In the early 10th century AD, the Abbasid Caliphate official and master calligrapher Ibn Muqla proposed that the Arabic language was incomplete by four letters.
Ibn Muqla had earlier helped to develop the idea that calligraphy should be a marking out of space, with letters in a set proportion. He wanted to further refine Arabic by ensuring that it corresponded to all the sounds of the world, and he came up with four letters to represent the missing sounds.
But the Abbasid authorities charged him with defiling the Arabic language used for the Quran. He was jailed and his right hand was severed.
On regaining his freedom however, he returned to calligraphy and – the story goes – taught himself to write with a feather in his mouth. He then went further and set up a school at which to teach calligraphy. But he was arrested again, the authorities cut out his tongue and kept him imprisoned until he died.
No one knows what happened to his notes on the four letters. This is the tale behind the German artist Timo Nasseri's exhibition All the Letters in All the Stars, at the Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah, a co-commission between the Maraya and the Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival. Nasseri picks up from where Ibn Muqla left off, and imagines what these lost letters might have been.
“How do you invent a letter?” asks Nasseri. “How do you find the form for it, especially if you were a believer in God? This is where my fantasy started. I thought that he must have looked up to the sky and saw the letters in constellations. This was 934 AD – no electricity, no light; you’re somewhere in the desert near Baghdad, so the night sky is something so prominent, so important. And it was a regular tool, as if God-given, for navigation.”
Nasseri found a software programme in which you can enter dates and locations order to see the stars at any moment in time. He keyed in March 934 AD, Baghdad, and from this information, drew different possible constellations that could generate the lost letters.
At Maraya, he exhibits these drawings in what he aptly titles a Mind Map (2015). A work of metal inlay in wood, It's always night, or we wouldn't need light (Ibn Muqla) (2015), mimics the effect of the night sky that the calligrapher himself might have looked into. At the centre of the exhibition are the four letters, Unknown Letters 1–4 (2015-17), sculpted in wood, which Nasseri developed using Ibn Muqla's own rules of geometry and proportion. Each letter is encircled by a ring, referring to the astrolabe, or the Arabic navigational instrument that measures the stars. A column of five nuqtas, or the dots Ibn Muqla used to determine the height of Arabic letters, stands at the side of each like a measuring stick.
To an untrained eye, these gorgeous, curved forms could well be Arabic letters, fancifully rendered.
So which sounds, I ask Nasseri, do the four letters correspond to? Nasseri laughs and says: "I didn't put sounds to the letters. They remain unknown." He adds that he doesn't speak Arabic. Nasseri, who grew up in Germany, is half-Iranian (his father migrated to Germany in the early 1950s). He doesn't speak Farsi, nor does he read Arabic script. Of his artwork, whose subject matter has also included quantum mechanics, mathematical rules, and the honeycomb geometric motifs of muqarnas that are commonly found in the entrances to Persian mosques, he says: "I often want to find out more about something instead of really learning it. When you're used to something, you don't ask the right questions.
“I never thought about the shape of our letters in the alphabet. And where the shapes are coming from, but I did this for the Arabic. It’s better to have an outsider’s approach, wondering about things.”
All of Nasseri's subjects – mathematics, geometry, patterns – also dance around the question of the infinite. For his muqarna drawings (the One and One series, 2010-17), some of which are also exhibited at Maraya, he says: "I did a lot of research because I couldn't figure out how they were constructed. Finally I came across a Dutch restorer who showed that everything is based on a simple geometric pattern of a combination of triangles.
“To a certain degree it’s very basic. There are only four kinds of triangle from which you can derive all these forms of muqarnas. And these triangles, these only four different shapes, can be combined infinitely into different shapes.”
The drawings he made of constellations from his star maps similarly demonstrate, as the exhibition's title suggests, that an infinite number of letters could be made from the stars. For Laura Metzler, curator of Maraya Art Centre, the sculptures work in harmony with the sketches that comprise Nasseri's "mind map", and open the work up to a discussion about possibility.
“The drawings disrupt the solidity of the narrative,” she says. “They show you can create forms from anything in the universe. Timo thinks about Islamic history and math in a conceptual way, bringing an international perspective to topics discussed here. He’s had a big influence on younger artists in the Emirates, though so far his work has mostly been seen in an art fair context.”
This exhibition provides an opportunity to represent the theories and research behind his intricate drawings and sculptures, as well as to show his larger-scale works – one of which, the mirrored room Florenz – Bagdad (2016), was too large even to get through the Maraya's doors. Thankfully, Nasseri says, because the exhibition was mounted in partnership with the Islamic Arts Festival, they were able to add it at the last second to the festival's show at the Sharjah Art Museum, where it just about fit through the door.
If part of the work's genesis is the evocative story of Ibn Muqla, Nasseri is also interested in the form of systems as an abstract concept. Although he worked in photography before moving onto drawings and sculpture, he first wanted to be a musician and was enthralled, in particular, by musical notation. "When I was playing saxophone I always liked putting the notes on paper. The language of notation for music never shows a bit of what it is at the end. So I studied comparing music from different cultures and then got more into the notation of contemporary classical music. The notation of the music over the past 100 years has totally changed, gotten away from the five lines, and looks closer to these drawings on the wall. They look like art – beautiful drawings." Notation, he says, is simply a form of communication, which involves translating a form from one dimension to another.
“You are always reducing something when you start notating. If you see a notation for music, it’s not music, it’s just an attempt to find a common way to communicate something,” says Nasseri.
The artist understands his drawings of muqarnas and constellations and his sculptures of possible letters in a similar way: translations of one idea to another visual manifestation. And he is intrigued by the idea that the drawings alter their meaning based on whether the audience knows this backstory or not. Or, rather, something more complicated: he tests whether these drawings could be understood not simply to represent muqarnas or stars, but the idea of notation full-stop, and all the possible (infinite) systems a notation could stand for, if you didn't know what it was meant to represent.
“You always need a key of understanding. Like with math – you need the formula. If you don’t know what pi or co-sign means, you’re not able to read the language. But if you have this legibility, I like the idea that it could also be the formula for understanding the world in general, or what gravity is in a parallel universe – all these fantasies could be within it.”
The promise of so-called universal disciplines such as geometry, science and music is that by their mathematical origins they can surpass particular languages and be accessible to anyone. Nasseri's work aims to hold on to this wild potential while also bringing them down to earth, entering mistakes and misunderstandings through his autodidactic process. Although All the Letters in All the Stars tells the story of Ibn Muqla, it is more specifically that of one artist's attempt to create something that doesn't exist: the production of four imaginary letters, plucked from a sea of infinity.
Timo Nasseri: All the Letters in All the Stars is at Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah, until February 23, see maraya.ae