Cellular explorations of now.
Syrian-born visual artist Sara Naim has found her creative paradise between Dubai, London and Paris, where she employs scientific tools – like electron microscopes – to explore the borderless-ness of physicality. From micro to macro, Naim’s research goes as deep as the cellular level to find out what lies beyond our perception of the world. The artist, with a background in drawing and painting, chose to focus on photography after taking an Art Foundation course at the Chelsea College of Art and Design. After holding some reservations about the many rules of the photographic media, Naim’s experimental approach resulted in the manoeuvring of her shots into shapeless sculptural manifests informed by the content of her art. Abstract images of dead skin at 50000x zoom, technological malfunctions and anomalous chemical reactions dictate their resulting displays, with the artist actively embracing any accidental glitch coming her way. Apart from biochemical science, philosophy also has a place in Naim’s practice with Plato’s Theory of Forms informing her most recent series. In the same way, the constructed linearity of time is also subject to her questioning, based on the latest discoveries in relativity and quantum science. Experiencing a boundary-structured interaction loses its meaning once it is observed from a perspective that does not belong to human anthropomorphism, as it is visible in her unconfined production. Aside from existential and metaphysical dichotomies, the artist also nurtures an interest in Vipassana meditation and monochromatic clothing for a minimalist lifestyle. The first allows an objective scanning of body sensations such as pain and pleasure; the second is an effective way to overcome unnecessary decision-making moments in her daily routine.
In what ways has your movement between Dubai, London and Paris nourished your practice? Have you shifted your materials and techniques depending on the resources available throughout?
When I’m in a new place, I feel more awake. I absorb new sounds, climates, architecture, etc. Because of this, I’m most experimental with my work when I relocate, even if it’s not the first time I’ve been there. In Dubai, I don’t see many shows so my influences are more internal here. Whereas in Paris or London I might be more externally stimulated. The choice of material is also impacted. Since 2016, I’ve been working with plexiglass, wood and photographic prints to make my sculptural photographs as a way to explore the subtle differences between the three cities. The laser machines in Dubai can cut really large; Paris has an artisan nuts and bolts shop that has a thousand varieties of screw heads. Whilst London is London – I could even print on water if I wanted to. This city also gives access to the most fascinating people. Once, I had a meeting with Professor Sophie Scott from UCL who works within cognitive neurosciences of voices, speech perception and laughter. The outcome was to make the original audio of my video work, Silent Scream, at a volume that is only subconsciously heard. On the opposite side, my lack of French restrained my accessibility to Paris’s community of researchers and artists. But that absence of participation or even eavesdropping offered me more self-reflection.
From a background in drawing and painting, at what point did photography become a revelation to you? In the present, to what extent do you play with freeing the work from its main medium?
I connected a lot with painting at a young age, but at fifteen when I was learning analogue photography and darkroom printing in school, I realised I was falling in love with it. So I took an Art Foundation course knowing I’d probably pursue photography for my BA, which is what I did. But it was so classically photographic that after a few years, I became distressed by it. Even the photo community in London felt really insular, and I could not understand why it was mostly separated from the art community. On top of that, I had some reservations about the many rules of photography. The film’s frames suggested printing it in a rectangular shape, and I didn’t respond well to how rigid it was. As romanticized as this sounds, I wanted photography to feel similar to how a blank canvas feels to a painter. That is why I decided to unlearn a lot of those rules (realizing they were my rules just as much as anything else), and that’s when my sculptural photographs started to take shape.
Through exercising meditation as a strategy to materialise pain, how do you transcend the complexities of human experience?
Transcending the complexities of human experience can be done by experiencing reality as it is. Vipassana meditation teaches this in its technique of scanning one’s bodily sensations with objective observation. This helps people detach from their cravings and aversions, both believed to lead to misery. By using the body’s framework, one experiences reality as it is, and not how it’s wanted or thought. We create so many of our narratives, and this thickens the veil through which we perceive reality. Vipassana is a really beautiful practice that can help thin this veil.
When does pain become pleasure and do you believe that the physical reminder of this sensation impacts our ability to feel more intensely?
Pain and pleasure are the same thing – they are subjective sensations. We have a choice as to how we experience any of them. In my case, for the first five days of Vipassana, my legs were in absolute agony, but by the eighth day, I experienced no pain. The pins-and-needles were still there although I wasn’t experiencing them anymore. This is because objective observation allowed me to not have aversion to ‘pain’. Initially, I was curious if physically marking those sensations impacts the intensity in which we feel them. But if you truly remain in objective observation while meditating, and draw sensations, the sensations don’t change. They only become marks of forms that experientially existed. That said, their expressions are subjective.
How does your familiarity with substances such as soap help to recall your own memories of Syria, particularly in your ‘Building Blocks’ series? Are you romanticising your own country by drawing on flashbacks intrinsically related to your childhood?
