Idris Khan – Untitled (2011)


Although Idris Khan (Birmingham, 1978, lives and works in London) is often described as a photographer, his works are not easy to categorise as photographs. He layers existing photographs on top of one another, apparently endlessly, to create blurred images that most closely resemble charcoal drawings. He based his series every… Bernd & Hilla Becher (2004) on the classic images of these German photographers. In every… Bernd & Hilla Becher Type Gasholder, he layered literally every picture in this series by the two photographers, presenting them as one single image. While the Bechers attempted to document Germany’s industrial architecture and rescue it from oblivion, Khan creates a sfumato-like haze that is in fact difficult to read and has an aura of melancholy. The final result is both homage and act of vandalism.


Khan draws on a wide range of influences: from musical scores by Ludwig van Beethoven and paintings by Caravaggio to photographers like Eadweard Muybridge and their critics, such as Susan Sontag. It is the work of these icons that he takes as his starting point, processing it in his typical style. In the final result, the reference is transformed into a creation. The new image almost seems to vibrate under the weight of his adaptation.


As Khan’s photos are never just photos, but have the atmosphere of a charcoal drawing or pastel, the step to other media seems easy for him. Khan has ventured into film and, more recently, in 2009, into three-dimensional works at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London. In these sculptural installations, Khan continues to play with iconographic references, as in his Seven Times. This monumental installation consists of 144 steel cubes, each of which has been sandblasted with excerpts from the Arabic prayers that are recited five times a day. Every excerpt is sandblasted into the material five times, an approach and result that is reminiscent of Khan’s photo series. The composition of Seven Times is derived from the Kaaba, the classic stone structure in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which is the centre of Islamic worship. Pilgrims to Mecca are required to walk around the Kaaba seven times. While literally engraving these prayers into stone appears to emphasise the spiritual aspect of the work, the form of Seven Times is a reference to 144 Graphite Silence (2005) by minimalist artist Carl Andre.

This minimalist association can also be seen in the work that Khan created for Lustwarande ‘11. A concrete wall forms a barrier along one of the paths in the park. The work refers to the Israeli West Bank barrier, a construction of over 600 kilometres in length, built since 2003 by the State of Israel, partly along the Green Line. One side of the wall is sandblasted with the score of The Cave (1993) by the minimalist composer Steve Reich (1936), which connects the roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. On the other side of the wall, part of the libretto is sandblasted in English and Arabic, in which Reich asks both Jews and Muslims about the significance of Abraham for them. This reference to the equality of the major religions, to the universal equality of human beings, makes the concrete wall, which at first seems so closed and forbidding, dissolve into the harmony of De Oude Warande, itself symbolising the notion of freedom. Two forms of human expression literally blend and merge into each other.

Laurie Cluitmans / translation Laura Watkinson


Co-production of fundament foundation, Victoria Miro Gallery, London, Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Yvon Lambert, Paris.