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Iman Issa: Lexicon

About her multipart installation and ongoing project, that takes works of art history as its basis. Exhibited at the 8th Berlin Biennale 2014.
By Diana Nawi | Aug 2014

Iman Issa has often remarked on the way in which words extend beyond themselves; when we make a declarative statement of fact, "we mean that and a little more." [1] In everyday discourse, we always mean a little more than what we say. There are subtexts, insinuations, imaginings, and histories built into every word—and into every work of art. In her ongoing project Lexicon (2012–), Issa explores this laden reality, attempting to decipher and define meaning around particular language.

A multipart installation consisting of 13 discrete pieces to date, Lexicon takes works of art history as its basis. Issa selected mid- to late 20th-century works that have as their title singular words or concepts. The titles, such as destiny, seduction, mourning, and colonial house, are meant to function as descriptors of the works. Yet, we never see the original works themselves. Instead, we read Issa’s careful descriptions of them, which appear on the wall like didactic museum labels, and take her word for the truth of their existence. Each text is paired with an object: materially varied "contemporary remakes" of the historical pieces—Issa’s physical investigation of and attempt to define (or redefine) the term of the title.

The descriptions have the affect of clinical objectivity; in each, the date and medium of the historical work are followed by an account of the image or object, ending with its measurements. The tone of these texts echoes the register Issa has employed in other works, most notably in Thirty-three Stories about Reasonable Characters in Familiar Places (2011), a work of literary fiction that purposefully and coolly evades specificity, whether through names, places, or adjectives. The objects, which range from modest sculptures to photographs and videos, have a restrained simplicity about them, evidencing an elegantly crafted minimalist aesthetic. Rather than a mode of abstraction, they are driven by a logic of what Kaelen Wilson-Goldie aptly referred to as ‘radical subtraction’—the barest means by which something can be textually and visually relayed. [1]

As we look at Lexicon, we pivot between the text and its object. This back and forth search for meaning seems only to heighten the opacity of the relationship between the components. Neither illustrates the other, and yet they are not unyielding—they illuminate one another and allow the viewer to encounter and occupy the rich interpretative spaces between them. Is the light emanating from the metal sculpture a symbolic iteration of the spirituality of "prayer"? Is the photograph of the luminous orb the crystal ball of the "fortune teller"? Is the dynamism of the lenticular surface of the photographs an echo of the movement of the "dancer"? One cannot know. The works are not meant to be read or understood as facts. They insist that we find our own equilibrium in the uncertainty that pervades them.

The artist acknowledges the contingent nature of the objects she has produced in Lexicon through the inclusion of the phrase "study for" and the year they were made in her titling of the pieces. For instance, her work based around the original 1964 work Laboring is titled Laboring (Study for 2012) . This is paralleled in her titling of the discrete pieces in Material (2010–12), which each include the preamble "Material for a sculpture" followed by a proposed function of the sculpture (commemorating, testifying, representing, and recalling among others). This propositional gesture is well described by Ryan Inouye, who suggests it as a tactic meant to give "ideas room to breathe, develop, and perhaps obsolesce…" [1] Issa’s objects, summaries, and embodied interpretations are not a definitive solution, but an investigation and a possibility.

Within Issa’s practice there is an unspoken acknowledgement of the arbitrary nature of language. This premise, which undergirds but does not deter her explorations, is in part a product of her understanding of the mercurial nature of political and social landscapes. In a text she wrote about her native Egypt, "When Fox Becomes Polar Bear," Issa examines the way in which forms can become quickly instrumentalized to serve agendas and speculates on the possibility of "drastically divorc[ing] images from what they refer to." Written in 2011, this essay seems to lay the groundwork for Lexicon, itself a project that exploits what the artist deems a "collective lack of belief in appearances." [1] In Lexicon Issa relies on the flexibility of definitions and meaning, using it to make audible the evocative dissonance between language and ‘image’ without the cynicism she rejects in her text.


  1. Iman Issa. "Case studies #2: Engaging with a place, a moment, a built environment." Panel discussion, March Meeting 2014. Sharjah Art Foundation. March 14, 2014.
  2. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, "Radical Subtraction," Bidoun #26 (Spring 2012): 18-21.
  3. Ryan Inouye, "Iman Issa," in The Ungovernables, ed. Eungie Joo (New York: Skira Rizzoli Publications in association with the New Museum, 2012), 148.
  4. Iman Issa, "When Fox Becomes Polar Bear," in The Ungovernables, ed. Eungie Joo (New York: Skira Rizzoli in association with the New Museum, 2012), 45-47. See also Issa’s "Paranoid City" in the same catalogue, 44.

Diana Nawi

Associate Curator at Pérez Art Museum Miami. She will organize an exhibition of Iman Issa's work in spring of 2015.

2012 - ongoing

Multipart installation
exhibited at:
8th Berlin Biennale
29 May - 3 August 2014
Museums Dahlem

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