In twinkling tones over a crackling line from Tehran, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian smiles almost audibly as she talks about mirrors. "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the prettiest of them all," she lilts. It is no wonder she lights up on the subject: mirror mosaic forms the basis of her work and it is through large installation works such as Flight of the Dolphin, part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, and Lightning for Neda, six panels that hang in the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, Australia, that this octogenarian has gained international recognition.
As the story goes, it was upon stepping into the shrine of Shah Cheragh in Shiraz in 1966 that Farmanfarmaian had her artistic epiphany. She saw the mirrors, which Iranian kings used to put inside the palaces for their wives (sometimes 20 to 30 in number) to see themselves and to feel less constricted by the walls, and described it as a living theatre. From then on she began her decades-long fascination with mirrors.
"The mirror is so old; in Iran we used them 3,500 years ago," she says. "But they were often broken, so craftsmen would put them together piece by piece in geometric shapes. Together they make a beautiful reflection."
The art called "Aneyneh Kari", which developed in Iran in the 17th century when reflecting glass was imported from Europe in great quantities, places small pieces and slivers of mirror in plaster to make patterns. Farmanfarmaian takes this practice and explores the concepts of infinity through abstract expressionism.
"The mirror reflects the sky, water and every colour," she says. "It is a symbol of light and life and when you stand in front of my mirror work and see the reflections, you are a part of the work itself."
In this way, then, her work will continue to live long after the artist herself has gone. Wherever they are and whoever is looking at them, the mosaics continue to take on new meaning. But pressed on this matter, Farmanfarmaian is slightly evasive. "It can be as simple or as complicated as you like," she muses. "My work is with geometry because it offers endless possibility but, at the same time, a hexagon can be a simple, flat shape that means nothing except creating a nice pattern."
However, when contemplating her works, the fact that she is now either 89 or 90 - she is not sure because she has two birth certificates and cannot remember which bears the accurate date - and has a lifetime of experience, cannot be overlooked. Whether it is the Relief series she did in the 1970s or Variations on the Hexagon, an installation commissioned by the Victoria & Albert Museum for the inauguration of the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art in 2006, they must be viewed with the knowledge that the artist has been witness to a chaotic century.
Such sentiment is underlined by Hans Ulrich Obrist, the co-director of London's Serpentine Gallery in his compelling introduction to Farmanfarmaian in Cosmic Geometry, a monograph published by Damiani and The Third Line in 2011 that he co-edited. "Monir," he writes, "is not only a pioneering figure of Iranian art but also a forerunner of current artistic models that participate in global dialogues without annihilating local difference."
He goes on to describe his personal friendship with Farmanfarmaian and, through a one-on-one interview, reveals her extraordinary life. Born in the ancient Persian city of Qazvin, she moved to Tehran at the age of 7 and travelled to New York in the 1940s to study art and fashion design. With friends such as Jackson Pollock, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol, who kept a small piece of her art on his desk, Farmanfarmaian was in the right place at the right time. She returned to Tehran in 1957 and married Dr Abolbashar Farmanfarmaian, a direct descendant of the royal Qajar dynasty. She was exiled again after the Islamic Revolution - her husband was considered an enemy of the Ayatollah's party - and spent another extended period in New York. It wasn't until she returned to Iran in 2004 after her husband's death that she began working with mirrors again and her art received international acclaim.
"People didn't really know I was an artist until then," she says. "They thought I was a very social lady who liked to throw nice tea parties."
Despite an impressive exhibition history, including a show of reverse glass paintings in the Iranian Pavilion at the 26th Venice Biennale in 1958, her solo shows were only at the Galerie Denise René in Paris and New York, until 2007 when The Third Line invited her to Dubai. Since then the gallery has facilitated several solo shows, the latest of which, a survey exhibition of her work since 2004, will open on March 18, just in time for Art Dubai. Sunny Rahbar, the gallery's director, says: "It has been a rewarding experience as Monir's gallery to be part of her growth over the duration of our relationship. This survey show is more significant than ever because she has reached an important place in her artistic career."
The gallery will house major pieces from the past decade as well as new works, and Farmanfarmaian will also be shown in the Sharjah Biennal running concurrently to the Dubai event.
The artist says she is proud to be exhibiting in the UAE. "Of course I am," she says. "My work is made to be seen and I try to keep expressing myself with new ideas. I want to explore how to take advantage of geometry in different ways."
Apart from a slight deafness and the ability to work for only four hours a day, Farmanfarmaian shows no signs of slowing down. "I'm happy to work and I'm happy to be in Tehran with my craftsmen. They are highly skilled and their art, too, is going to deteriorate unless we hold onto it. There are so many beautiful parts of history we cannot forget. My work is also about that."
Monir Farmanfarmaian 2004-2013 will run from March 18 to April 19 at The Third Line Gallery. Visit www.thethirdline.com for details