In a treatise on calligraphy Mir 'Alî Haravî quotes a poem: “When a script is devoid of the element of beauty/ The paper becomes black-faced/ The script should run from the pen in such a way/ That its reader becomes restful thanks to it” (qtd. in Schimmel and Rivolta 38). In this observation, the poet emphasizes both the aesthetic importance of calligraphy, and, on a subtler level, its ability to inspire in the viewer a contemplative mood. Having its history and artistic merit proclaimed in writings from the medieval period on, calligraphy is the Islamic art par excellence. Sheila Blair asserts that it is “the only visual art produced in Islamic lands that was widely appreciated in its own culture” (4). Erica Dodd has described Islamic culture as “the image of the word” (qtd. in Blair 7); Arabic calligraphy is an amalgamation of the two – image and word – as it functions on both an aesthetic and a semantic level. In practical art of the classical Islamic period, function is provided by the object itself while form becomes the dominant concern of the calligraphy; by contrast, modern works such as Mounir Fatmi’s The Machinery – composed of practical objects removed from their original context and placed within a new context for interpretation – rely on calligraphy to contribute to both form and function.1 In classical art intended for practical use, the function is performed by the object itself; calligraphy therefore becomes primarily a form of ornamentation. In their examination of these objects, Annemarie Schimmel and Barbara Rivolta provide photographic reproductions of a wide range of works from a variety of countries and time periods. Whereas the calligraphy which forms the focus of a number of paintings and manuscript pages is easily legible, the writing on practical art tends to be either highly stylized or partially obscured. Bowls are painted with highly stylized characters in Kufic (12) and its foliated variant (8), rendering the letters almost as illustrations. On pen boxes (19), both vegetal motifs and calligraphy are employed as ornamentation, the latter blending with the former as both serve to enhance the aesthetic appeal of the cases. An embroidered Qur’an case (9) bears the images of both letters and abstract shapes, incorporating the two into one cohesive design. Inscribed in a sword blade (48), a Turkish poem is almost illegible against a background of diagonal lines, the foreground and background indistinct. In these examples of classical Islamic art, the argument represented by the calligraphic content is subsumed into the ornament of the patterns which surround it. In its function as symbolic or semantic meaning, the text itself – consisting of poems, holy verses, and blessings – takes a secondary role and assumes the secondary function of beautification. These inscriptions bear only a loose connection to the object itself, and the distance between word and object allows for an uncomplicated relationship; the word serves as ornamentation to complement the implicit argument provided by the object’s practical function.
The two versions of The Machinery – one an animated video and the other a static sculpture – demonstrate two different approaches to reconciling the form-function relationship. Preceding its counterpart by two years, the video depicts a revolving roundel of calligraphy, spinning to the sound of a whirring motor, mimicking the motion of a blade or gear. The hadith Fatmi employs for this roundel translates as “if God gives blessings to His servants, He likes to see their effects” (Marks 10); implicit in this quotation is action. God blesses people, who act according to these blessings; similarly, motors power machines which make evident this influence by performing their function. This piece is a machine in motion, and with that motion come experiments in abstraction. The video begins with an extreme close-up, which renders parts of letters unrecognizable as anything other than abstract figures. After the writing has become legible at a slow revolution, the roundel increases its speed and the writing again becomes divorced from its semantic meaning, obscured by the motion it is intended to perform. However, in the sculptural rendition of The Machinery, abstraction is largely absent. The sculpture is comprised of circular saw blades arranged as if they were gears, forming an intimidating mechanism. Unlike the spinning roundel of its video counterpart, this machine does not move; the gears/blades are placed too far apart. Although this piece consists of more than mere words, the text appears to play a greater semantic role; as a machine which lacks the ability to function, the function is transferred to the text itself. In this sense, the earlier machine runs on the expected motor, invisible but audible, whereas the later mechanism is activated by the force of the viewer’s interpretation.
