrophy  since  2008.  These  wall  works  initially  seem  ornamentally  familiar,  like

prisms that change with their own movement. At the same time, they generate a

strange otherness that cannot be grasped at first. Where did this idea come from?

When did the idea of allowing the elements to have a life of their own emerge? 

Timo Nasseri: I’ve been familiar with illustrations of muqarnas ever since my child-

hood.  At  my  father’s  house  there  were  numerous  illustrated  volumes  on  Persia,  its

culture and architecture. The first time I saw the muqarnas of the Shah Mosque in

Isfahan was in 1999, and it was a simply unbelievable experience. I remember mar-

velling at the structure for minutes on end, trying to understand the system behind

the structure. It was as if one were looking inside a kind of endlessness that had a

sublime plan. I remember that I had the feeling of not being able to comprehend

it, not being able to dissect it into its logical components. Later during my travels

through the Middle East and along the Silk Road, I encountered them over and over,

and at some point I wanted to really understand them and comprehend them – and

the only way to do that was to build one myself, my own muqarnas.

B.S.: Is there any reason why they are inserted as reliefs in the wall?

T.N.: I wanted to bring the dome of the muqarnas down from the ceiling and place

them opposite the beholder. For only in this way can they become a view in the mir-

ror, in which one sets oneself into perspective. The sculpture becomes a geometry of

the field of vision. The work is viewed face to face, instead of being looked up at, it

becomes our counterpart.

B.S.: What is the meaning of the reflection of light for the sculpture? Why did you

add this element?

T.N.: In Arab culture, geometry is referred to as light architecture, and in the Arabic

visual language there is a geometry of light. On an optic level, light in my objects is

reflected, but from the standpoint of visual theory it is refracted. Only fragments of

the space around the sculpture are reflected, which are not localizable. One looks

at 600 mirrors that show nothing recognizable and nothing whole. Self-identification

with  the  face  in  the  mirror  is  suspended,  for  the  viewer  cannot  see  him  or  herself

at all, due to the angles at which the mirrors are arranged. At the same time, the

volume of the sculpture suspends itself, for the scaffolding is placed on the mirror

and completely covered by it. This inverted bowl becomes a hole in the wall that

possesses a much higher presence than would be possible with a different material

and at the same time seems to be materially absent. A kind of light space emerges. 

The use of mirror fragments has a history in Arabic decorative art that goes back to

the fifteenth century, when numerous mirrors broke on the transport routes from Ven-

ice to the Orient. But the mirrors were much too precious to just throw away, which

is why the tiny remains of the mirrors were used for decorative purposes. These usu-

ally geometric arrangements of mirror fragments can still be found today in Middle

Eastern craftsmanship.

B.S.:  You  not  only  work  with  architectural  elements.  Calligraphy  also  serves  as  a

model  or  a  source  of  inspiration.  These  calligraphic  works  are  initially  striking  in

their  symmetric  beauty.  But  this  beauty  exists  only  externally.  Only  those  able  to

read  Persian  can  arrive  at  the  additional  meanings  behind  the  words:  alongside

their original meaning, they are also names of Iranian weapons systems. Is that a

colonial idea, is there something similar in other languages and systems of writing?

T.N.:  Only  since  1945  have  weapons  been  assigned  certain  names  to  evoke  their

related attributes. Relatively typical here are animal names like panther, leopard,

hornet, falcon, cobra. The American military first used names of gods like Jupiter,

Thor, Nike, and Poseidon. At the end of the 1950s, they especially used Indian terms,

in particular for helicopters (Apache, Chinook, Tomahawk), which is naturally quite

absurd considering that just 70 years before that the American military had almost

wiped  out  the  Native  American  population.  In  the  works  Comanche  (2006)  and

Apache  (2006),  I  take  up  this  fetishization  and  try  to  achieve  a  kind  of  thematic

doubling by applying feathers to the helicopter. Aby Warburg describes in “Serpent

Ritual” how Native Americans use animal masks to slip into the role of the animal and

to cast a spell on the animal in preparation for the hunt. I see certain parallels here.

In Islamic mysticism, there is the notion that more inheres in letters and words than

just the symbolic form and the phonetic sound assigned to it. The calligraphy states

the names of Iranian rockets. The terms noor (light, heavenly light), fadjir (the first

light of day), shahab (meteor, falling star), all share something in common: some-

thing heavenly, mystic, divine inheres in them, something not created by humanity.

When it comes to weapons, these “divine” aspects provide the feeling that they have

been placed in our hands to act on a higher mission. This is also about a form of

communication adjusted to fit the media. Saying our Meteor (Shahab) has destroyed

the enemy holdings is quite different to saying that the rocket only has a number.

The works are intended to look like advertising with their perfect surfaces.

B.S.: They are not purely graphic elements. By contrast, there is an element of con-

tent to them. But they are also three-dimensional objects. Where is the link to writing


T.N.: I see Persian and Arabic calligraphy as something that is three-dimensional.

Writing is done with a quill whose tip is cut at a 45-degree angle. In calligraphy you

never find a sweeping line with a constant width. It looks like a twisting in space

that is projected onto paper. At the same time, unlike in the Roman alphabet, these

differences in width are the foundation for the size of the individual letters. The first

to define a set of rules for this was Ibn Muqla around 900 AD. He defined the lengths

and widths of each letter, using the rhomboid full stop created by setting the reed

pen on the paper. I took up this idea in my sculpture Aleph (2009).

