Ways of seeing

  by Negar Azimi

The  inhabitants  of  Borges’s  fictional  Library  of  Babel  in  his  1941  short  story  of  the

same  name  move  from  hexagon-shaped  room  to  room,  with  only  mountains  of

books to see in every direction. Within the bounds of this unlikely and overfull li-

brary is every book ever made and that ever will be made in the history of the uni-

verse, each composed of a specific permutation of a finite 25-symbol code. In this

way, the library represents infinite knowledge. And yet, these books are impossible

to decipher, written in all manner of crypto-hieroglyphics. Buried deep at the end of

one such gibberish-filled book is the enigmatic phrase “O Time thy Pyramids”, ap-

pearing like an inscrutable mirage in this vast desert.

The artist Timo Nasseri evokes Borges’s Babel, his own work the product of endless

subtle  variations  of  distinct  curves  and  lines.  In  his  Muqarnas  series  (2007–2010),

dazzling geometric sculptures in which no single pattern is ever repeated, infinity

appears as an accumulation of shiny polished shards of stainless steel. Approach-

ing one of these in real life, one strains to make out one’s reflection, only to be frus-

trated. Like the bounds of the library, complete knowledge – or in other words a com-

plete unified reflection – is within reach, but finally, ungraspable. Borges writes, “the

library is a sphere whose exact centre is [within] any one of its hexagon[al rooms]

and whose circumference is inaccessible.”

The muqarnas, an architectural flourish of the 10th century Islamic world that ap-

pears  as  a  many-pointed  and  tiered  niche,  is  a  common  sight  in  mosques.  The

muqarnas at the entrance of the Shah Abbas mosque in Isfahan, made of intricate

turquoise tiles, is one of the more iconic examples of the ornament – itself the product

of densely intricate mathematical formulae. The Alhambra in Granada, the Mau-

soleum  of  Qaitbay  in  Cairo,  and  the  Abbasid  Palace  in  Baghdad  represent  other

variations of the rich muqarnas tradition. In the 17th century, mirrored glass broken

in transport from Venice, where it was manufactured, to the Islamic world, would

be used in the fabrication of muqarnas. The broken shards – each one different from

the next – amounted to what appeared, not unlike Borges’s endless rooms, like hon-

eycombs. These shards reflect and obscure at once. Brought down to eye-level from

the heavenly heights of the mosque (it is said that the muqarnas reflects the story of

the Prophet’s enlightenment, with its textured structure resembling the ceiling of the

very cave in which he communed with the angel Gabriel), they seem to channel the

different lives these objects could have once abstracted from their habitual contexts.

In works such as Glitch (2010), appearances are equally deceptive. From one angle,

this large sculpture looks like a wave. From another, it is a soaring mountain. The

individual  steel  poles  that  constitute  the  sculpture  appear  to  be  bent  to  allow  for

the delicate curve, but closer inspection reveals that they are in fact straight. The

experience of the object is encapsulated in our eyes and our eyes only; here, what

we see almost always diverges from a stubborn physical reality. For Simorgh (2008),

Nasseri crafts an elaborate and large rendering of Persian script

spelling out the name of an Iranian war missile in the era of the Islamic Republic.

The  title  Simorgh,  which  means  “phoenix”,  is  inevitably  dissonant.  As  is  Shahab

(2006), the moniker of another Iranian missile whose name literally means “falling

star”, or Fadjr (2007), which signals “dawn”. The artist crafts these scriptural sculp-

tures in materials that seem to channel the production values of advertising. Vehi-

cles of destruction, they are elegant, aesthetic commodities. Their poetic names and

pleasing shapes speak nothing of the destruction they otherwise evoke.

In the end, all of these works point to radically different traditions of representation

from West to East, the tenth century to the twenty-first – to say nothing of the rich

and  varied  materials  which  make  up  the  artist’s  own  practice  and  universe.  But

more  poignantly,  they  suggest  the  malleability  of  visual  experience  generally.  In

his quiet way, Nasseri evades and subverts the possibility of the singular authentic

view. Summoning up Borges, he reminds us that there are infinite ways of seeing.

Negar Azimi