Smell triggers the greatest nostalgia between all of our senses. Aleppo soap, in particular, has a piercing smell of olives which I recall from childhood visits to the factories, and I wanted it to intoxicate my 2019 ‘Building Blocks’ show at Third Line. The gallery’s smell was so strong that it almost had a reverse effect to the subtly sublime scent of a single bar. That represented my concerns around nostalgia; it isn’t a true depiction of past events, rather an abstraction of them. Its recalling is loaded with longing and exoticization, mirroring my relationship to Syria after being away for eleven years. This led me to photograph jasmine and soil from my grandmother’s garden under the Scanning Electron Microscope at 50,000x magnification. Not only was the resulting image warped from its sheer enlargement, but also from technological glitches. Those alterations allowed me to speak about distorted memory – flashbacks which don’t take you back but rather transport you somewhere else.
Touching on cellular biology and urban landscapes, are your soap edifices not only a reference to life forms but also to Aleppo’s war ruins?
Aleppo soaps are traditionally stacked using tower formations, a technique that allows the soaps to dry fast without taking a lot of floor space inside factories. Because of the soap’s organic shapes, the formations resemble ancient ruins as well as the rubbled remains of the very city from where it originates. This important reference pays homage to these beautiful forms now scarcely made, and to the war-torn historical city. The soaps arrived three hours before the opening (two weeks late), so we had around thirty people helping to build the towers – including family, friends, gallery members and security. Because no one had technical practice in stacking the bars, the towers would crumble and we would keep rebuilding. I loved that. It felt like a performative realization of the concepts. I also wanted to allude to the ‘building blocks of life’ cellular analogy, where every micro formation participates in the construction of a macro formation. Brick-by-brick the tower is created, but the holes between each piece are a reminder of the frail, breakable border between interiority and exteriority.
In your Reaction Series, how is expired Polaroid film deployed to inspect the truthfulness of matter? As you augment the captured moments of these exposures, are you defying the instant nature of the chemical reactions?
On a cellular level, all space is merged and shared, what is different is just the densities of matter. I’ve explored this concept in various ways, and Reaction did so on a formal level. I wanted the rim of the object to mimic the content within the image – a way to free the work of its internal and external tensions. I intended to visually address the freeing of borders from a micro to a macro scale. Enlarging chemical reactions and having them embody their own shape was a chance to play with scale as an interchangeable aspect. I also explored photography’s restraints by slowing down and hyper-magnifying Polaroid’s instantaneous way of image-making. I photographed light on expired film, dissected and scanned certain chemical compositions in very high resolution. Chemical reactions are predictable and precise, but playing with its expiration generates a glitch. Precariousness also exists amongst the predictable order of form!
The internal body, the external skin and the surrounding space are merged when closely examined. Does the abstraction of forms enable you to better express these interconnections as opposed to concrete representations?
We’ve evolved in this medium-scaled world to experience things like boundary and solidity. So, for me, it was more interesting to observe a scale which we haven’t evolved to experience, where we are more open to different ways of seeing. When I travel to new places I feel much more awake. I think experimenting with a different scale resonates with that, you allow your perspective to shift.
Is your work a perception of borders and their deconstruction? How are boundaries and bodies closely bonded in your reactions?
I began my deconstruction of boundaries through the body, because it’s where our experience of separation and connection initiates. We begin inside a body, we are cut from a body. On a microscale, our skin constantly sheds from body to floor. Although obvious, commenting on this transition was the most important starting point for me. Our experience of the world is heavily dependent on the sense of touch. Therefore, the dead skin samples were collected from my fingertips. Conveniently, I also have very dry cuticles.
Do the contrasts brought together in your work, be that the interior and exterior, the mental and the physical or the near and the distant, produce a unifying outcome? Which other dichotomies are you interested in?
I also explore existential and metaphysical dichotomies, real and ideal, the exoticism of memory and truth of its lived experience. And yes, each dichotomy is a side of the same coin- yin and yang is a symbol I try to live by. Down to the level of form, the harmony between opposites indicates the oneness that I attempt to describe in my work. Borders between polarities are illusionary.
Accidental malfunctions are embraced in the development of your work. How does your reinforcement of technological glitches speak about human fragility? Does science facilitate the exploration of emotions?
When you’re embarrassed, your skin can blush. When you’re fearful, you might tremble. Swallowing at an odd time in a sentence shows nerves. The line between external and internal is fragile, and I find that fascinating. Once when I was using the SEM, accidental glitches occurred as I navigated the sample too quickly. Very soon I began embracing and even provoking them because it was a way to describe the broken information communicated to the external body from within. By observing our sensations as they arise, we can understand our emotions rather than reject or crave them. But sometimes there’s a malfunction like a glitch saying something unintelligible. We can’t always understand what is being transmitted to us. The spasming of emotional or physical communication is something I’m still exploring.
