In a deserted place in Iran there is a not very tall stone tower that has neither door nor window. In the only room (with a dirt floor and shaped like a circle) there is a wooden table and a bench. In that circular cell, a man who looks like me is writing in letters I cannot understand a long poem about a man who in another circular cell is writing a poem about a man who in another circular cell… The process never ends and no one will be able to read what the prisoners write.
Jorges Luis Borges, “A Dream”. .
In this shortest of short stories, the scene depicted by Borges is at once evocative of vast imaginations and a description of mathematical infinities. The setting, for those in the West, conjures up the exoticism of Oriental lands, whilst the windowless spaces where each man resides look inwards in a sort of self-reflection. With a remarkable economy of means, Borges touches upon the limits of language and brings together improvisation with endless repetition, the former flowing through the unreadable letters, and the latter found in the way that the image of the narrator in the pondering poet is infinitely mirrored… The circular tower is a fragment of a much larger circularity, echoed in a universe of parallels and paradox, where invention finds its roots in mathematic theory and each fragment exists as a description of an incomprehensible whole. All of this can equally be said of the work of the artist Timo Nasseri.
Born in Berlin, Germany, in 1972, the son of a German mother and an Iranian father, Nasseri grew up absorbing the influences of two radically different cultures. He describes the Western, Germanic sensibility as rational and logical, whilst stories from his father were imbued with fantasy, imagination, and possibility. In visual terms it may be surprising for Westerners to think of the highly structured art and architecture of the Islamic world as a realm of imagination, and this misunderstanding, these gaps in comprehension, became a drive for the artist in exploring the visual world that emerges when East and West meet.
Having been given a camera at the age of eight, Nasseri developed an enthusiasm for taking pictures, for looking at the world, which later led to his training as a commercial photographer. During this time the realization came that photography need not only be used towards superficial ends, but could carry much deeper meanings; and soon he began to use his skills to communicate larger ideas. This expanded further into a sculptural practice. Nasseri describes how his imagination was sparked by a flag waving in the wind—suddenly he saw the possibility of transforming a two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional form . This was a defining moment for the artist; since then he thinks about creating art works rather than, as a photographer does, capturing something that already exists. By constructing drawings and sculpture Nasseri invents; he generates forms and images through a process which is a synthesis of reason, intuition and imagination.
The work he has produced over the past fifteen years spans a variety of mediums and methods, yet individual works are immediately recognizable as part of his larger practice. With many of the works, the influence of Islamic art, its mathematics and philosophy, makes the most striking first impression. However Nasseri’s geometries are not appropriated, but are instead the result of a keen desire for comprehension. The most complex works are the result of years dedicated to understanding how the mesmerising architectural geometries he encountered on his travels along the Silk Road are constructed. Beginning with the simplest of elements, every step of the process is one that the artist himself has calculated. This is most evident in his works inspired by muqarnas: geometric ceiling vaults that originated in Iran and appear widely in Islamic architecture with their honeycomb-like structure.
The first question that arises is what it means for an artist brought up in Germany to work with this ancient Islamic visual language. The German art historian Hans Belting, who has been a significant influence on Nasseri, explores the meeting of these two visual histories in his book Florence and Bagdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science . He throws some light on the misunderstandings that occur between two cultures whose approaches to the construction of meaning are fundamentally different. Whereas in the West images are understood through the depiction of the figure, and a perspective that is constructed to direct our eyes out into the world, Islamic art is one of pure abstraction, which turns us inwards towards a world that is invisible. Western perspective fixes the gaze within narrative imagery, while this non-pictorial language renders a perceptual experience through mathematics and light, which shifts and oscillates before our eyes, describing cosmic motions both far larger then the self and reflected within us.
Entering a room hosting Timo Nasseri’s works is to encounter a fusion of these two histories; dazzling mathematical abstractions meet the eye-line of Western perspective, with pieces hung on walls or placed on plinths in a manner conventional to Western exhibition-making. The works have a perceptual power, and the placements allow us to traverse the space in a way that reveals the spatial dynamics between them, as well as the mesmerising instability of Nasseri’s mirrored muquarnas. One does not have to dig too deeply before the questions of perspectival and perceptual histories are overtaken by the philosophical differences between the two cultures. For many in the West, these (though stunningly beautiful) geometries have been read as “mere” ornament: a vast gap in understanding of a language which explores deep infinities, where each fragment is a description of the whole, and each self contains the universe. In his own quiet way, by translating ancient forms into a contemporary practice, Nasseri is opening a door for us, giving us a glimpse of the hidden spaces behind.
