The shape of space – a look at the use of geometry in Islamic art
‘All things are full of signs, and it is a wise man who can learn about one thing from another’
Plotinus (205-270) Roman Philosopher (cited in Divine Proportion: Phi in Art, Nature, and Science. Hemenway, 2005)
My primary aim in this project is to produce digital artwork that incorporates in some way the ideas or the process for producing Islamic geometric patterns.
Secondary aims include:
– Identify the process used to produce traditional Islamic geometric patterns
– Identify the purpose and motivation for producing these patterns
– explore the theories and ideologies that inspire the production of Islamic art
– seek knowledge – of artistic methods adopted by traditional and contemporary geometric artists
– create a collection of patterns that derive from the methods learnt
– learn how to make use of interactive technology (e.g. how to create a program that will pass data from a sensor to a pc and back)
– Examine existing artists’ work and identify their use of traditional Islamic geometry in a contemporary setting. Visit galleries, find portfolios of current artists, look at examples of different media used and assess the ways that use of geometry has changed the kind of artwork produced. Look at how advances in technology have affected the outcomes of the artwork
– Experiment and create geometric patterns using traditional Islamic artistic methods. Use the compass and straight edge method and go through the same dot, grid, shape formation process as followed by traditional geometric pattern artists.
– Discuss possible ways this could be incorporated into digital artwork therefore bringing it into a contemporary realm. Look at manipulating the patterns using computer software packages such as Photoshop, Illustrator, 3d studio max etc.
The first two words in my project title are key as they sum up the components that the areas of research I will be looking at are anchored by. In other words you can always relate the subject areas I am interested in, back to one of these words if not both.
We usually think of shapes as pre-defined areas of space that have specific names. We’ll grow up knowing that these named shapes have properties that allow them to be classed within certain groups of shapes too. So a square is made up of 4 right angles at each corner and 4 sides and a triangle with three sides with possibly various angles. This systematic and organised approach to identifying shapes is not something I have questioned in the past but feel now would be a good opportunity to do so. In conducting research for my project I can explore the interpretations of shape(s) and also how they can be redefined.
The second key word is space. My use of the word implies many senses of this including the mathematical and the scientific (these I believe overlap in some sense), as well as the physical, perceptual and conceptual. We seem to take for granted that a space is a physical area or a thing from which something else is lacking – an empty area? A filling around other objects or shapes? This is something that I would want to bring to the forefront of the end viewers attention – that space can be a shape too and possibly even be interacted with if not something that can be engaging.
An area of study that connects to this idea of space around shapes is that of Geometry. The shapes within geometry are formed from vertices (easier to think of as dots in an invisible grid of any size). These vertices may then be connected with a line from one to another. These lines will be joined in such a way that they will eventually link to form a shape. Various shapes are then placed together to form a larger formation of yet more shapes. They could arguably be described as a system of shapes. This system could be called a pattern. These patterns can then become quite complex and due to their placement, repetition and possibly the ability to tessellate them – they can be endless and seem to go on indefinitely.
From the above subjects comes the branch of geometry in nature. Not only because it entails many mysteries and brings into question the secrets of the Universe, but also because it ties with religion and spirituality which is something that I can relate to on a personal level. Believing in God means that when I see the beauty of nature and proofs of perfection in nature (such as the way the body works and the structures and symmetry in plants and flowers to name a couple) I link it to Divine Creation. This is another aspect I would like to look into further. Especially as belief in this isn’t restricted to just one religion.
I think this is a very important and interesting subject to delve into. Not only because it entails many mysteries and brings into question the secrets of the Universe, but also because there is a tie with religion and spirituality here, something that I can relate to on a personal level too. Believing in God means that when I see the beauty of nature and proofs of perfection in nature (such as the way the body works and the structures and symmetry in cells, atoms, plants and flowers for example) I link it to ‘Divine Creation’.
This idea of divine creation is not restricted to just one faith group, which to me is a clear indication that the average human has an appreciation for the truth of Creation, (whether they are conscious of it or not). I want to look closely at the history of geometry through the earliest civilisations and see how it has been connected to religious, philosophical and scientific movements through the ages.
Traditionally for geometry artists, paper, pencils, rulers, compass and angle measurement tools have been used to produce their patterns. It may also be a means of exploration into the many possibilities for the artist rather than just an artistic process for producing a set outcome. Therefore they may not set out to produce a certain pattern but choose to compile a new set of shapes and place them differently to others they may have done before.
According to several sources the traditional method for creating the basic grid for geometric patterns begins with a dot. This dot is the central positioning around which a circle is drawn. Using the circumference of this circle as the baseline you would then draw further circles surrounding the first circle. See image below from page 2 of ‘Islamic Design, A Genius for Geometry’ by Daud Sutton.
