There are two main words in Arabic that are used to describe light: ‘dhaw’ and ‘nur’. ‘Dhaw’ refers to physical light while the word ‘nur’ more often refers to light’s metaphysical qualities. It is the same word that occurs in the Quran’s chapter on light, the Surah An-Nur, where God, Allah, is described as light upon light, Nurun ala Nur, as well as the light of the heavens and the earth.
The Arabic word ‘safina’ means ‘vessel’, but can also refer to a ship or more recently to an airplane or even a spacecraft. ‘Safina’’s Persian cognate however, ’safineh’, refers to a particular and idiosyncratic type of book, often a collection of poetry or an encyclopaedia-like compendium, in which the text, crucially, is written parallel to its spine. For a ‘safineh’ to be in the correct orientation for reading, it must be therefore be rotated through 90 degrees, effectively elongating its cover, making the book appear like a long vessel or a vase.
All of these subtleties are explored by the Iranian-American artist Ala Ebtekar in his latest show, Safina, a new body of work that combines the physical and the earthly with the metaphysical and the celestial, and in which cyanotypes, an early form of photography developed by astronomers, have been generated using different forms of other-worldly light.
“I’m interested in how the UV light emitted from starlight and moonlight can essentially expose a work, and through that process—this eight to 10 hour exposure period from dusk until dawn—a work is created that mirrors the sky,” Ebtekar tells me.
In the case of Azimuth (12 billion years, 80 minutes), Ebtekar has employed sunlight to expose a monumental, four-paneled canvas, literally painting with light. “There is something about tapping into these different timelines, about gazing back,” he suggests. “What happens if we shift the gaze, and it’s the gaze of 12 billion years looking at us, of interfacing with the world using a different timeline?”
A series of cyanotype images of our nearest celestial neighbour, Ebtekar’s 36 Views of the Moon, was inspired by a quote from Omar Khayyam that conjures a very similar sense of a shifted perspective: “Drink wine and look at the moon and think of all the civilisations the moon has seen passing by”.
Another of Ebtekar’s cyanotypes, Nightfall (after Asimov & Emmerson), exposed using moon and starlight on a copy of Isaac Asimov’s collection of short sci-fi tales Nightfall and Other Stories ultimately refers back to a quote that also considers the potential impact of considering the heavens. "If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God”, Ralf Waldo Emerson wrote in his famous 1836 essay, Nature.
Ala Ebtekar, Nightfall (after Asimov & Emmerson), Cyanotype exposed by starlight on found book page
In 1941, Emerson’s quote served as the inspiration for Isaac Asimov’s famous short story, Nightfall, about the coming of darkness to the people of a planet that is normally always illuminated by sunlight. Once every 2000 years, an eclipse brings darkness to the planet which, in turn, reveals a sky full of stars. In witnessing this and realising their insignificance amidst the vast universe, everyone on the planet goes mad.
In using these stories as both his canvas and his inspiration, Ebtekar returns to the notion of the ‘safina’ as a vessel, part-book and part-ship, capable of travelling through space and time to chart intellectual constellations from very different places and times. If the proposition sounds far-fetched, Ebtekar’s convoluted trajectories delight and convince not just because of their kaleidoscopic variety or the depth of his research, but because of the consistency with which he has pursued these ideas across a trilogy of shows that began in 2015 at The Third Line with Nowheresville \ 'nä-kōja,-abäd \, before continuing last year with au(ro)ra at San Francisco’s Anglim Gilbert Gallery.
In its own way, Ebtekar argues, Safina operates in a similar way to the original compendia, such as the famous Safineh- yi Tabriz, the Vessel, or Treasury of Tabriz, which has been described by academics as “a whole treasure-house, compressed between two covers”. Just as that manuscript now offers a unique insight into a specific medieval Islamic intellect, so Ebtekar’s aesthetic and intellectual mix-tape charts the contours of a learned but very contemporary Iranian-American mind. Part-‘dhaw’ and part-‘nur’, part-‘safina’ and part-‘safineh’, Ebtekar’s show is a treasure-house that knows no constraint other than the desire to remain in the light.
Ala Ebtekar's Safina runs at The Third Line until 27 December.
(Image credits: Courtesy The Third Line, Dubai)
Ala Ebtekar, Azimuth (12 billion years, 80 minutes), 2017, Cyanotype on canvas exposed to sublight, 155 x 305 cm
Ala Ebtekar, Untitled (MS1710), 2017, Cut manuscript page, 23 x 31 cm