Idris Khan | Into a Silence that Begs for Language

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Idris Khan. “The Seasons Shift - The Picture (Detail)” (2022). Oil Based Ink On Gesso Ground, Aluminum Panel. Panel: 82 11/16” X 68 1⁄2” X 1 3/16”. Framed: 83 11/16” X 69 7/16” X 2”. 

This month, the city of Angels welcomes the formidable New York gallerist Sean Kelly to its growing clan of West Coast converts, and the contemporary art maven intends to hit the ground running, debuting a stunning new art space just a stone’s throw from Flaunt Towers. Designed by Toshiko Mori, Sean Kelly, Los Angeles, opens its doors with The Pattern of Landscape—a rich and contemplative new body of work by the brilliant British-Muslim artist, Idris Khan, which provides a whole new slant on his fascination with the shared mementos of cultural history. 

The hauntological investigations into collective memory that Khan has produced in various guises over the last 20 years have, of course, been widely acclaimed across the globe—not least his infamous art world entrée Holy Qur’an (2004), in which he presented every single page of the book layered upon each other until they became a beguiling ghostly abstraction. His work has been displayed using multiple disciplines since, in an illustrious career spanning photography, public sculpture, and installation—all of which invite you to deep dive into the beautiful and poetic mysteries of the human condition, such as fleeting remnants of memory and the incessant march of time. However, it is only in recent years that Khan has sought to incorporate more color in his explorations into the nature of being, introducing the color blue for the first time in a body of work created for his pre-pandemic exhibition, Blue Rhythms at Sean Kelly, New York. 

In The Pattern of Landscape, Khan makes a further departure from the past in the incorporation of his beloved musical notation and text onto a single plane—layering a square field of notations and scores from Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings upon a rectangular ground of text derived from both his own musings, and dense historical philosophical writings (alongside his first ever sculptures finished in bronze, which cite The Four Seasons and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Preludes as their inspirational jump-off point). Keen to be neighborly, we sat down with Khan so he could tell us about the conceptual foundation of the show, and we wound up taking a wonderfully tortuous journey though his own inner landscape—discussing time, being, and what it means to overwhelm the soul. 

Idris Khan. “The Pattern Of Landscape” (2022). Oil And Water Based Inks On Paper And Collage Mounted Onto Dibond, Set Of 22 Unique Works. Artwork: 27 9/16” X 22 13/16” X 1 3⁄8” Each. Framed: 31 5/16” X 26 9/16” X 2 3⁄4” Each.

You’ve explored the ghosts of collective memory in various ways over the last 20 years—what would you say you have learned via your investigations?

That’s a great question. I think that no one really knows where the work will go in that explorative process, especially in terms of shifting mediums—you know, going from photography into sculptures or going into painting. I probably didn’t know that I was going to do that, to be honest, because I don’t think I was necessarily a sort of natural artist. What’s the thread—I suppose that’s the question—what’s the thread that continues? Photography was the first tool that allowed me to explore certain impulses or visions, if you like, and I always liked to explore looking at the past rather than the present in photography; whereas, of course, photography is usually about the present, and photographing what is right in front of you at the present time. And that sort of gave me the confidence to explore this idea that these traces can be different types of marks, if you like? And I think that’s what I am still thinking about in these new paintings as well, but I haven’t come to any conclusions. If I did I would be worried about what I would do for the next 20 years!

Do these new works represent a kind of landscape of culture?

Exactly. And I’ve left a line at the bottom of the paintings because I think that, even though the aesthetic has changed, the core for me is still the same—but I was really trying to ask myself in this work how far I could push the abstraction, and, as you just said, sort of explore that idea of a sort of landscape of culture. I tend to use my studio in a way that is quite scientific in some ways, you know? I like pushing an idea until I get to that end point very, very methodically.  And this particular show is very much about thinking about frames within frames within frames, and pushing the composition to the next stage. It is sort of the next stage of work from a show I did with Victoria Miro, which was about placing blocks in the center of the space, with this kind of linear line around the room, to now creating these frames in very solid shapes.

And these contain your own words, along with texts by various philosophers—what is the significance of that?

I think in terms of the question of the journey then, you know, I was always using other people’s words—or photographing books that influenced culture, art, psychology, all of those things. Then I started exploring big subjects, and started using my own words, and then the work became almost hidden traces of thoughts. In this process of using my own text I’m kind of overlaying secrets, if you like, because that’s what they have to become—because in terms of the way that they’re presented, they’re overlaid, so you can’t read them anymore, so they are little secrets of life and diaries and theoretical text. I can get away with anything I want. They’ll never be read. They’ll never be given to people to read. So the viewer is always in this kind of silence, in which they have to bring their own baggage or language to the painting.

Idris Khan. “Alone - is not a tune” (2022). 4 Patinated Relief Bronze Plates Ar- Ranged On Plinth. Without Plinth: 27 9/16” X 29 1/16”. Current Plinth: 39 3⁄8” X 39 3⁄8” X 39 3⁄8” Inches.

And of course there is the musical notation. You have spoken before of music as universal language, can you just unpack that notion for me?