There is a double concept in Islam, that of Zahir and Batin. Zahir describes what first meets the eye, the surface or apparent meaning, which hides the Batin: an internal space that cannot be seen from the outside, much like Borges’ description of the tower with neither doors nor windows. Sufis would describe each individual as having a Batin: an inward self. This duality describes the nature of Islamic art, its contemplative nature being an opening for inner reflection, whilst its ornamental nature also hides a deeper meaning that is inaccessible to the uninitiated. What lies between the surface and its interior is a zone of interpretation.
The idea of hidden knowledge, of an inaccessible core that defies translation or notation, is recurrent in Nasseri’s artworks, though revealed through ceaseless and transparent attempts at understanding. The artist describes a sense of circling, in both making and thinking about the works; “circling around without getting to the point, but getting to a different point” . He articulates this in the title of the drawings One and One (2008–current), which form the basis of the later three-dimensional works, retitled from Muquarnas to Epistrophy (2009–13). These large-scale drawings of white lines expanding from a central point to a potentially infinite space are the result of a painstaking yet meditative process of mark-making and calculation. The rhythm of crossing triangles creates a surface tension punctured by moments of dazzling light where many points meet: points in the darkness that transform a rational minimalism into a universe–a universe containing the codes for all the other works. One and One describes the meeting point of two triangles, each having a side of equal length. There is a suggestion of endless points in repetition, a sense of everything being connected.
Translating two dimensions into three, the Epistrophy works expand and contract in space like accordions, pulling us simultaneously inwards and outwards. The title of the series reflects the circularity within the structure of the cupola, which repeats inwards and outwards, giving the impression of an infinite circling with no beginning or end. Nasseri’s considerations of the importance of the gaze is most striking here, as the Epistrophy works occupy the eye-line so as to look back at you, while fracturing any possibility of looking at your mirrored self. A space is created that is both unlocatable and inaccessible, but to which we are physically bound as we search for ourselves in the fragments. The Glance works (2011–13) extend this relation of the gaze and interiority; smaller and less dizzying, their looking back at us has an uncanny feeling, with what is reflected being so near yet ungraspable. The duality of reflections, the here and there of this space and another, continues in Parsec (2008–10), which performs another inversion: what could be the solid form of the void now sits at our feet, becoming a somehow invisible space. As Nasseri describes it, “you don’t see the object, you see only the reflections.”. . What is within—the core—eludes us.
Looking back at Middle Eastern visual history is to look back at the story of art’s marriage with science and the mystical. Mathematics is not only understood as the building blocks of our—real—world, but is also a means of mapping the unmappable, continuing on where language ceases to communicate. It is always night, or we wouldn't need light (2014) attempts a mathematical mapping of incomprehensibly larger space, using marquetry of stainless steel inlaid in rich wooden panels. Here Nasseri connects to storytelling, with each work describing the celestial order at specific moments in time that are described in the accompanying texts, such as the constellation over the Campo de' Fiori in Rome the morning that mathematician and philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned there. The imaginative expanse of these works is made more poignant considering the propositions made by these thinkers, Bruno being the first to suggest the infinite nature of the universe, and Galileo that the earth revolves around the sun—moments of huge intellectual expansion. Though dialoguing with textual description, the hypnotic movements of circling geometry, physically inlaid with immaculate precision into deep organic surfaces, take off where the words end.
Just as Borges’ short story describes the failure to comprehend a written language, there is always something lost in translation, gaps that appear in the process of notation, yet mathematics underpins everything as both the most universal and incomprehensible descriptor. In many of his stories, Borges uses mathematical theories to reveal deep abstractions, composing chaos and repetition, while also giving us glimpses of circularity and infinity that are far beyond our field of vision.
