Interview with Art Historian Dr. Staci Gem Scheiwiller
Punctum Caecum, a visual exploration onto the magical world of medieval and early modern scientific manuscripts.
A 32-page published catalog, 2016
How would you normally describe the body of work that you produce? What kind of artist are you?
Pantea Karimi: I have had a long-term interest in juxtaposed textual and pictorial elements. I am intrigued by the ways in which image and text interact and convey meaning. Following this interest, my current body of work explores the history of archaic technologies and investigates how older scientific knowledge was communicated through both image and text. I examine medieval and early modern scientific manuscripts–Persian, Arab and European–and the longue durée (long term) exchange of knowledge across these cultures. This process not only provides me with a great means to explore what I love–the relationship between image and text–but also expands my appreciation of science and its role in the visualization of abstract concepts. The scientific manuscripts are dynamic and engaging. Most of them are filled with beautiful drawings and calligraphic texts. Others include interactive devices, such as volvelles (paper wheel charts) that accommodated calculation in many diverse subjects and used beautiful images, calligraphic texts and numbers.
I am a printmaker and painter and I also hold a professional degree with work experience in graphic design, all of which have influenced my fine art aesthetic and practice. For the past few years, I have been using mixed-media techniques in my works, mainly a mix of silkscreen and monotype printing with watercolor and graphite on various substrates. Additionally as a graphic designer, I have always been intrigued by the design and layout of books and print media; my graphic design capstone project in 1999 was an exploration into the design and layout of nineteenth-century Iranian newspapers.
How is Punctum Caecum different from your earlier projects?
PK: My series Punctum Caecum, which means “blind spot” in Latin, is the result of my exploration of ancient Arab, Persian and European scientific manuscripts. “Blind spot” stands for both the Dark Ages and for when we turn a blind eye to the fluidity of exchange of knowledge between these various scientists. The scientific books from the medieval Islamicate world and early modern times offer nuanced understandings of the relationship between form and text, and above all, between scientific concepts and their myriad manifestations in visual forms. Medieval and early modern scientific manuscripts were composed of hand-drawn images and diagrams, as well as textual and mathematical explanations. Each page of these manuscripts often separated images and texts through both structural compositions and random layouts as they appear to our eyes. To reiterate, sometimes commentators penned their thoughts as marginalia, thereby initiating a dialogue with the reader. All the above attributions make this project not only different from my previous ones but also very special and fascinating for me to work with. This new project and research have elevated my inner awareness about the ways in which we communicate as humans and the many forms that this communication takes.
What were some of the driving forces behind Punctum Caecum?
PK: I came across an article in The Guardian about a new book, Mathematics and Art: A Cultural History by historian Lynn Gamwell. In the article, I encountered a quotation by Gamwell that deeply resonated with me:
“To research Math and Art I had to learn maths concepts like calculus, group theory and predicate logic. As a novice struggling to understand these ideas, I was struck with the poor quality and confusing content of illustrations in most educational books. So I vowed to create for my book a set of cogent math diagrams that are crystal-clear visualizations of the abstract concepts. As a lecturer at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, I wrote this book for my students, such as Maria, who told me she was never good at history because she couldn’t remember dates, and for Jin Sug, who failed high school algebra because he couldn’t memorize formulae. I hope they will read this book and discover that history is a storybook and that math is about captivating idea.”
In Iran, high school students are required to choose a major and stay with it for the entire duration of their education. By the age of 15, I had invested most of my free time in fine arts studio practice and had received music lessons on a regular basis. Despite all this, my parents wanted me to enter my high school’s natural sciences department, which prepared students for medical school. My parents were great advocates of art; however as pragmatists in a society that mainly praises doctors and engineers, they encouraged me to become a pharmacist. But their wish never came true. As years went by, I faced many difficulties and ended up switching fields of study on entering college. This was mainly due to the fact that the scientific concepts were not explained extensively or in a hands-on way, and rote learning was the main focus at the time. My biology and chemistry textbooks included images (albeit in poor black-and-white quality), and in hindsight, I recognize how those difficult and abstract scientific subjects spoke to me more vividly through images and diagrams. This relationship between visual representations and abstract ideas has continued to captivate me and has become the basis for my current research and work. As an artist, I am naturally driven by my deep feelings and childhood experiences that have shaped my perceptions of the world. So, my unsuccessful encounters with scientific subjects have always endured, and I am still in search of a way to overcome this shortcoming. Consequently, Punctum Caecum is somehow a personal journey.
What do you want viewers to take away after seeing Punctum Caecum? How do you expect viewers to relate to medieval and early modern depictions of knowledge in a contemporary context?
PK: All the pieces in Punctum Caecum collectively highlight a long-term flow of scientific knowledge and exchange of ideas across cultures. This series aims to initiate a dialogue with the viewer, communicating how knowledge transcends social, political, and cultural boundaries. By highlighting the medieval and early modern manuscripts’ visuals and other contents, I also aim to draw attention to these rich forms and to invite the viewer to observe science and its history through the process of image-making.
 Lynn Gamwell “Why the history of maths is also the history of art” The Guardian, December 02, 2015. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/science/alexs-adventures-in-numberland/2015/dec/02/why-the-history-of-maths-is-also-the-history-of-art (accessed December 10, 2015).