Can you tell me more about the juxtaposition of the real and the ideal in your most recent ‘Rose Tinted’ series? Does its title allude to an optimistic outlook of the world following the meaning of its idiom?
Not necessarily an optimistic outlook, but it describes the way our viewpoints are determined by our perception. Likewise, not everybody sees the same shade when looking at a particular colour. ‘Rose Tinted’ shows how our view is determined by our present and future expectations, and how those assumptions are informed by the meanings we have built upon past experiences (rather than from the experiences themselves). We rarely perceive anything as it is. And by ‘as it is’ I mean not how we want it to be, not how we expect it to be, but how it actually is – without projecting expectation or aversion or desire onto that experience. This year I did an online Philosophy course dissecting Plato’s Theory of Forms. He believed that everything that we see, think and experience partakes in the Form of something. A landscape partakes in the Form of landscape. An ideal one existing outside our spatiotemporal existence, only accessed through the mind. These ideals are perfect and we use them as a reference for evaluating what we experience in this world. This play between real and ideal, or truth and expectation, is something we all negotiate every day, consciously or unconsciously. It forms our individual narrative of reality. The scenes are based on utopian landscapes, where the photographic depictions don’t perfectly align with the carved forms. So, they represent the ideal, and the imagery presents the real – where the perception of something and its reality lay in tension with one another. Some of the images are quite psychedelic, as I wanted the full scope of how the ‘rose-tinted lens’ can operate.
Does the trial and error approach you put into practice with analogue photography, specifically around documenting waterfalls, help to enforce this idealised expectation?
Yes, wanting and seeking certain photographic elements to inject into each form is in itself an expectation of the ideal. It’s an important process as I’m experiencing the very thing the work discusses. I searched for waterfalls all across Dubai (ironically that included the mall), but everything fell short of my ideal version of it.
Has your time in Dubai, a utopian city catered to a reduced population of elites, made you more aware of the imperfections, limitations and unpredictabilities of actuality, addressed in this body of work?
I think the ‘perfectness’ of Dubai has a kind of Truman Show quality. The city, from its urban planning to its laws and values, is built upon achieving the ideal form. But for me, that just makes the veil of illusion even more apparent.
At your studio, I was able to see a few new works from your ‘Shift’ series. Is the white colour of these sculptures applied for each individual to project their own thoughts into? Fascinated by your statement on not wearing colourful clothes, what do you find particularly complex about colours?
During lockdown, I was watching YouTube videos which illustrate time-based theories like special relativity and quantum field theory. I was most interested in how science depicts the elusiveness of time. Those theories influenced the shapes of my sculptures by tilting some of them off-axis according to my belief in time’s nonlinearity. I left them white so they could feel like thought- constructs – as that’s what time is to me. Similarly to how memory is formed in our mind before shaping it into an image, I wanted the sculptures to exist as thoughts being constructed into shapes. The white stage references that process. I do find wearing colours a complex action because it warrants thinking – at least for me. This comes from wanting to occupy my mind as little as possible with material decisions. Ideally, my closet would include fifteen items (although I can’t help but have more than that). To me, wearing something other than black or white or beige or grey requires a specific reason. Those are neutral colours, zeros, anything more feels above basic.
Having worked with a Scanning Electron Microscope for over a decade, how has the role of this instrument changed? How do you see its function adjusting to your continued micro and macro enquiries?
Over the years it shifted from serving as a scientific tool to serving as a source of abstraction. In 2009, I was literally describing the micro and macro dialects of scale by photographing my dead skin samples. Throughout the years, its role morphed into communicating via analogies, specifically with glitches. As my interests and research develop, my use of the SEM and other devices, such as the Transmission Electron Microscope and Light Microscope, also will. And vice versa, their technical constraints or abilities continue to enhance my research and concepts. For example, a few years ago I used the TEM to photograph copper from an HV power cable (previously installed in my show When Heartstrings Collapse, 2016), but because the sample wasn’t acidified enough, a beam of electrons fired back at the monitor, and the star-like dot formed my work ‘Electron Beam’. Usually, those instruments’ faults are what serves me most.
In what manner does the warped notion of time, so apparent in 2020, speak to your work’s detachment from temporality and fondness with intuition? Confessing that you do not believe in yesterday or tomorrow, how do you envision your pieces existing, moving and evolving?
The works are changing, evolving, existing and moving simultaneously, but that is happening now. Every moment is change. In my Shift series, I try to describe time’s detachment from the past and present by making sculptures that use shapes to describe theories of time. The process of visualizing scientific qualities lacking physicality is in itself a form of attachment; everything needs to be anchored in space and time to suit our four-dimensional mental constructs. Using 4D space was a way to discuss that. I profoundly respect intuition (something I’m trying to harness more in my life), however, I don’t feel my works explore it enough, yet. That said, a lot of my photographs do, as endlessly shooting isn’t an option when using analogue film. Its very nature is an intuitive process of decision making and shooting.
Words by Vanessa Murrell