In Drill Core (2012–13) Nasseri suggests a literal slice of deep structure, a fragment cut from the ether as we would cut from the earth, revealing a network potentially infinite yet again beyond our sight. The linear structures have an appearance of random dispersions, an inversion of the ordered geometry of other works which creates a variant spatial tension, the two playing off each other. The importance of points and lines is equally expressed in I saw a Broken Labyrinth (2012–current), the title being a reference to another Borges story, “The Aleph.” This description is itself a glimpse, one of the myriad visions described by the writer on seeing the Aleph—the point of revelation where “he sees it all.”. . Though Nasseri reduces this point to one of scant abstraction, still, in the elegance of lines converging; harmonic, expansive chords, he evokes spatial tensions: light and compressions which play from two-dimensional drawings across and within the other works, describing their own cosmos.
The line itself is a definition of infinity, either as made up of infinite points, or the line that begins and extends without ending. Nasseri’s keen curiosity for mathematics may have originated from his relationship with Islamic geometries, but it has also been heavily influenced by Western mathematicians. Looking at the work of 19th-century Swiss geometer, Jacob Steiner, who was concerned with the fundamental properties of the plane, line, and point . Nasseri, in the Mesh works (2012), re-describes these fundamental forms by translating their dimensionality. The three-dimensional versions become notations, and thus through interpretation reveal the transformation undergone by a system when a dimension is added or subtracted, resulting in something entirely new.
Stepping back again to take in the works collectively, the emergent qualities of individual works begin to harmonize and bounce off each other. There are so many inversions, parallel thematics, and dualities here which are impossible to fully unpack; we flicker between East and West, inner and outer worlds, micro and macro… all reverberating between translations and retranslations, being turned inside out, upside down, shape-shifting from one dimension to another. But to try to disentangle this would be to miss the point—for, despite our curiosity, the failure to comprehend or to get to a core is the place in which we ultimately find ourselves.
If the Epistrophy series and the drawings that precede them are tied to visions of the East, the blocks of drawings entitled Oh Time Thy Pyramids (2013) and the ensemble of sculptural works Nine Firmaments with accompanying drawings (2015) could be seen as both reflective of an Eastern imagination and Western artistic histories and ideas. Where One and One disorientates us with its tightly knitted repetition and painstaking rhythmic accuracy, in these works Nasseri explodes this rhythmicality, playing with fragments in an endless flow of improvisation. These compositions, translated directly between two and three dimensions, have the feel of jazz, like riffing on mathematics…
Considering the static objects by the way in which they relate to each other opens up a dynamic space. Just as sound has its own tensions and compressions, so here there is a polyphonic space between the works. Again the fragment describes the whole as the blocks of drawings operate individually and relationally. Nasseri describes these drawings as a system of language, but one in which there is no key. Like pages from a book, each work is simultaneously the answer to a possible question, and undecipherable;
I always thought a block of these works is an answer to something. Maybe this explains how gravity works in a parallel universe where there are hree-legged mice... or everything is the same but you would be me and I would be you… there is an answer to a certain question in here which could be philosophical or could be physical. They are like short stories, but you cannot really read it because there is no legend to what each part means. That's part of the game, explaining something without giving an answer .
Thinking of the Western influence, the currents of ideas that flow through Nasseri’s thinking find their predecessors in the experimental attitude of the Sixties Avant-Garde, captured as it was by a fascination with Eastern mysticism, improvisation, and psychic exploration. In this time of interdisciplinarity, artists of all genres were exploring crossovers between art forms, and making connections to deeper structures and spirituality. Theories such as “Nada Brahma” were popular: the idea that we are made up of sound vibrations that are also the building blocks of the universe . This spiritual approach to sound led the jazz musician John Coltrane to think of harmonies, rhythms, and improvisation as resonant with universal properties. It is interesting to note that Nasseri came very close to becoming a musician himself, and to studying the saxophone, being deeply influenced by jazz and experimental music. Just as the Batin and Zahir of Islamic art describes the surface and its hidden core, so jazz pulls on polarities: of seeming improvisation and endlessness, which in fact contain deep mathematical structures.