In modern Islamic and Arab letter art, there is a trend toward abstraction, intended to liberate the text from its standard meaning in order to open it up to different interpretations. Whereas the Western artist established abstraction and used the letter only as a material suitable to this end, “the Arab artist, conversely, first had to confront the sacredness of his ‘language of the Quran’ and to ‘free’ or save it from ‘the captivity of the script’” (Shabout 75). Modern art, then, attempts to imbue words with new meaning as individual letters or, in cases of further abstraction, mere shapes. In this act of liberation, the artist allows himself or herself the ability to create secular art, separating their work from the tradition of its Islamic predecessors and the most important form of Islamic art from the reason for its importance. The progenitor of the form of modern Arab art which takes calligraphy as its foundation, Madiha Omar “saw in her letters perfect forms with dynamic properties that embodied abstract and symbolic meanings as well as particular ideas” (Ali 152). Her work is an exercise in expansion; in contrast, the calligraphic element of Fatmi’s sculpture utilizes its adherence to sacred text to produce meaning. One of the dichotomies embodied in The Machinery is that of classical and modern. The former is exemplified by the ancient religious content of the text, which marks it as an explicitly Islamic piece, while the latter is expressed in the blades and their connotation of contemporary production. In positioning his work in the tradition of practical calligraphic art, Fatmi enforces limitations on his piece; unlike the paintings which depict letters against a neutral material, the letters which inscribe the surface of the circular saw blades must be read in concert with the blades themselves.
In her discussion of modern Arab calligraphic art, Nada Shabout engages with Shakir Hassan Al Said’s theory of “Vital Expression”, which envisions appreciation of calligraphic art as a transcendent experience: “[o]n the one hand, it is a language because it forms words; on the other, it is more than a language because it consists of a sequence of letters intended to be experienced rather than read” (Shabout 102). Fatmi plays with this perception of letter art; Marie Deparis-Yafil contends that the calligraphic display of “ambiguous beauty” is a trap because “words are never harmless”. While letters may be experienced as purely visual forms, words carry with them a history of meaning, which Fatmi emphasizes by selecting passages which are associated not only with specific meanings, but with a particular religion and culture. According to Al Said’s theory, the work of art has “no boundaries that separate content from form, where expression and the thing expressed merge” (103). With the sculptural version of The Machinery, Fatmi engages with this aspect of modern art; the combination of a practical object with a practical art in a new context encourages the viewer to actively consider the function of the piece. However, the beauty of the calligraphy may be misconstrued as pure expression, leaving its content unexpressed.
In her reading of The Machinery, Deparis-Yafil argues that Fatmi’s work, in its act of “breaking down the boundaries between the support and the surface, between the material and the text”, encourages the viewer to engage in critical analysis. She suggests that there is some way to demystify the image, which she figures as a puzzle to solve. I would perhaps venture further, to inquire whether the puzzle is not itself the focus of the piece. The viewer is offered two different ways of reading the work. The first conceives of the calligraphy as pure form, a beautiful embellishment which serves to position the piece in an Arab context, more a cultural marker than a message. The second assumes the existence of a deeper semantic meaning in the Arabic text, which is comprised of several surah and hadiths, among them the statement that “God is Beautiful, He loves Beauty” and others which evoke “man’s capacity, or desire, to obtain knowledge” (Deparis-Yafil). This approach requires the viewer to consider the two disparate aspects: the machine which cannot function and which, if it could, would likely be a mechanism of destruction, and the calligraphy which figures a discussion of beauty and knowledge, as well as human development and the divine. Fatmi combines the two in one work, as if asking the viewer not only how we may reconcile the two – the mechanical and the spiritual, as well as that which humans manufacture and that which God creates – but whether such a reconciliation is even possible. If the calligraphy is pure ornament, the piece may easily be read as an indictment of the dehumanizing force of industry in an Arab context; however, if it is argument, it becomes necessary to interpret not only the argument itself, but the way in which it relates to the rest of the work, as an instrument of elucidation or complication. In selecting circular saw blades as the medium for his work, Mounir Fatmi positions the piece in a long tradition of practical calligraphic art, strengthening this association through the use of passages from the Qur’an. Unlike its classical predecessors, however, The Machinery functions within the confines of art exhibitions. Consequently, thirty blades which may have cut instead become the object of incisive analysis. In the quotation cited by Mir 'Al_ Harav_ mentioned above, the poet suggests a causal connection between the beauty of the written word and the capability of the viewer to enter into a state of contemplation; the aesthetic appeal of a work of calligraphic art draws the eye, but the complexity of its content attracts the imagination. According to Al Said, “humanity in art is the creative expression of the duality of man as both a created being and a creator” (Shabout 108). In The Machinery, Mounir Fatmi stages duality on a number of levels: spiritual and mechanical, laudatory and condemnatory, traditional and modern, and formal and functional. The calligraphy itself may be read as either ornament or argument, responsible for either beautification or expression. However, in the work’s dual nature lies a challenge not merely to interpret the two disparate aspects, but to discover the ways in which they inform each other. The two parts of The Machinery require the mechanism of human interpretation in order to function as a cohesive whole.
Megan Croutch, 18 April 2011.
1 I did not receive a peer review and therefore could not adhere to my peer reviewer’s suggestions.
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