B.S.: Another form of writing can be found in your black-and-white drawings. How

did they emerge? How are they to be read?

T.N.:  Originally  they  weren’t;  they  resulted  from  my  intention  to  understand  the

structure of this particular kind of ornamentation and thus to understand the struc-

ture  of  the  muqarnas  at  their  core.  I  wanted  to  solve  the  problem  of  construc-

tion  in  drawing,  and  started  to  sketch  and  to  survey  the  muqarnas  outlines.

I  did  this  in  all  kinds  of  geometric  objects  and  very  soon  noticed  that  all  these 

objects could be traced back to different triangles. At the start of my studies, I met

a  Sufi  who  once  studied  architecture.  I  asked  him  to  explain  to  me  the  structure

of a muqarnas. He answered that he couldn’t help me build me one, but he could

teach me how to find my muqarnas. He was the first who explained the content and

meanings of their elements and it was only then that I learned that these construc-

tions could be read for content.

Square and rhombus (which is nothing but a square turned 45 degrees) are, simply

put,  symbols  for  earth  and  sky;  this  is  how  the  drawings  can  be  read  in  terms  of

content. I began to understand the recurrent geometric elements and to use them.

A mathematic skeleton serves as the foundation of the construction that I now used

and varied and upon which I could build.

B.S.:  Does  the  size  of  the  sheet  decide  the  pattern?  How  do  you  decide?  Can  the

drawing be read infinitely? Can the composition be endlessly varied?

T.N.: Infinity is one of the most important elements in these drawings. The struggle

in my own mind to think beyond the potential infinite and to understand the actual

infinite meets its limits when you try to make a “picture”. The drawings can natu-

rally only approach being read infinitely, this is why the drawings never reach the

very end of the sheets, which can only be a window to this system. Each drawing

could continue endlessly and I really sketch only the beginnings on these endless

paths toward the infinite. B.S.:  In  your  newer  works  like  Gon  (2011)  and  Glitch  (2010), 

I  have  noticed  a  new

“language” at play. How do they relate to your earlier works? Is there a link here? Is

the shadow an element that belongs to the sculpture?

T.N.: The new works emerged after I found a drawing by the Swiss mathematician

Jakob Steiner which was about the construction of conic sections, in two dimensional

parabolas, only with straight lines. My starting point was the reversal of this transla-

tion from 2D to 3D, but with other parameters. The lines seemed to me as if warped

in the space not on a surface. I am not primarily concerned here with demonstrating

optical distortions, but a certain sense of rhythm, which, mathematically speaking,

is a sequence with recurrent parameters, to form a volume in space. Jakob Steiner

taught around 1900 at what was then Berlin’s Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität (today’s

Humboldt) and was known for solving many questions in geometric drawings.

In the new works I used what was done earlier for the muqarnas in Islamic archi-

tecture, that is, to take a two-dimensional pattern under defined parameters to the

third dimension and to “infiltrate” it with light. The division of the surface, as prac-

ticed in Arabic ornamentalism, is the foundation of these works; they are drawings

in space. In Gon (2011), the shadows play an important role, for they sketch out my

initial drawing on the floor. Visible at the same time are the original and the spatial

translation.  When  you  walk  around  the  sculpture,  the  structure  forms  constantly

new curves, although all the bars are straight, and we get the impression of curved


In the mirror sculptures like Parsec (2009–2011), I tried to retain the volumes of the

sculpture, in the new ones it is very much about a permeable physicality of sculpture.

The Constructivist idea of space and time in sculpture is something quite close to

me. But I see the meaning of the line a bit differently than Naum Gabo or Antoine

Pevsner.  For  me,  it’s  all  line,  and  therefore  everything  is  infinite,  since  the  line  is

mathematic, regardless of how long it is or how many points it consists of.

B.S.: Are the sketches done using a computer? 

T.N.: I always begin with a drawing. I usually choose a simple geometrical element

like a rhombus or a triangle, which are actually the same elements used in the con-

struction of the muqarnas, and add parabolas with straight lines. I then try out how

this basic sketch can be translated to the third dimension. There are always various

possibilities that I can try out, usually using the 3D programme on my computer.

B.S.: They are classical, freestanding sculptures, sometimes with a plinth, sometimes

without. Do you design the plinth? How do you decide whether or not to work with

a plinth?

T.N.: In some works, the plinth should be seen as part of the sculpture, which at the

same time separates the works from the floor, giving them a focal point and assign-

ing them a space. The plinth of the sculpture Allotropy (2010), for example, emerges

from the construction. The curved rhomboid shape was the technical tool that we

needed to weld the steel in such short intervals without distortion. The shape came

from  the  sheet  to  which  the  rods  could  be  fixed.  With  the  plinth,  I  have  taken  up

this shape once again. In other works, they are intended to support certain angles

of viewing that, due to the size of the works, would otherwise not be possible. Espe-

cially when it comes to the smaller geometric objects, the possibilities of walking at

the right height to be able to see the details and reflective axes are very important.