Relating jazz to mathematics, Coltrane became absorbed in Indian music and the relationships revealed by its structures and rhythms. Perhaps directly influenced by this, no doubt by his parallel interest in quantum physics, he drew a “tone circle”: a geometric representation of the relationships of musical pitch intervals which he gave to fellow jazz musician Yusef Lateef in 1967. The diagram is essentially a mandala, connecting five musical notes in patterns which become a five-pointed star. Fifty years on, theories connecting physics, mathematics, and sound remain as compelling as they were in the heady decade of spiritual seeking. In his 2016 book The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe , the physicist Stephon Alexander examines the connections between Coltrane’s exploration of the structure of jazz, and Einstein’s theory of quantum mechanics. His argument centers on the idea that both are built on mathematic logic with improvisation and intuition, to reach parallel philosophical spaces: the idea of expansion as fundamental state. According to Alexander, quantum particles move in a way akin to improvisation, traversing all possible paths in the way that jazz musicians play with all possible notes on a scale . Furthermore, Alexander discovered that the same geometric principle that motivated Einstein’s gravitational theory is reflected in Coltrane’s diagram.
If I extend this diagram to three dimensions (which is what Coltrane was really after—he kept talking about expansion—he was a big fan of Albert Einstein) […] If I expand this out I have four triangles in three dimensions, I create the tetrahedron, which is the atom of space and time which we find in quantum gravity .
It is the same tetrahedron which forms the basis of Nasseri’s three-dimensional works—also “expansions” of two-dimensional geometries which have emerged from his own improvisation and intuition.
Returning to the intellectual occupations of the Sixties, infinity was described not only as transcendent but as an endless interiority, connecting the Western idea of self with the mysticism hidden within Islamic art. Writers such as Aldous Huxley and Henri Michaux used mescal to explore the nature of the inner universe, through systematic experimentation. This world of the imagination, as Michaux describes in his book Infinite Turbulence, revealed to them endless visions, insights into the depth of meaning implicit in mathematical ornament;
Inward visions appear before closed eyes.
Thousands and thousands of flashing microscopic points, sparkling diamonds, fulgurations for microbes.
Palaces with countless turrets, which shoot into the air as if weightless. Arabesques, festoons. .
He goes on to describe “an infinite number of loops and twirls […] lacework upon lacework […] an infinity of ornaments.” Thinking upon Islamic art he then connects these visions to acoustic descriptions of the “curve of the vibrations of a chord” . The fluidity and infinite variation of these inward visions is not only reflected in Nasseri’s improvisational drawings and the “flashing microscopic points, sparkling diamonds” which light up the One and One works; these visions articulate a larger connectivity that runs through Nasseri’s practice. Michaux reveals the synaesthetic correlations between mathematical forms, sounds, and space, bringing us back to a circular infinity, merging dimensions, inside and outside.
Connecting vision and sound also brings to mind the experimental filmmaking of the era, which, following the works of Oscar Fishinger, crossed over abstractions in moving images and music . It makes perfect sense, therefore, that Nasseri would expand his vocabulary, liberating the archive of drawings and creating a film work where forms appear, merge, and disappear in various sequences and changing formations.
In Extensions (2017) he has paired the visual library with a “pulsar symphony”: music that he has collaged simply from sounds of planets and pulsars, overlaid and repeated. The result is hypnotic and uncanny, a tick-tock of time and distance with no beginning and no end.
Drawing all these works together is as simple as it is complex, and for everything that can be articulated, there is more that must be experienced through our physical presence with the work, and its slow unfolding. The constant back and forth between the body and the imagination has its own rhythms: we move from reading the drawings of Oh Time Thy Pyramids, where the disorientation happens conceptually in the imagination, to looking into mirrored geometries which have a visceral effect—they physically destabilise us, playing with our eyes and our ability to spatially locate ourselves. There is also the matter of sheer beauty, a term that strikes fear into many contemporary artists, but that is yet another area in which Nasseri holds his own ground. The aesthetic richness, the sense of sublimity in his work cannot be dismissed as a veil or a sole objective. It is part of an endeavor: intelligent, complex, and engaged with real things in the world. Nasseri is neither scared of visual excitement, nor of creating meaning—which is arguably a position contemporary art is crying out for.
For all its cool minimalism, the work is warm and romantic, and one must wonder as to the extent of the artist’s curious energy, a drive that continues to try to get to the core, despite the realization that the closer you get, the more it eludes you. In the end, he says it best himself:
Ultimately, I am trying to understand something that is too big for me to understand... but trying to understand something that you are not able to is how you find out that it is so much larger than we are .
