Images and the Imaginal: Ta'wil in Art Practices of Light
This practice-oriented research aims to provoke an imaginative understanding beyond representational knowledge of things using ta’wil, a method of esoteric interpretation in Islamic thought that performs in the metaphysical realm. Ta’wil unfolds in my light and sound installations as a process and an event with a continuous and perpetual esoteric dimension beyond physical matter, form and visibility. In installation art practices I explore light (together with animation, projection, voice, and textiles) as a medium with a poetic, philosophical and metaphysical resonance. In our daily life, the images we see are an effect of light, while light itself remains invisible and unseen. Ta’wil influences my observations, making, and recordings of light, and brings about a transcendental moment through my artistic practice, according to one’s potential to be affected. I work with Arabic huroof, letters and the mysterious fawatih of the Quran, which appear as bodies of light projected onto delicate fabric with fragrance and light-bearing qualities. A sonic space is marked through these letters’ voicing, and when the seer enters the installation, their body is inscribed with light. I consider how lustre and luminosity arouse ajab, a desired state of wonder in early Islamic visual culture, to open the seer’s potential to contemplative perception.
The philosophical paradigm of my art practice considers Islam’s triadic ontology of the Sensible, Imaginal, and Intelligible realms, each more real than the preceding realm. Each domain has its corresponding mode of perception, of which imagination is the isthmus that connects the purely sensory faculties of the body with incorporeal modes of intellect, al-Aql. Persian Muslim philosopher Shihab ud Deen Suhrawardi [1154-1191] describes the Imaginal as an extension of images of this world without any materiality, opening out to the world of the imagination and the suprasensory. Suhrawardi’s Imaginal develops in the subsequent process ontology of Mulla Sadra Shirazi [1571-1640]; he describes tashkik ul Wajud, intensification in existence, as a continuous and perpetual flow of a singular Being in all realms, which is Noor e Ilahy, the divine light of Being. Each particle of existence—material or immaterial, image or Imaginal—may be found in the cascading intensity of noor, light. I explore these potentials in my major body of work Hayakal al Noor, Bodies of Light (2020-2021). The sensorial connection of the creative image to the Imaginal is informed by contemporary theorists including Laura Marks, Rosalind E. Krauss, Sayyed Hossien Nasr and Matthew Saba.
These artworks probe into emergent modes of perception and interpretation of Islamic images, letters, and sounds. This research suggests that by interweaving philosophical dialogue with participatory experiences, we can create installation-art spaces of cultural inclusion that can expand our means of learning, articulating, and sharing knowledge, for the artist and the seer. My aspiration for this thesis is to increase inter-cultural efforts of understanding and respect for different modes of being, through public participation in my light installations.