Art ASIAPACIFIC - Lesley Ann Grey
All the Letters in All the Stars
Web Review BY Lesley Ann Gray
Maraya Art Centre
The night sky has long been a tool for navigation and a source of inspiration in the Middle East—constellations have led many an explorer to success or ruin, depending on the path they followed. Abbasid-dynasty master calligrapher Ibn Muqla (885/86–940) was a bit of an explorer in his own right; within his creations, the 10th-century artist sought to achieve aesthetic precision in written Arabic letters, formulating his legacy as the official calligrapher for the Caliphate. To him, calligraphy was a demarcation of space, lines of mathematical proportions exhibiting symmetry and beauty. His quest for perfection in form eventually led him to propose four additional letters for the Arabic alphabet to represent the vocalizations that are not accounted for in written Arabic, bringing written and spoken forms of the language into harmony with one another. Since Arabic is the language of the Quran—and under Islam represents the words of God—this was Ibn Muqla’s undoing. Arrested for defiling the language, his writing hand was cut off, his tongue was removed, and then he died in jail. Subsequently, his four letters vanished into the twilight.
In Timo Nasseri’s solo exhibition “All the Letters in All the Stars,” curated by Laura Metzler at the Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah and organized in collaboration with the Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival, the artist attempts to unravel the mystery of the four letters through the constellations over Abbasid-era Baghdad. Nasseri, who is of Iranian and German descent and does not speak or read Arabic, imagined Ibn Muqla’s creative process as being shaped by the night sky. Nasseri’s process begins with the piece Mind Map (2015), where he works out the positions of stars visible in 934 CE with an online program that can generate such a configuration from any time and place in history. With this reference, he proceeded to pick out shapes from the stars and used Ibn Muqla’s rules of calligraphy to create the missing letters, culminating in the sensuous carved walnut and steel sculptures Unknown Letters I to IV (2015), which also reveal Ibn Muqla’s rules of proportion through nuqtas, or calligraphers’ marks used for mathematical reference, stacked in a column to the side of each letter. The symbols certainly appear to be of the Arabic alphabet, but the tongue cannot form a sound to accompany them—a melancholy reminder of Ibn Muqla’s tragic fate. In the same collection of artworks but placed just beyond the sculptures, constellations are drawn out in ink on star maps in I Saw All the Letters (2017)—an exploration of the universe’s infinite nature and the endless possibilities held within. Star maps also feature in two wall-based artworks of wood and inlaid steel stars: I-Jām (2015) shows the path of celestial bodies through the heavens, and the astrolabe-inspired It’s always night or we wouldn’t need light 33°37’90N, 44°31’74E (Ibn Muqla) (2015) portrays the night sky over Baghdad as Ibn Muqla might have seen it.
Nasseri’s practice is one that solves puzzles, whether they be historical mysteries such as with Ibn Muqla, or the explorations via mathematical theorems to discover an overarching order in the chaos of existence. The artist is also deeply inspired by Islamic patterns, specifically the vaulted, honeycomb-like architectural detail of the muqarnas found in the ceilings of many Islamic structures. Nasseri flattens these three-dimensional patterns and reveals the formulas behind their beauty in his drawings One and One #17 (2010), #37, #38 and 39 (all 2014), where the elegance of Islamic geometry is accompanied by the algorithm behind it written on the lines of the shapes, rendered with precision and grace in white ink on black paper.
The classical Iranian poet Hafiz, whose poem “All the Hemispheres” was reprinted on the wall, gives lyrical pause amidst such superb visual detail: Leave the familiar for a while. Let your senses and bodies stretch out. It was an invitation to recalibrate our perceptions as we entered the largest work in the exhibition. In a central room was Nasseri’s four-wall installation Florenz – Bagdad (2016), where the arithmetic behind Islamic geometry is rendered in mirrored glass and refracted light. Within the space, the view is continuously fragmented and abstracted. It is impossible to make a complete and recognizable image of oneself in the mirrors, yet the structure of the pattern of the reflective surfaces anchors the space and gives it form. It is a sensorial representation of unlimited possibilities of the imagination and of existence created out of chaos—the experience of infinity within us.
Timo Nasseri’s “All the Letters in All the Stars” is on view at Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah, until February 23, 2018.