Book traces new-media art’s Islamic roots

October 21, 2010

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By Karen Moxley

Over the last eight years Laura Marks has travelled throughout the Muslim world, studying classical and contemporary art from Isfahan to Istanbul, Damascus to Fez.

Her new book, Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art is a colourful exploration of the relationship between contemporary media art and classical Islamic art.

“Contemporary art has Islamic roots and usually doesn’t know it,” says Marks, the Dena Wosk University Professor in Art and Culture Studies in SFU Contemporary Arts.

By demonstrating the Islamic roots of new-media art, Marks argues that understanding specific moments of classical Islamic thought can provide new ways to think about contemporary art. 

Her book traces the historical lineage of how Islamic art traveled into European art. “Islamic aesthetics journeyed westward from medieval times, drawing out powers of abstraction and embodiment, ultimately to inform modernism and new-media art,” she says. 

“The West can only become richer by learning about Islamic art.”

Marks draws connections between the imageless text and calligraphy-inspired work of traditional Islamic art and the modern works of new-media and contemporary artists. She shows that the pixel-based abstraction, artificial life and virtual worlds in computer media already existed in Islamic art 800 to 1100 years ago. 

Today, many of the most significant pieces of traditional Islamic art are housed in Western museums. “In a way, these collections are part of the colonial legacy,” says Marks. “But by bringing these Islamic art works into Western museums, these museums acknowledge that Islamic art is part of Western heritage.”

Given the tensions between the Muslim world and the West, Marks hopes an understanding of the influence of Islamic art on the West will help society to appreciate the interconnected roots of both. 

“The Western/Muslim connection is so important,” she says. “Not only is there a historical connection, but it is also very useful to understand that Westerners have an Islamic heritage. We must embrace that heritage and learn from it.”


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