Timo Nasseri: All The Letters in All The Stars
A version of this story was published online with Selections Magazine
If every combination of every letter was put into books of a specified length, then the library needed to house them would be bigger than our universe. This is a somewhat depreciated version of Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 story The Library of Babel, in which he imagined an almost infinite library containing every possible combination of letters in a vast collection of 410-page books. But it is a necessary simplification in order to understand one of the trunks from which the many branches of concept spring from in Timo Nasseri’s solo show now open at Maraya Art Centre.
All the Letters in All the Stars takes Borges’ philosophy of infinite possibilities and weaves it seamlessly into the compelling tale of Ibn Muqla – a 10th century calligrapher from Baghdad who developed a theory of proportioned script around which all the Arabic letters should be formed. Ibn Muqla’s work also stated that Arabic written language was incomplete – missing four letters corresponding to specific phonetic sounds – and dedicated his life’s practice towards the reform of the script. It was a controversial move resulting in him being kidnapped, mutilated and tortured for his findings. But he never revealed anything to his capturers and was left to die in a rather brutal and unceremonious way. His work was lost.
Eight years ago, when Nasseri learned of Ibn Muqla’s story and his legend, he began his own quest to find the lost letters, imagining that they can be found in the seemingly endless constellations of the night sky. “Like in Borges’ library, if any combination of any star is possible, then all of the letters must be somewhere in all of the stars, you just have to look for them,” he says.
It is, of course, a fictional idea but one that Nasseri has based in real facts. He took the real star charts from over Baghdad in the year 934, when Ibn Muqla was doing his research and used mathematical equations to find curves and lines that could match the possible letters. The results are four walnut wood sculptures depicting the lost letters, which pointedly remain unnamed and a collection of some of Nasseri’s sketches and drawings showing his research and to which he refers to as a “mind-map”. Two of the letters have been presented before in a show with his Beirut gallery Sfeir-Semler (The more beneath my feet the skies I see, 2015) but now, Nasseri is presenting the completed set and the full thought process behind it.
It is a mysterious fairytale presented in the language of geometry and mathematics. Every piece in the exhibition, from small abstract doodles pinned to a thought board, to the incredibly complex white ink on black paper drawings that resemble blueprints for architectural masterpieces that could be crafted in the stars, are all mind-blowingly precise in rendition and immensely meditative in content.
“I am fascinated by the visual language of mathematics,” he says. “And, because I’m an artist, it doesn’t have to be completely logical. For me, my tool box is full of mathematics, geometry and drawing, that I am using as an artistic rather than a scientific language.”
To traverse this exhibition is also to voyage across centuries and even dimensions. The Ibn Muqla story culminates in a beautiful mahogany inlay work depicting the actual cosmology map from the 10th century. Borges’ story and the related theories of quantum mathematics are illustrated with a wall of 54 painstakingly drawn but imagined constellations – perhaps relating to parallel universes.
The central point of the exhibition and one that is bound to dominate social media output is a room lined with triangular mirror shapes: Florenz-Bagdad (2016). The installation fuses fragmentation and Islamic ideals of spirituality with Western notions of perspective and individuality. To summarise, it is all about different ways of seeing and dates back to the invention of three-point perspective in Renaissance Europe. Nasseri says that this was “the most important thing that happened art-wise in the West” because it placed the viewer in perspective to the rest of the painting. In the East, he explains, “there was never such an interest in the individual instead, the fascination was with the infinite, which was seen as a representation of God.”
The notion of individual then, follows a two-pronged path that filtered down to every level of society. In the West, the self and the ego took centre stage, perhaps magnifying more across time and leading us to the self(ie)-obsessed era that we live in today and to which this reflective room feeds perfectly. In the East, ideas of fragmentation were key as each one of us is only ever a tiny part of the magnificent whole. Both ideas are displayed to equal measure in the mirrored room.
The success of Nasseri’s practice comes in the deep thinking behind each work, their stunning and meticulous aesthetics and the pathways of concept and reference that link each one. It is possible to get introspectively lost whilst pondering his work and at the same time, find joy in exploring their beauty.
Almost unbelievably, this is Nasseri’s first solo show in the Middle East – in institution or gallery. It is long overdue and very welcome.
- Timo Nasseri. All The Letters in All The Stars. December 14, 2017 - February 23, 2018. Maraya Art Centre, Al Qasba, Sharjah. www.maraya.ae
- Nasseri will be hosting a public walkthrough of the exhibition on January 20 and speaking about the show in a talk at Alserkal Avenue on January 22. More details to follow.
An edited version of this story was commissioned by Selections Magazine. Read it here.