Ways of seeing

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.

Negar Azimi. 2012