Timo Nasseri’s show, an imaginative quest for the infinite

Timo Nasseri’s “Unknown Letter I”

SHARJAH - History, myth, science, math and artistic imagination combine in Timo Nasseri’s first UAE solo exhibition, “All the Letters in All the Stars,” presented at the Maraya Art Centre in collaboration with the Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival.
The Berlin-based German-Iranian artist is not unknown in the United Arab Emirates, having been one of the winners of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize in 2011 for “Gon,” a shiny lattice of steel rods, in a nod to Islamic geometrical forms and architecture.
It took Nasseri a long time to have a solo show in the Emirates because he was looking for “the right institution” where an exhibition of this scale could be accommodated, he said. He was represented through the Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut so “did not feel absent from the region,” Nasseri added.
Having began his artistic career as a photographer, the switch to sculpture in 2004 and later to Islamic calligraphic forms proved to be “a difficult transition initially.”
“For me, it started with a certain kind of curiosity about certain aspects of Islamic architecture and especially about the construction of the muqarnas, a form of ornamented vaulting in Islamic architecture,” Nasseri said.
“It was then that I realised that mathematics is the theme that holds it all together and the geometry that was used for it was based on a combination of three triangles. I started this research in 2009-10. Once you figure out how this particular geometry works, you can use it and it becomes like a toolbox to explore Islamic geometric forms.”
Born and brought up in Berlin and with no knowledge of Arabic, Nasseri applied a very logical, Western methodology with the imaginative curiosity of an artist to his subject. In 2006, during his transition to sculpture, he said, he “always felt the need to get close to his subject to get to its core.”
Nasseri came upon noted Arab calligrapher of the Abbasid age, Ali Muhammad bin Hasan ibn Muqla (circa 885-940) and his system of Arabic cursive writing and the aesthetics of proportioned script when his father presented him a small book on calligraphy.
“I was fascinated that he (Ibn Muqla) was trying to approach the script through mathematics so I did a sculpture on this proportion called ‘Alif’ in 2009.”
About three years ago, Nasseri read the tragic life story of Ibn Muqla and his theory of four missing letters in the Arabic alphabet. Ibn Muqla said he had found four letters that were missing from the Arabic language. He did not reveal the letters, despite immense pressure, including physical mutilation and incarceration, and his notes on their discovery are missing.
Nasseri searched for where the calligrapher could have found the letters, deducing they were hidden in the constellations. In artistic terms, it was indeed a mighty leap of the imagination and brought together many strands of Nasseri’s recent exploration.
“So being fascinated by Ibn Muqla’s missing Arabic letters, I started to research and then I started this fantasy about where these letters are,” he said. “This was actually the starting point for this exhibition, ‘All the Letters in All the Stars.’
“When I started to look for where the letters could be and being always interested in the stars, I tried to imagine that Ibn Muqla must have looked up at the night sky in Baghdad and found the patterns for those missing letters up there.”
With “Alif” starting the series, “Unknown Letter I” and “Unknown Letter II” — the second and third missing letters — were done in 2015 and the last letter was created for the present exhibition.
Consequently, the exhibition, which includes four sculptures of the resulting forms — made of walnut and steel — as well as drawings and wood pieces outlining the process, is a result of the artist’s in-depth research and investigation of this theory. It shows his disciplined practice of Arabic lettering in the method of Ibn Muqla and applying it to a recreated star chart from Baghdad in 934.
“All the letters in All the Stars” has won over viewers and critics. Laura Metzler, Maraya Art Centre curator, said the exhibition has been extended to April 5 so art lovers across the Emirates could enjoy and familiarise themselves with Nasseri’s work.
“The show is a dialogue between structure and fragmentation and the inability in these two veins to fully grasp the infinite. There is a kind of two segments — some older and some newer work — in dialogue here,” Metzler said.
N.P. Krishna Kumar is an Arab Weekly correspondent in Dubai.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.