Alive in the Universe

Published online 25 July 2018

Sarah Hiddleston looks at a Syrian artist’s work at the intersection of science and art.

Kourbaj looking through a lightbox.
Kourbaj looking through a lightbox.
© Sarah Hiddleston
Probability, connectivity, relativity, and the mystery that gives rise to our experience of the world––how can it all be captured, conveyed and understood using art? 

Enter Issam Kourbaj, a Syrian artist, who’s reconceptualising fundamental aspects of science and nature using art.

Kourbaj meditates on the ideas that art provokes in answer to questions we might ask in science. What is our reality, and how do we seek to describe it? What is space, time, gravity, or the universe?

Albert Einstein once said, “art is the expression of the profoundest thoughts in the simplest way.” This challenge to the human imaginative capacity has been taken up by Kourbaj in his latest installation, a part of a curtain raiser exhibition exploring what it means to be alive in the Universe. 

Science is bound by concept and subject to all the limitations of the language we use to represent it, he says. But art is also a form of knowing. 

Kourbaj, currently Lector in Art at Christ’s College, Cambridge, has had his work exhibited in London and across the United States.  

Nature Middle East caught up with him in his studio, where he works with simple tools like water, oil, a light projector and bits of cling film, but speaks with a huge philosophical tail. 

"We see a tiny small band of this expanded universe."

Waves are flow movements, fields in the multidimension of time. 

Oil swims in beads that slip, move and slip again, ordering and reordering themselves––granularities with endless possibilities and probabilities. What and how and when they collapse into a particularity is an exciting mystery. 

Cling film squashed into a tiny ball expands and becomes magnified, so we see a mass expanding and changing until it finishes in an undulating mollusc––a new universe created in a moment.

“[What] it tells is how much we see very little and how our vision as humans is so restricted,” he says, “We see a tiny small band of this expanded universe.”

Both scientists and artists, he says, tell stories about uncertainties. They are able to play with this uncertainty and take it as a privilege, to set it in different contexts of place and space and time and wonder at the relativity and interconnectedness of all things. 

Watch a film about his exhibition where he tries to address the fate of his birth home and the forces buffering Syrians out across the globe.

Listen to a segment of Nature Middle East’s weekly podcast featuring Kourbaj talking about the universe, light, and fragments of time.