The curving pieces of steel that form the Emirati artist Mattar Bin Lahej’s sculptures are crafted in such as way that the cold, hard material seems fluid.
His most recent work, Encyclopedia, is set up in the Waterfall Atrium at The Dubai Mall. Made up of a series of circular pieces joined by deep curves, it is engraved with arabesque patterns and excerpts from the Quran or from works that explicate the verses.
At 15 metres long and almost three metres at its highest point, the sheer size and scale of it is awe-inspiring and the level of detail, once you look closely, is flawless.
Made from top-grade stainless steel, it shines and reflects everything around it. But stand next to it long enough and you feel you are looking at a universe full of orbiting planets and stars, characterised by constant movement.
“My work is always about speed, movement or power,” says the artist. “I cannot relate to something without movement. In my opinion, life is always changing and we are always changing.”
However, the Quran itself never changes. It is a book for every age and for every person and, in many ways, it also encompasses the whole universe.
“For me, words are not enough to express this so I have to use my art. Here you will find verses of the Quran made to be like jewellery. I have tried to depict the ‘jewellery’ from the Quran in this sculpture. If I could I would have made it in gold but this steel is my limit.”
The idea for this complex piece of art came when Bin Lahej read the book titled Quran Encyclopedia last year.
“As soon as I finished the book I knew what I wanted to do,” he says. “The factory of ideas inside my mind is always working. The challenge for me is making them a reality.”
Although the ideas came quickly, it still took about six months for Bin Lahej to map out the intricacies of the complex sculpture before any physical construction began.
“With every project, I plan it out very carefully,” he explains. “I have a budget, a timeline and a production slot in the factory. I am a professional and I believe any professional must work like this to be successful.”
The key part of this process, however, begins with a simple tool – the pencil.
“The pencil is very important. It is the connection between my mind and the idea, it is the touch that I need to get the idea out.”
But that process only took a few minutes and then the artist began fleshing out a rendering using digital technology before finally taking the plans to his factory in Jadaf industrial zone in Dubai for production.
In what was formerly a place for marine boat building, Bin Lahej’s artwork took shape. It was sculpted using water jets, cut with lasers and engraved in a process using special chemicals. Every detail was supervised by Bin Lahej’s expert eye and, after only 45 days, the final piece, which weighs four-and-a-half tonnes, was ready.
Such a large sculpture needs a large platform and an equally large audience, so The Dubai Mall was the ideal fit.
It was installed at the beginning of July and, by the end of the month, approximately 500,000 people will have seen the piece.
Although the sculpture carries the name of God and the word of the Quran, Bin Lahej says it is not just for Muslims.
“The Quran is a big message and one of the verses of it says that if you are going to invite people to read that message, don’t invite them with a sword or a knife, invite them with beauty. We are all human, we all respond to beauty so this piece is not for Muslims only. Muslims know the beauty of the Quran. This is for non-Muslims, too, to invite them to ask questions.”
On any given day during Ramadan, people gather around the sculpture, looking at it from all angles and taking photographs. It is this that gives the artist inspiration.
“I cannot simply do pieces for gallery walls anymore,” he says. “I want to share my ideas and thoughts with the people and I want to change the way we look at art. I am working on many new ideas now and hopefully in the future, you will see them all.”
• Encyclopedia is on display in The Dubai Mall’s Waterfall Atrium until July 31. Visit www.mattarbinlahej.com for more on the artist