The intersections created from the joining of the circles are then used as points for plotting shapes in the next stage of the process. The more circles that are added to increase the size of the ensemble, the bigger the underlying grid of points becomes. It is almost as if the first circle that is started with has grown to allow for further shapes to be identified and placed upon the grid. These circles are not necessarily used in their usual form to create the final pattern. Therefore is it is not always apparent that circles have featured in the pattern at all.
Here is another image from the above book (page 3) which illustrates the further stages for developing the patterns using the original circles above:
Why is theory important to this practice of traditional Islamic geometric art?
The theory that I will be looking into is based on the religious aspects from which the art was formed and developed. There are also the philosophical and spiritual theories that relate to the art work and symbolism outside of the religious context, such as the theories on shapes, numbers and spaces.
The main motivator in this chosen field of art is that due to the nature of Islamic belief – idolatry being frowned upon – the use of imagery in which living beings are portrayed is not used in religious contexts at all. The only forms of décor in a mosque for example would be calligraphy quoting scripture from the Qur’an (Islamic holy book), arabesque vegetal designs and geometrical patterns.
The word of Allah within the Qur’an is the basis upon which Muslims live their lives – according to its teachings and beliefs. The word of Allah is also perfect in many ways and divine therefore its importance is illustrated in places of worship, along the walls, and extra illumination is added within the Qur’an itself.
The vegetal decoration symbolises the perfection of nature and also of paradise. According to Daud Sutton in Islamic Design – A Genius for geometry, ‘They aim not to imitate the plant kingdom naturalistically but to distil visually the essence of rhythm and growth it manifests, recalling the archetypal Gardens of Paradise.’
The use of geometry complements both the above and also holds some unique ideas of how shapes can be adapted to reflect nature, symbolism of spirituality and even the ‘oneness’ of God – a fundamental belief in Islam.
The fact the geometry also has roots in ancient civilisations is very interesting and has a link to humankind from the earliest evidence. The ability to seek knowledge about mathematics and the ability to identify fundamental rules of shapes and numbers in space and in the world around us is something that has been explored through the ages. I want to follow through with this in my own work and knowledge of these theories would enable me to ensure that I would not overlook and important aspect within it. I would then like to somehow convey the knowledge I have discovered to the viewer.
At this point I envision my work to have a strong visual representation of geometric art. I want to produce some patterns at a large scale which would be a new challenge for me and one I am excited to meet.
My practice so far has been through drawing patterns using my own method which is not completely different to the traditional process for geometric pattern design. However, it seems to have an in-growing effect rather than one that expands as the traditional method does. This is something I will compare and contrast later in the project.
I could also use graphic animations for representing the patterns. But I am more inclined to the idea of producing large formations of the patterns in a physical object such as perhaps wooden panels through which light can be shone to create shadows and change the sense of the space in which the work is placed.
I think lighting could be incorporated effectively to produce a dynamic edge to the final work. This is because light conditions can be changed, manipulated and modified to suit changing needs and requirements.
Light symbolises many things from a spiritual and religious perspective. For example light colours can be a symbol of peace (used as a flag for surrendering). Airy bright spaces give the illusion of spaciousness. The positive aspects relating to larger spaces is that you feel freer to move about and explore the space, as if you could do so much more within it. The opposite of these would be negative ideas of space such as confined restrictive space, a feeling of claustrophobia. I would not like to have negative connotations associated with my work. This is because Islamic art is very much illustrative of hope. The source for this is the message of Allah (God) in the Qur’an which teaches about the purpose of life and the reward of paradise if you follow the message.
This leads me to my outcome.
My background has been predominantly in expressing some form of communication and this has been mostly through interactive work. I would like to continue this by producing work that compels the user/viewer to become involved with it. I believe that the most interactively creative works are those that captivate the viewer and involve them within a process. This can be in many forms such as when using sensors to trigger some kind of behaviour or change in the work (lighting, sounds etc). This could be on an abstract level too where triggering thoughts and movements in people and influencing these is enough of a form of interaction. Only, this can be more difficult to measure.
However, my interpretation of an interactive work would be using multimedia as a possible option. My work has always been either viewable of a computer screen (short video clips), graphics, websites. Or viewable on some form of small physical and traditional media such as paper or canvas. I would really like to create some sort of installation to take my experience and work to the next level or beyond for this project.
This installation would be my blank slate. Possibly like a box or container that allows a person to fully submerge themselves within it – literally or mentally. The key is for it to be thought provoking. I would want the person to question their surroundings, the purpose of the installation and investigate it too. Possibly manipulate their thoughts by pre-determining the factors that could influence their senses and perceptions related to the space around them.
I am planning to create an interactive installation and therefore will require an open and accessible space. I envision the space to be at least roughly 5 metres squared. This is because I expect the viewer to move around the piece and possibly move from one part of it to another in order to manipulate the way it works or the way it forms an outcome there and then.
Due to the nature and size of this installation it would be imperative to take measures to ensure that no risk is posed to any viewers/users, members of staff or general members of the public.
