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
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
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.