Saudi calligrapher Nasser Al Salem on his first UK solo show

Al Salem's show deconstructs the intangible concept of thereafter

Installation views of Nasser Al Salem: Amma Baad at Delfina Foundation
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For his first solo show in London, Saudi Arabian artist Nasser Al Salem has isolated a term from formal Arabic correspondence – the phrase "amma baad", after which he has named the show – and extracted terrific mileage from the expression.

"Amma baad" has no direct correlation in English. It is used to signal a move out of the honorific salutations with which Arabic letters or formal emails begin, and towards the content of the correspondence itself. "It's like 'thereafter'," says Maya El Khalil, curator of Al Salem's exhibition at the Delfina Foundation in London. "It's a moment of pure transition: now the real business begins."

For Al Salem, who says he has been toying with the idea for a year, the phrase offered an intriguing philosophical problem. "'Amma baad' is impossible to capture. The moment you say, 'amma baad,' you are already in what came after – of what comes after that moment of transition," he says. "I wanted to take something inexpressible and give it visual form."

A moment of transition is also a topical one for Saudi Arabia, whose society is rapidly changing. “Things are happening so fast,” he says. “You don’t even have time to understand the changes.”

Al Salem, 32, was trained as a calligrapher in Makkah, and after a "breakthrough" experience at Art Dubai in 2009, he has been moving his practice of calligraphy towards more conceptual and sculptural ends. "Art Dubai was the first time I realised the different ways art could be expressed," he says of his trip to the Dubai art fair a decade ago. "I started reading, learning what is modern and what is contemporary, and tried to bring calligraphy to that kind of practice."

Each piece in the London show spells out “amma baad”, and sets up a relationship with the viewer, or formally changes its shape in order to approach the phrase’s particular status as a pause or an accelerator towards the future.

A circle of the letters spelling “amma baad”, wrought in black metal, hangs on the wall, suggesting the cyclical nature of time, bringing us back where we first began.

Installation views of Nasser Al Salem: Amma Baad at Delfina Foundation

A small, 3D printed black cube, is titled 1km x 1km and demonstrates how size and distance are relative. "At some distance, that small cube could be one kilometre in width," Al Salem says.

It also expands in time as the viewer draws near to read it. “What is a long time for us, or a large distance, is not the same as it is for animals or plants,” he says.

One of the best works in the show – or not in the show, technically – is a prototype for a sculpture to be located in Al Ula, the Petra-like heritage site of Nabatean tombs in the desert east of Jeddah, which is being developed into a major tourist site.

Here, the words "Amma Qabl," or "What came before," are distended into a long tunnel, to be cast in reflective metal in a size large enough for visitors to sit in. "In Al Ula there is 5,000 years of history around us – so much history that precedes us," he says. "How did they live? What was their civilisation like? Here, even the past has joined the future."

Mock-ups of Nasser Al Salem's future sculpture for Al Ula, which he hopes to realise some day. The work elongates the phrase "Amma Qabl," or "before this" in Arabic. Courtesy of the artist

Though the long, stretched-out tube appears to be situated in Al Ula, with reflections of the tombs along the length of its sides, the images are mock-ups – Al Salem is displaying a prototype. For logistical and financial reasons, Al Salem has not been able to make the sculpture, and so is displaying a manual for it, with precise instructions for the material and the dimensions – it must be at least 15 metres long and two metres high. Whoever buys the work is contractually obligated to construct the sculpture within five years – after that, Al Salem can pass on the rights to build it to someone else. "It has nothing to do with institutional critique," El Khalil says. "He just wants to make sure it gets made."

In Al Ula there is 5,000 years of history around us – so much history that precedes us. How did they live? What was their civilisation like? Here, even the past has joined the future.

The Lebanon-born El Khalil has known Al Salem's work since the latter transitioned out of traditional calligraphy towards conceptual art. She was until recently a director at Athr Gallery in Jeddah, which represents Al Salem, and as a curator is adept at spotting the topical and political resonances of Saudi artists' work without pushing them too far in any prescribed direction.

The result here is a show that feels physically present, as if the words amma baad themselves were made of putty that Al Salem is shaping in his hands. El Khalil, for example, describes the metal circular work as "Al Salem pulling the words apart to see what is inside". Another piece, a black hole on the ground, appears as if "amma baad" has been spread open to reveal a black hole of space and time – an exposition of another of the exhibition's key themes, of cosmic relations.

“I am trying to feel these changes in space and time,” Al Salem says. “In a black hole, time changes – it goes slower.”

Nasser Al Salem’s Amma Baad is at the Delfina Foundation, London, as part of the Shubbak Festival, until August 10.