500 Words - Interview — As told to Anna Wallace-Thompson
Over the past decade, the Berlin-based artist Timo Nasseri has drawn on a diverse array of mathematical and philosophical influences in his work. His current exhibition at Ab-Anbar in Tehran, “I Saw a Broken Labyrinth,” runs until November 23, 2017 and marks a decisive moment in his career, as it is the first time he has had a solo exhibition in Iran. Nasseri will also have a major solo show at the Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah in early 2018.
I’VE ALWAYS HAD MIXED FEELINGS about being termed an Iranian or a Middle Eastern artist, mainly because I’ve never seen myself as localized to any one culture. My mother is German, and my father is from Iran. So, my name is an odd hybrid. When Ab-Anbar approached me about doing an exhibition, we decided to introduce my work, even though much of the audience in Tehran may already be familiar with it. It’s been interesting for me because suddenly I’m seeing different works together and new connections between them, and there’s a real fusion of Eastern geometrical motifs with constructivist elements from my German background, as well as this fantastic aspect of my interest in storytelling.
I grew up with the tradition of storytelling; my father would invent fairy tales for me. On the one hand, my works refer to real stories about real people, but, on the other, they are abstracted. It’s like a conversation, a transportation of ideas from one person to the next. That’s what makes it so interesting to me. Every time you retell a story, something new gets added to it. I want certain narratives to unfold within the viewer, but it’s up to you to take the time to really look at a work and think about it. They are personal—there are tons of stories there. It’s just about which one finds you.
In general, I think my works are becoming more narrative. There was one point when I felt like I was done with all the mathematical aspects of my muqarnas, all that geometry, and it was hard to wrap my head around the ever-increasingly complex equations I was dealing with, so I decided to invent my own mathematical language instead, kind of like how kids invent fantasy languages. This is where my love of Jorge Luis Borges and, in particular, his story “The Library of Babel” comes in. For me, this story connects with so many different aspects of my work—it’s a fantasy about infinity, mathematics, quantum mechanics, and legibility. In it, there is an infinite library with an infinite number of books comprising the twenty-six letters of the alphabet in all possible combinations. Yet, these combinations of letters don’t make any sense, to us they are unreadable. However, in one book, on one page, there is the phrase “O time thy pyramids.” Maybe it’s the key. Maybe everything is legible if you hold the right key.
I am intrigued by this idea that a slight twist on reality can make something illegible, yet can retain a sense of inner logic, a truth that may not be immediately obvious. For example, for my series “O Time Thy Pyramids,” as well as the accompanying drawings, “Nine Firmaments,” I invented a language—there are letters but they don’t necessarily build words, just like in the Borges story.
Think of our Latin alphabet—you can kind of read French if you know the letters, but you won’t understand the words. It’s the same with my mathematics; I use familiar numbers and symbols, but you can’t understand the combination I’m using them in within my little sketches. Yet, if you stand in front of them, you have the impression that there’s something going on, that there’s a story there, a map to some hidden treasure, maybe an explanation of something like gravity in a different universe—it could be anything, if only you held that key.
This also builds on my interest in translating the two-dimensional into the three-dimensional and vice versa, as if my drawings were notations for my sculptures. My muqarnas were born out of the ornamental drawings I made for the “One and One” series, which became blueprints for those mirrored cupolas. Now I’ve added the elements of time and music. My new video work Expansions, which I made especially for this show, takes the elements of my drawings and deconstructs and rebuilds them. Drawings already have a certain rhythm of their own, so I thought perhaps this could be reflected in a musical rhythm, in this case, that of stars. I took materials from NASA—recordings of the rotations of planets, the rhythm of pulsars, and the explosions of stars—and put them into single tones to build a soundtrack. You can layer these tones rather like the way you can layer words to make a poem, or images to make a collage. It’s still just a beginning. It’ll never be complete, because it’s a fragment of an infinite library.
— As told to Anna Wallace-Thompson