Perhaps we can consider Timo Nasseri’s artistic practice to be like Einstein’s Gedankenexperiments: a synthesis of reason, imagination, and intuition, which brings us closer to the edges of what we know and the incalculable spaces beyond… In mathematics we find beauty; in incomprehension we find the sublime.
. Jorge Luis Borges, “A Dream,” trans. Susanne Jill Levine, The New Yorker, July 6, 2009.
. Conversation with Timo Nasseri in his studio, June 16, 2017.
. Hans Belting, Florence and Bagdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science, Harvard University Press, 2011.
. Conversation with Timo Nasseri in his studio, June 16, 2017.
. Conversation with Timo Nasseri in his studio, June 26, 2017.
. Jorges Luis Borges, “The Aleph” (1949), The Aleph and Other Stories 1933–1969, Penguin Classics, reprint edition (2004).
. Viktor Blåsjö , “Jakob Steiner’s Systematische Entwickelung: The Culmination of Classical Geometry,” Mathematical Intelligencer, 2009.
. Conversation with Timo Nasseri in his studio, June 16, 2017.
. Joachim-Ernst Berendt, The World Is Sound: Nada Brahma: Music and the Landscape of Consciousness, paperback 1991.
. Stephon Alexander, The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe, Basic Books, 1st edition, 2016.
. Ibid., 4.
. Stephon Alexander, “The Physics of Jazz,” TED talk, published June 26, 2012.
. Henri Michaux, Infinite Turbulence, trans. Michael Fineburg, Calder and Boyes, London, 1975.
. Ibid., 155.
. Filmmakers such as Harry Smith, Jordan Belson, and Mary Ellen Bute, to name a few.
. Conversation with Timo Nasseri in his studio, June 26, 2017.
Each culture, each passing epoch creates its own specific form of ornamentation.
Whether decorative or generating an order, whether as a support for metaphysical
notions or pure decoration, ornamentation makes permeable the lines among
cultures, between art and everyday life, between applied and free art. Ornaments
are patterns that structure spaces, binding the individual in an order, assembling
building blocks into masses and fixing them in a framework. The effect is usually
fascinating, because something individual is integrated into an overarching whole,
protected, neutralized, which can be interpreted as openness. If a mere detail of
symmetry comes apart, the entire order collapses. Ornamentation fascinates quite
directly, possessing a faith in an overarching oneness. It is a cultural universal and
Orient and Occident meet in the symmetry of shapes.
Timo Nasseri, who first worked as a classical photographer, was born in 1972 in
Berlin as the son of a German mother and a Persian father. From his experience
with photography, destined for short-term use, he developed an artistic oeuvre that
builds up slowly and with endless precision on the foundations of mathematics and
suspends the separation between abstraction and ornamentation.
The drawings, white ink on black paper, are reduced in their spectrum of colours
and shapes. Squares and rectangles form grids, networks, and circles, or octagons.
What emerges on paper are strict spaces that can be continued endlessly and make
do without any external reference. The beholder finds himself placeless before a
possible firmament. One and One (2008–2012) and Everything Is Everything (2008–
2012) refer already in their titles to the notion of infinity that Arab scholars sought to
illustrate with the help of arithmetic, thus exploring the foundations of mathematics.
In Sufism, the rhombus stands for the sky, the square for the earth. By composing the
drawing using these two simple elements, he places the symbols for the world on
top of one another, as it were. The ornamental structure of the works on paper does
not necessarily lead to a thematic interpretation, but alludes to the debate that has
flared up once more in the twenty-first century on overcoming the stigmatization of
But leaving this aside entirely, the works touch us deeply, because in their shapes
individual memory comes to bear just as do religious references and universal
principles. Reduction is taken to the highest level and pursues a strategy of seducing the
beholders to gain their attention. Each line pushes the beholder further, and makes him
or her search for wholeness. Each bend in the line pulls the entire pattern with it. The
beholder roams about the system in search of the symmetry that the system promises.
Timo Nasseri uses the fascination that results from the symmetry and the order to
create a disturbance with his works from the series of Arabic Calligraphies.
Calligraphy is a form of ornament and is considered in Islamic culture the most
“esteemed” kind of ornamentation. The art of beautiful writing is one of the primary
forms of expression and is closely linked to religion. Unlike in the West, there is no
separation between the text and the image. Calligraphy combines the written word
with the image or allows it to become an image. The writing itself gains a three-
dimensionality. A feeling of disorientation takes hold, accompanied by an aware-
ness of a hidden, ungraspable content.
