Item number PO 24.1999 in the Museum of Islamic Art is a simple 10th century earthenware circular dish from Nishapur or Samarqand; its diameter 43 cm, decorated with a (Farsi) proverb attributed to Yahya ibn Ziyad, written in black on white slip ground: “Foolish is the person who misses his chance and afterwards reproaches fate.” Such dishes were meant to solicit an appropriate conversation among the learned eaters during and after the meal; an old forgotten art whose last great practitioner was maybe Immanuel Kant. Such a practice is foreign to our fast-food times when we only know business meals not thinking meals.
This integration of the dish as art into its environs: the meal, represents a general feature of Muslim art, in clear contrast to the standard European practice of isolating the object of art into the sacred space of its exposition, exempting it from daily practices. I M Pei, the architect of the MIA building, understood this feature: when he struggled with the basic principles of his architectural design, he realized that, instead of treating the play of sun and shadow as a disturbing element, he should integrate it into his project; the line that separates dazzling sun rays and parts which remain in shadow is an integral part of the building. And the same goes for our dish: in order to fully grasp it as a work of art, we should locate it into the process of eating.
The way people eating from such dishes related to their messages followed a specific temporal rhythm: the inscription is gradually revealed as the food on the dish disappears. With this dish however, a more complex twist is at work: when the meal is served and the dish is full of food, one can still read the proverb written on its edge; but there is also a rectangular drawing in the centre – obviously the symbol of the circularity of life – and this, of course, is what is gradually revealed. But is this “great circle of life” the ultimate message of the dish? What if the central drawing is rather a kind of empty symbol pretending to deliver a profound truth, but effectively providing only the kind of platitude which characterizes pseudo-wisdom?
That is to say, is the circular drawing in the center not at the level of the deep tautologies (like “life is life,” “everything that is born has to die,” etc.) which merely mask as profound wisdom our simple perplexity? We use such phrases when we do not know what to say, but want nonetheless to say something and to sound wise. A proof of the vacuity of wisdoms is that no matter how you turn them around, negate them, etc., the result will always sound wise. “Do not get caught in the vanity of earthly life and its pleasures, think about eternity as the only true life!” sounds deep, but so does “Do not try to grasp the rainbow of eternity, enjoy our terrestrial life, it is the only life we have!” But what about “A wise man does not oppose eternity to a passing terrestrial life, he is able to see the ray of eternity shining in our ordinary life!”? Or, again, “A wise man accepts the gap that separates our terrestrial life from eternity, he knows that we, mortals, cannot bring the two dimensions together – only God can do it!”? Wisdoms, wisdoms…
[Extract. Appeared in The Symptom 12, March 2012 issue.]