Well, not many people know how to read music. Some people obviously do and there are some amazing musicians in the world, but even people who don’t know how to read music, just see them as being musical, and in terms of a universal language that exists throughout the world. And people from any culture who can read music see these patterns and notations as sounds—that’s also why I call them landscapes, because you can look at them, and you can be absolutely anywhere you want to be within that rhythm, or within that mark-making or path-making. Musical notations are like these gorgeous little marks that can respond to any landscape of environment—cultural, physical, and theoretical. And in this work, I was thinking about how everything is always moving, you know? And whether we can ever get to stillness in life. And the only way we can get to stillness is at the end of our lives pretty much, right? I mean, it’s hard to talk about these big concepts, but I see this framed image as representing all of those many movements contained. But, of course it’s also dealing in fleeting memory, and words and books. I do often think about eradicating words and eradicating memories in my process, and going towards placing new memories in the paintings in order to somehow transport oneself to another memory—so hopefully then the viewer can also have that experience? 

And how important is the personal resonance of the notation, given that you have spoken before of your late mother’s piano playing having a seminal influence on you?

I lost my mother in 2009, after I had just met Annie and got married, so she never got to see her grandkids—all of those stages of life were taken away from her, and also from me in being able to share that with her. So, can I use musical notation to hold on to someone? Probably, yes. And I really love that—that one can, through personal experience, grab a hold of that story and then for there to be a sort of longevity to it. I think the most moving part of using music in the work is probably to hold onto something—especially using the physical paper with musical notation within the collages. I mean, I’m sure you have read stories about me growing up with my mother, and her suffering from diabetes and mental health issues. And the way I always saw her happiest was when she was sat at her piano, playing away, and all the notation that was under the seat and around the floor had this strange physicality in some way. I actually no longer think about the music that I’ve taken a notation from while I make the paintings—I tend to now feel that those notations or sounds, or rhythms, are then put onto the painting so that we, as viewers, can relate to them any way we want to.

What is your definition of beauty and how important is a sense of beauty in your work?

Well, I’ve always wanted to make something beautiful first, from the outset—even when I was pushing the overlay of photograph, for me it was important to have that aesthetic experience in order to capture attention. It’s always the first thing I want to do, I want to make a beautiful thing. I don’t want it to go to complete blackness or darkness, or anything like that. I want it to then be an aesthetic experience so it can capture people’s emotions, and draw them into the work. So in terms of beauty, for me, the work has to be beautiful. It can’t be an ugly thing, you know? It’s never been about that. It’s always about creating something aesthetically beautiful to capture you first, and then go into whatever message you want to place in there. 

Idris Khan. “The Orchard For Below” (2022). Oil Based Ink On Gesso Ground, Aluminum Panel. Panel: 82 11/16” X 68 1⁄2” X 1 3/16” . Framed: 83 11/16” X 69 7/16” X 2”.

This work has something akin to Rothko—is that a conscious aesthetic choice?

I do often think about Rothko, so, yeah, it has to be conscious, because you can’t try to ignore history. But using language is obviously my pull into the way in which this becomes different. And there’s a lot more color and variation of color within a Rothko painting, rather than just being the two sort of blues that I chose. But I’m definitely not trying to hide the fact that that is a reference, it would be stupid of me to say that—and I suppose that same spiritual impact is what I look for, especially with an exhibition space. I like to think you can overwhelm the soul in some way by coming into these meditative spaces, and I feel his paintings really have that power; that spiritual power, if you like. I always try to tend to get to that level—that sense of experiencing something that is bigger than life that you just feel like you have to fall into. So, yes, it’s conscious in that sense

Do you seek that same sense of overwhelming the soul in your public art?

I’m always thinking about how I can translate what I do in terms of volume, scale, shadow and light—and traces of memory and moving through space—into the grandeur of a massive sculpture in the public realm. It’s just totally engaging when someone who never even goes into a gallery suddenly experiences an object. And it’s such a different way of thinking, because, you know, as an artist in your studio, it’s your sort of safe place to go and create whatever you want. But when you put it out there in the public realm, you are dealing with much bigger questions, like safety and scale, and engineering. So that’s a whole different way of thinking. It makes it much bigger. And it definitely broadens your audience—especially people coming to the work that have nothing to do with art, who suddenly understand what it is intended to represent. 

Is your sense of purpose as an artist tied to pulling people into spiritual contemplation?

I think so. I mean, I think that it’s interesting that one has to have a sort of starting point, and I think my history of growing up as a Muslim and being married to a Jewish woman, as well, brings its own questions. In terms of my own practice, I can’t ignore how I was brought up. I often think back now, and, you know, when I was a kid my father really wanted me and my brother to be practicing Muslims. He was like, ‘This is what I’m giving to you. This is what you have to do—you have to follow me into this journey.’ And in that practice it’s almost like everything is about repetition—praying five times a day, reading the Quran one page a week, and that repetition was entrenched in my brain. I can’t ignore it was there. Then I reached this point of deciding to stop practicing, and there was a massive conflict. I suppose some of those things cannot be ignored in the way that I make my art. Is the act of repetition a sort of link for me to hold on to some sort of religion? Can I use art in the same sense of religion? No. But can I capture some sort of an essence of that practice through repetition within the work? Maybe.