Nasseri’s relief objects, executed in wood, 22 centimetres thick and covered in shiny
chrome, are Persian words inscribed in beautiful calligraphy on the wall: words
such as shafagh (dawn, early period), fadjir (first light of day) or noor (light, the
divine light). They are not words with a mystical background. All these words refer
to times of the holy prayer, that are only truly decoded when we know their real
meaning, for they refer to weapons systems in Iran. By removing the religious con-
text, they are recoded entirely. Nasseri refers here very elegantly to the fundamentally
puzzling character of each form of language, which is especially revealed in
its military use and which strangely can be found in all the languages of the world,
regardless of which religion is dominant in the culture. With this work as well, Timo
Nasseri refers to a key bridge between the cultures.
Another work series are the muqarnas that emerged in 2008: like his drawings, these
are also made of simple mathematical elements, triangles. Their structure and form
are borrowed from mosque architecture. In these works, Nasseri explores the endless
possibilities of an order of a stylistic element of Islamic architecture. Since his journey
along the Silk Road, Nasseri has been fascinated by muqarnas, the entrance
domes to mosques that consist of a large number of pointed niches stacked in tiers.
The virtually endless repetition and rhythmic composition of the motifs emblematizes
the act of creation and reveal notions of infinity as well as concepts of eternity.
Timo Nasseri takes his muqarnas down from the ceiling and transfers them to the
wall. This isolation opposite the beholder gives the form a completely different angle
and divorces it from the architectural context, making it into a sculptural element
with which volume and space are explored. His muqarnas have an open form: neither
circles nor squares, they thus leave behind the original dome. As in a kaleidoscope,
patterns are dissected and created anew over and over by way of reflection.
Made of reflecting steel, cut into triangles and placed slightly apart from one another
in the wall, they refract the light thousand-fold. With depth reflection, refraction,
and diffraction Nasseri creates a sculptural space from the surface that is based on
a highly reduced formal vocabulary. Using triangles and mirrored surfaces, spaces
of reflection are crafted that challenge us with tautologies and at the same time
abduct us to magical visual worlds. Here, he takes up the mirror mosaic of Shah
Cheraq in Shiraz and transfers it to acontemporary material, referring to the trade in
mirrors, from Bohemia and Venicemaintained in Persia since the sixteenth century: the
close link between Orient and Occident.
With Parsecs (2010), Nasseri develops his previous work in a new direction by creating a fully sculptural work. If his previous pieces were shaped by an ornamental
approach, he now develops a universal large-scale sculpture.
It is placed directly in the space without a plinth. As the beholder wanders around
the sculpture, its appearance changes immediately, and in particular the phenomena
of the triangles, so familiar to us, begin to enchant our senses. The web of the
mathematical structure reveals ever-new aspects.
These sculptures formulate a universal visual language. Here, they lose almost
entirely the original content of the appropriated signs. They are banned to the title.
The sculptures themselves remove the muqarnas from their original context. Timo
Nasseri recodes the form and through the manipulation of dimension and through
fusion creates something new.
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 library
is every book ever made and that ever will be made in the history of the universe,
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”,
appearing 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. Approaching
one of these in real life, one strains to make out one’s reflection, only to be frustrated.
Like the bounds of the library, complete knowledge – or in other words a complete
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
appears 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 Mausoleum
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 honeycombs.
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 sculptures in materials that
seem to channel the production values of advertising. Vehicles 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.
Timo Nasseri is something of a rarity: he is actually from Berlin. Almost everyone else one meets in that city seems to have moved to the German capital from elsewhere, almost always since reunification in 1990. Suddenly Berlin became the place to be, both for Germans moving across into the former East from the ex-West Germany, and for outsiders drawn to the newly unified city. Yet Nasseri was born here in 1972, and has lived here ever since. “It’s my home, where I grew up, and so I feel this is where I belong, at least for the time being".
As the son of a German mother and an Iranian father, Nasseri’s background is an obvious source of interest, yet he is laid-back and curiously prosaic about it. “I don’t feel Iranian,” he admits, “but I am interested in exploring that side of my family history. But I’ll do it at my own pace. It’s not something that burns away inside me.” This response characterises Nasseri’s matter-of-fact approach to life and to his work; in street argot, he is ‘sorted’.