Prior to setting up I would need to know exactly how much space I have to work with. I would then analyse the extra space that was available for persons to move around but not within the main space of the work. I would ensure that there was enough room for persons to move from one part of the room to the other without having to watch their step or walk in an unnatural manner to obtain access or to exit.
There would also be the need to ensure that easy exit is available in the case of an emergency. Therefore the larger the space available to better it would be not just for my installation but for the safety of members of the public.
There will be electrical cables and wires for connecting certain parts of the installation. This will most probably be mostly for the lighting of the work and also for the sensors that could be needed for the interactive aspect of the work.
There may also be the need for a computer to be connected to the work but I would endeavour to have this hidden from view and in such a way that it does not distract from the art work itself.
All electrical mains and connections would be tested before set-up of the installation. And all wires and cables would be kept hidden or away from the path of the public. Any unused power supplies would be kept clear of all wires and cables so that there is no risk of accidental switching on/off of the power to the work.
Another key goal that would ensure that all counter measures for health and safety risks are carried out is to keep everything clean, tidy and well organised. If these three things can be achieved as a means to keep the public safe then it is most likely that it will be a successful and meaningful experience for the viewer.
Set out goals of the coming months and what you should have achieved in terms of progression in the project.
Sometimes I might do more than other times but the desire to complete a successful and inspirational (for the viewer) artwork will motivate me to ensure that all stages are carried out fully and to the advantage of completing a well grounded, researched and complete MA.
The following sub titles are more like stages within the timeline that exists from present to the end of the course. So although they are not fixed by date yet they will expand and contract and be flexible enough to accommodate the changes that I perceive and experience while completing the project work. This includes the effects of deadlines encountered along the way and assessment requirements on the course.
– ensure that this title is concise enough to keep research grounded
– use this as a basis to conduct research
– always look back to this question to ensure that research and ideas are not drifting off-track
– breakdown of aims and objectives
– plot future deadlines against tasks that need to be completed
– Create sub groups and filters to ensure that only relevant subjects and topics are investigated
– Using the tools available on the blog – categorise all research findings and ensure there is a link back to the main title of the project
– begin to filter finer details of the installation ideas (e.g. natural light or synthetic light?)
– these must be detailed visual discussions and representations of design elements
– justify each design element and link it back to the working title, aims, objectives and also the role it plays in the ‘interactive’ role of the work
– create experimental layouts and structures of the artwork within its ideal setting for a realistic impression of how the final installation may be exhibited
– use these experiments to see flaws, faults, pros and cons to the initial ideas
– build actual experimental installations as soon as possible to see the real effects of physical space, time and interaction (perhaps with volunteers)
– evaluate the results of these experiments and what has been learned from them
– Using the evaluation from the prototype testing etc, make a timetable of tasks and times for ‘setting-up’ of the installation
– Use the timetable as the main document to ensure that all goes to plan and follow it thoroughly (the use of the document could be tested in the previous stage too)
– Set up the installation
– Provide a channel for feedback from viewers
– using personal observations, experiences throughout the course, pros, cons, and feedback from all: write an evaluation of the way in which the installation was implemented
– using the outcome as a basis, evaluate if the aims and objectives were met for the project
– using the project as a tool, evaluate if the course has run successfully and if the project work fulfilled the requirements of the course as well as the aims and objectives of the MA itself.
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Critchlow, Keith. Islamic Patterns: An Analytical and Cosmological Approach.
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Critchlow, Keith. Order in Space. London: Thames & Hudson, Limited, 1969.
Field, Robert J. Geometric Patterns from Islamic Art and Architecture.
Minneapolis: Tarquin Publications, 1998.
Hemenway, Priya, and Amy Ray. Divine Proportion: Phi in Art, Nature, and Science. Grand Rapids: Sterling Co., Inc., 2005.
Hillenbrand, Robert. Islamic Art and Architecture.
London: Thames & Hudson, Limited, 1999.
Paul, Christiane. Digital Art. London: Thames & Hudson, Limited, 2008.
Stewart, Ian. Why Beauty Is Truth: A History of Symmetry.
New York: Basic Books, 2008.
Sutton, Daud. Islamic Design.
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World Wide Web
Malkevitch, Joseph. “Mathematics and Art”, American Mathematical Society.
AMS – American Mathematical Society. 24 Sept. 2008
“Pattern in Islamic Art, The Religious Dimension”, Pattern In Islamic Art. 2007.
Salaam.co.uk. “ISLAMIC PATTERNS & GEOMETRY”, Islamic Art. Salaam.co.uk. 29 Oct. 2008 themeofthemonth/march02_index.php?l=3>.
SOAS. “Edge of Arabia – Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia” Brunei Gallery at SOAS: Edge of Arabia – Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia. Oct. 2008. SOAS – School of Oriental and African Studies (UOL). 14 Oct. 2008 .