Who hasn’t lain on their back, propped up on a rock or a mattress of grass and watched the clouds roll across the sky until the pinprick stars blink into inky evening, one at a time? Philosophy, astronomy, and the genre of Science Fiction come together to probe at universal celestial mysteries in Ala Ebtekar’s latest body of work, Nowheresville/ ‘NÄ-KŌJA,-ABÄD at The Third Line in Dubai.
Although he has lived most of his life in the California Bay Area, much of Ebtekar’s practice has explored Persian mythology and ancestry with connections to American hip hop and pop culture. In ‘Elemental’ (2004), he famously whitewashed a replica of an Iranian coffee shop to represent the dying out of the traditional gathering spaces that had once given birth to Iran’s modern art movement and its significant discourses. With ‘Nowheresville’, the Stanford professor’s work has fully moved beyond group identity into the realm of the universally mystical. Our interview took place beneath a large-scale heptagon light sculpture. A NASA recording of the vibrations emitted by the rings of the planet Uranus, rose and fell eerily around us. It was conceivable that we could cross through one of the artist’s portals to the future at any second.
Here is what we discussed while we waited to embark on that journey:
Danna Lorch (DL): Tell me about Shahabuddin Suhrawardi, the 12th century Persian mystic philosopher for whom this show is named.
Ala Ebtekar (AL): First of all, there is very little academic work on Suhrawardi, although Henry Corbin has written about him and translated his books into English. To this day, most people don’t understand much of what was written. It’s philosophy, mainly [communicated] through stories, each containing triple or quadruple metaphorical levels of meaning, dealing with the idea that creation is based on light and transcendence goes back to filling yourself with light. Many New Age books today like ‘The Secret’ concern mindfulness, but here is someone who was talking about it in a relevant way in the 12th century.
DL: For the Manuscript series, you physically cut out portions of text from ancient illuminated manuscripts’ leaves. Are you looking at what is known through text and what can never be understood through language?
AE: Some people from the curatorial team at a museum visited the exhibition and looked at the series and assumed it was dealing with censorship. That actually wasn’t what I was going for. A lot of older Persian work is text-based. Walter Benjamin talks about how the aura is usually lost in translation.
Rumi has a very beautiful poem about the moon. He says:
“At night I wait for the moon to shine on my face.
Close the language door and open the love window.
The moon will only enter through the window.”
How do we close that language door? I attempted to capture the aura of these texts and created a window.
DL: Everything I’ve seen of yours relates to light, but in order for us to distinguish light we have to know darkness. In what way is darkness present in ‘Nowheresville’?
AE: Light has to have a contrast, so for that reason, the ‘Tunnel in the Sky’ works have a full book page behind them, which is from Robert Heinelin’s first 1955 edition. I’m exploring the tension between veiling and illuminating. In terms of the colour, there is a conscious transition from earth white to celestial blue.
DL: You and the Sun collaborated on the Zenith panels. How did that unlikely artistic dialogue come about?
AE: I challenged myself to find a way to contain light in an object without an electric plug. I came across the cyanotype process, which was developed in the 1800’s by an astronomer named Sir John Herschel. Process-wise, you treat the material with solution then create a negative that you place over it. You put the work in the sun and make an exposure depending upon the level of colour desired. In this case, that period lasted two hours. After you bring it inside, you wash and dry the material, and only then is the colour really evident. The idea of the work being touched by the sky is relevant to me. The work is conceptually born of light.
DL: How did you choose the heptagon shape for your installation, ‘Sakina’ around which the rest of the works are orbiting?
AE: This is a seven-sided heptagon shape and there are a lot of connections. This shape symbolizes the universe, the seven days, and the seven planets. Also it’s the first perfect number in mystical numerology.
DL: The brilliant thing is that although you’re mixing space discovery with Sci Fi kitsch and Persian mysticism there are a myriad of clear connections, one leading to the next.
AE: It’s true: The seventh planet is Uranus. The father of the astronomer who coined the cyanotype process was William Herschel, the same scientist to discover Uranus. Although it sounds like Tibetan bowls, the soundtrack we’re listening to is a 1986 NASA recording of the sounds made of the reverberations of the rings of that planet, taken by The Voyager.
DL: Also, in Sufism, seven represents the levels of heaven in Conference of the Birds.Spiritually and energetically anything is possible in this show. Seated here beneath this force field, we could beam up at any moment.
AE: That’s what ‘Nowheresville’ means and what Suhrawardi’s philosophy describes. In one of his stories, a young seeker asks a mystic, “So where is this ‘Nowheresville’ located?” the mystic answers, “It is the place your index finger can’t point to.” There is something nice about that place being different for everybody and the intention of the show is not for this show to be that place, which would be pretentious because it is different for everybody. I hope that audience will experience trying to get to that place on their own.
DL: I first encountered your work through your installation and phonograph cylinder performance at Maraya Art Park in Sharjah. Are you involved in any other public art projects currently?
AE: I teach at Stanford University and am currently working on a public art project that I was awarded for the city of Palo Alto. That is working with LED lights to illuminate the pedestrian walkway that leads from downtown Palo Alto to Stanford. Light is the medium but we’re working with different data to create an algorithm that will essentially influence the colour and intensity of the light depending on the date, time, or weather. In that sense, my art is headed in the direction of looking at how information can be displayed visually and become an experience.
Good Ideas: Nowheresville runs through 15 April, 2015 at The Third Line in Dubai.
Credits: Images courtesy of artist and The Third Line.