His artistic career started with a degree in photography from the Berliner Lette-Verein. “At first I was really into people and portrait-style photos, but the final projects for my degree were moving me towards a particular aspect of photography, that of medicine. I would go into hospital operating theatres and take images of surgical procedures, opened-up bodies, surgeons’ hands and instruments etc. It was a rather abstract type of work, what with the green of the blankets and robes, the red of the blood, the opaque white of the gloves. I only worked at night, and it was a very challenging time but one that totally absorbed and fascinated me. It was quite cathartic, I guess.”
After graduation in 1997 Nasseri worked in commercial photography, mainly in advertising and fashion for magazines. But he found the ephemeral ‘throw-way’ nature of that type of work distinctly unfulfilling: “The worse thing was trying to produce something very good in the full knowledge that a week later everyone would be binning it. It just seemed such a waste of my energy and creativity.” Nasseri therefore began to do his own work, of a decidedly documentary ilk, undertaking commissions across the world in countries as diverse as Bolivia and Kyrgyzstan on behalf of aid agencies and NGOs, recording their development projects.
“It was an exciting time, but I decided that I wanted to do art,” he recalls. “The Second Gulf War had started by then, and I was sitting up all night watching the news and documentaries about American military hardware and war equipment. I found the way in which the subject was presented quite fascinating. Basically, the ‘best’ equipment is the one that kills the greatest number of people or causes the most destruction.” Inspired to find out more, Nasseri started visiting air shows and military museums to examine some of these machines of death and destruction in person. “What I found especially interesting was the way in which these objects – airplanes, rocket launchers, missiles and the like – had a very defined aesthetic. In an abstract sense, they looked beautiful, very sleek and with clean lines. Yet, on closer examination, you could detect hints of their real character, which is essentially one of calculated destruction. Their context was markedly different to their appearance, and that’s what began to fascinate me".
The result was Jet-Skin, a photographic series (2003/4, exhibited in 2005 at Galerie Schleicher + Lange, Paris) comprising close-up images of parts of the exteriors of fighter planes. Focusing on the detailed mechanics of their construction – the panels, nuts, bolts and rivets – Nasseri succeeded in presenting the abstract beauty of these aircraft in a way that also intimates their more sinister intent. The viewer is immediately struck by their elegance and clinical integrity, but then suddenly a detail betrays their real purpose; signs saying ‘Danger: Launch Area’ here, or ‘Gun Pack Sling Here’ there. On a macro level, Nasseri’s close-ups deliberately mask or avoid depicting the overall shape of the aircraft, and in some respects the details convey an almost animate quality, the gun-metal grey of the wings or fuselage resembling the smooth skin of a shark, for example.
After Jet-Skin Nasseri created his first sculptures, Helicopters. His starting point was the nomenclature used for United States military helicopters, many models of which are named after Native American tribes. “I found this whole concept so strange,” he recalls; “Why would helicopters be named after people? I decided to explore this idea through my art.” The outcome was Nasseri’s iconic and beautiful Apache (2006) and Comanche (2006), further statements on the nature of modern warfare. The shapes of the helicopters were fashioned from polystyrene, coated in resin, painted and then covered in feathers from a variety of different birds – goose, duck, pheasant and guinea fowl. The kaleidoscopic effect of the feather arrangements is very striking, especially when viewed from above, and chimes an obvious chord with the traditional feather head-dresses of certain Native American tribes. Beyond the obvious analogy between helicopters and birds as things that fly, is Nasseri’s recurring interest in the concept of military machinery ‘dressed up’ or camouflaged in some way, in this case by soft plumage.
Nasseri subsequently turned his attention to another area of military hardware, that of military rockets. He was drawn to the fact that, in Iran, terms such as Noor (‘Light’), Ra’ad (‘Lightning’), Shafagh (‘Twilight’) and Shahab (‘Falling Star’) are used to denote particular types of missile. “I wanted to explore this aspect too, but chose not to do it with the rockets themselves but through calligraphy sculptures carrying the same names.” The works are the names, in fact; letters carved from polystyrene, given many coats of resin, painted and then varnished. The black or silver paint and varnish convey the sense of hard-wearing military hardware and defined practical purpose, but also hint at the more ethereal qualities suggested by the celestial names.
