The video and geometric compositions on archival paper by UAE-based Iranian artist Nima Nabavi that occupy the intimate upper gallery of The Third Line are exactly what they seem—aesthetically contemplative, and yet not at all. Despite upholding the gallery’s penchant for geometry-focused artists, Nabavi’s two-years-young practice deviates from Iranian tradition by infusing it with modernity and intellectual layering. Intermittently dense, the three series of monochromatic and coloured grids may read meditative and Islamic head on, but from an angled perspective, the collective whole of 1,2,3 reveals a rippled perspective more akin to the existential and kaleidoscopic.
The square works—hung horizontally as well as in high polygonal arrangements—reference the understanding of and appreciation for Islamic artistic tradition instilled in him by his grandfather, a prolific geometric artist. But the works sidestep formalism and are injected with contemporary cred by the appropriation of elements from his life in the early 1980s, his upbringing in Dubai’s unique blend of design and architecture, and 20 years spent living in the US.
Working at record labels such as Def Jam, then establishing his own online retail store Digital Gravel – selling art, clothing and music from independent artists in the underground hip hop and street scene - brought a refreshing realism to Nabavi’s outlook. “In those counter-cultural scenes of the time, the only way any of these artists earned respect was through consistent hard work and innovation,” he explains. “There weren’t a lot of shortcuts and the level of competition was fierce, so you really had to be the master of your craft to make a name for yourself.”
This ethos resonates throughout his practice. “At Digital Gravel I was able to see how these artists develop their practice and how they could successfully make a career out of their creativity by being aware and respectful of their audience,” notes Nabavi. “Now that I am making work myself, I always try to consider the audience reaction and try to make sure that I am not just making work for myself. I don’t want them to have to wonder whether they like it or not. I want them to love it and want them to know that I made it deliberately and with respect for the people that would see it.”
Respect for viewers, influences and works is evident from the get-go. Spending 60+ hours on a work, Nabavi conceptualises, internally negotiates the process, and then executes with mechanical precision by hand points that can be a mere 1/16th of an inch apart. While he will accept a line that is a hair darker than its neighbour, a mathematical error in the grid incites a do-over. But therein resides a paradox.
If the works are imprecise— ‘ too human— the geometric message is not effectively translated or conveyed to the viewer, rendering it unsuccessful. However, the manifestation of that very quality— ‘too human’—is what’s most impressive to the viewer, granting the work its artistic value. Both are needed for the composition to work—but rather than existing as a hanging dichotomy or arbitrary creative liberty, this duality slides right into Nabavi’s engagement with quantum physics—the other grounding factor to his work. “So many mathematical laws simultaneously overlap and so many geometries overflow infinitely into one another that we might look at nature and think of parts of it as being ‘imperfect’,” he explains. “However, even in these instances, no geometric or mathematical laws are being broken – they still underlie everything and remain consistent even if we make a judgment about the nature that they measure and predict.”
Aligned with artists who have broken ground in his field—Nabavi counts Sol Lewitt, Channa Horwitz, Emma Kunz, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Julio Le Parc, Francois Morellet, Alex & Allyson Grey, Joseph & Anni Albers, Agnes Martin and Frank Stella as influences—he appeals to a broader public through myriad strategies. “Intellectually, I read and listen to podcasts about quantum physics, just to flesh out a better understanding about what is known about the nature of reality. Frankly, a lot of it is very much over my head, but I like knowing that scientists are really probing deep into these questions,” he says. “I’ve been reading some works by Carlo Rovelli and Max Tegmark recently and really enjoy their enthusiasm for trying to unlock an understanding of what is going on at the quantum level, and the role that math and geometry play in the universe. The nature of the mechanics of reality on both a micro and macro level is measurable and predicted by geometric and mathematical laws.”
Revealing that the constructs of reality consist of infinitely repeating quantum building blocks following set rules is what Nabavi translates into art. “The impossibly small pixels that make up the life that we experience are essentially all the same ‘stuff’ reconfigured in different ways to create different types of matter and organisms and textures and everything else,” he remarks. “With a lot of the work that I do, I try to also take a basic building block, like a one inch black line for example, and then repeat that building block over and over again, applying a certain governing rule over it, like what angle it should be relative to the line that was drawn before it. I then repeat the process over and over again to see what emerges and grows from the basic building block and the basic rule applied to it. In this small way, I feel a tiny connection to the processes that might make the engine of reality run—lots and lots of pixels coming together to make something that starts to take on a life of its own.”
Though interpretations—or misinterpretations—suggest Nabavi is unveiling the secret mechanics of the universe, he is quick to clarify that he is not playing creator. “With geometry, the most anyone can really do is discover and explore the ways in which it works,” he says. “If I draw 10,000 lines according to geometric rules in a symmetric geometric grid, the pattern that emerges isn’t emerging because I made it emerge, it’s emerging because that’s just the way the geometry works and will always work.”
His precise patterning may “unearth” that which has always existed, but Nabavi isn’t resting on those laurels. While engaging longstanding concepts—Islamic geometric art to quantum physics—Nabavi maintains an edge honed by observing those underground hip-hop ambitions, complemented by a desire to infuse his works with more than fundamental purity or aesthetic exactitude. “I want to make sure that what I am bringing to the table is fresh and worth being in the arena.”
1, 2, 3 runs at The Third Line until 3 November
(Artwork credit: Nima Nabavi. 2018.08.13 (3.1.3). 2018. Ink on Archival Paper. 60.96x60.96cm)