Whilst most of these sculptures are wall-mounted, a monumental group of free-standing Farsi letters create the word Fadjir (‘Dawn’) and can only be read easily from above, their legibility much less apparent – impenetrable, perhaps – to those viewing the piece from ground level. “I was intrigued to see if a native speaker would be able to work out what the letters spelt from their vertical shapes, rather than from seeing them one-dimensionally from above,” explains Nasseri.
This fascination with shapes, and the ways in which they are perceived and ‘read’ by the viewer, has an obvious architectural dimension. No surprise, therefore, that Nasseri has also turned his attention to aspects of Islamic architecture and in particular the concept of the muqarnas. This decorative and architectural device, which usually takes the form of an internal roof or ceiling vault composed of a structured honeycomb of small niches faced with glass or glazed tiles, is common in traditional mosques and grander civic buildings across the Middle East and North Africa. As a concept, the muqarnas fascinates Nasseri, both in terms of structure and ornamentation. For two years now he has been working on muqarnas sculptures which are sunk into walls to a depth of up a metre and a half. They follow a two-dimensional plan, with the decoration added in the third dimension. The individual plates that collectively form the surfaces of the niches are made of polished stainless steel rather than glass, and there are up to 800 of them in each sculpture; furthermore, there are between five and eight different shapes of plate, depending on the sculpture.
The muqarnas created by Nasseri defy expectation. One cannot see oneself directly reflected, for a start. They are set into walls, rather than roofs. They both reflect and project the void space around them. And their kaleidoscopic and fragmented character means that they are constantly changing form and structure, depending on the angle from which they are viewed. “It’s all about people looking at people,” he explains; “They even put their heads inside the sculpture [Epistrophy, 2008) to try and see themselves".
The muqarnas-inspired projects have encouraged Nasseri to extend his work further, into other aspects of Islamic architecture. In his studio in a former factory and office block in Oberschöneweide, in old East Berlin, he has been creating a series of mini-cupolas (his Sphere series) and a set of wall drawings based on complex geometrical patterns. The variously sized spheres mark the next stage of Nasseri’s muqarnas journey, representing the contra-aspect of the spatial equation of his wall sculptures (“The positive-negative relationship fascinates me”), and are made of plaster mix set in moulds. The contours of the moulds are generated by him on a computer, by ‘rapid proto-typing’, which gives a type of printout from which the mould can be created [what material is the mould made of?]. The finished spheres are left in their natural state and are highly tactile, with a raw and industrial feel. They are intriguing and fluid in character; from some angles they can look geological in character, rather like fossils, but from other perspectives they exhibit a decidedly intergalactic quality, as if they may have arrived suddenly from outer space.
Equally engaging are the stunning series of drawings (One and One) Nasseri has produced, working with a compass and ruler to create intricate networks of connected lines which in turn form complex geometrical shapes. Using white ink on specially printed black paper which does not bleach, every single point in each drawing is linked to every other in a seemingly labyrinthine but intrinsically formulaic mesh. The mathematical annotations added by Nasseri make these works even more redolent of the rich heritage of mathematicians and geometricians from the Islamic world. For a show in Paris in September 2008, Nasseri drew his network directly onto a wall in the exhibition space, an interesting yet natural development in view of the fractal nature of his creation: “[The drawing] has the potential for infinity. It could go on for ages, reaching out in all directions and simply extending its network of lines, on and on".
Nasseri’s exploration of muqarnas is now pushing out into new territory. Having started by using original plans for traditional cupolas to inform the design of his work, he is now creating his own designs, experimenting with different shapes and dimensions and looking at creating long, slender-shaped muqaranas, rather than those based on the traditional square or circular forms. He is also thinking about going ‘big’: “I am really intrigued by the idea of creating a muqarnas space into which one could walk, like going inside a room.” This interest in spaces, their variation and repetition, and the ways in which people perceive and utilise them, is coming to define Nasseri’s work. Yet such is the evolution of this intriguing artist that it is hard to predict which trajectory he will take next. Suffice to say that he will doubtlessly be tackling each direction with the flair, innovation and creative conviction that have marked his artistic career so far.