Vibrating Palimpsests


A,D. 959. B,D. 960 C,D. 968…after Franz Schubert, 2007, digital c-type mounted on Aluminum, framed triptych in parts each part 242 x 191 x 9 cms, overall dimensions 210 x 90 in courtesy: Gallery Victoria Miro


His stratifications and contours seem to oscillate. Letters, numbers, characters are barely identifiable in the blur. The objectivity dissolves; and one perceives an odd transparency in the images of Idris Khan. This is true to some extent for his video works, but this is best observed on the still photographs of the British artist.

His procedural tracks are compacted and the silhouette overlays allow the art connoisseurs to recognize the important photographs from cultural history that the artist uses. In strictest terms his work falls under “Appropriation Art”. In this genre, the artist repeats the works of artists in order to reflect the relationship between the original and the originality.

Khan, as he has often noted, aims to bring appropriation art beyond mere copying of what is already usual in the history of art. In this respect he hints at something art critical and radical. The appropriation work of American artist Elaine Sturtevant who achieved recognition for her carefully inexact repetitions of other artists’ works that prefigured appropriation, was produced at the same time as the mass production of Andy Warhol. She has questioned the aura of the original work of Warhol’s silkscreen series by creating amazingly the same results in her pictures. Sturtevant’s conceptual strategy aimed, among other things against the myth of the genuine work of art, and even more against the current, more male-dominated art world.

The appropriation art that Idris Khan created is rather impressionistic. Born in 1978, the Briton says: “I appropriate what overwhelms me”. His works do not necessarily coincide with the artists whose work he appropriates. His image objects are usually icons from different cultural and historical epochs. He scans the reproductions and edits them in an often extremely complex manner and stacking them one above the other.

Khan calls the process “a continuous process of creating and erasing, or adding new layers whilst retaining traces of what has gone before.” (Victoria Miro profile). He reworks not only pieces from visual art, but also prominent music score sheets, printed pages of philosophical and psychological as well as religious texts. He works on them as subjects of imagery. He has often dealt with the systems of storage and cataloging of knowledge that they entail.

In a 2008 exhibition at Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Dusseldorf which he entitled “Every…”, Khan has worked on the ideas revolving around the all encompassing pronoun and the subsequent omission dots. Like many of the titles employed by Idris Khan, he retains references to the work used, and in turn a reference to the original.

Idris Khan (B. 1978) Caravaggio The Final Years, colour coupler print 101 3/8 x 68 1/8in. (257 x 173 cm.) 2006

From the late works of Italian Mannerist Caravaggio Idris Khan designed one of his large-scale work entitled “Caravaggio … The Final Years” (2006), as a cloud taking in the body and faces from the paintings and pictorial spaces of the Italian painter, often only dimly, but are clearly seen – as in sporadic faces – even in the details. Simultaneously the work takes on the theme of death and mortality – a major motif in the oeuvre of Khan.

The American artist Nicholas Nixon, recorded his wife once annually since 1975 with her three sisters in the same old constellation of photo series. Khan was fascinated by the scheme utilized in the Nixon Photographs which have logged the life of the women. Khan’s process seems like he is working with a picture puzzle of striking dark image layers, because you have to rely on the transparent image layers of “every … Nicholas Nixon`s Brown Sisters” (2005) to see the faces of the women.

In contrast, severe and light affects the variation of  JMW Turner’s light paintings in “every … William Turner Postcard from Tate Britain” (2004) because it was actually developed from a postcard. Idris Khan revealed in an interview in the exhibition catalog, that he stood in one of the endless queues for Turner exhibition and had lost his patience that’s why he came back to the studio with postcards from the museum shop instead.

When the young British artist appropriated subjects from the photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the same thing happens. Their obsession is manifested in verging systematic inventory of industrial buildings. The spherical silo in “Every … Bernd and Hilla Becher Spherical Type Gas Holder” (2004) illustrates the stratifications of scans that make up an abstract figuration that seems quaintly Khan.

He did three different works and time-based motifs from the spherical type gas holder work edited to illustrate the character of the archived oeuvres. The artist has similar motivation in editing “Blossfeldt … after Karl Blossfeldt Art Forms in Nature” (2005), which can also be seen in the Düsseldorf exhibition.

The English-born Muslim’s envisage of literature builds upon layers of pages laid on top of each other. The curved lines of the calligraphy stand out in all the printed pages of the Koran edition of his family and plays in “Every page of the Holy Quran” (2004). In presenting a double-page spread, Khan refers to the ritual of devout Muslims of weekly reading a double-page and reciting the lines in constant repetition.

The process of Sigmund Freud’s treatise on the uncanny entitled “Sigmund Freud`s The Uncanny” (2006) has achieved a somewhat mysterious tone, because Leonardo Da Vinci’s portraits appear in Freud’s treatise as an illustration. The portrait becomes a phantom or as the personification of subconsciousness lurking between the superimposed lines of texts.

Idris Khan, Every . . . Page of The Holy Quran, 2004, Lambda Digital C print mounted on aluminum, 53½ x 67 inches.

Even if seen without the context of literary adaptations, Khan’s image layering strategies flattens by force in the prolonged viewing; the blurring effect elaborately overlays the graphic structures.

The brand recognition experience is not naturally given to the same extent as in the visual arts. This is true from the photographs to music sheets. In layman’s view of comparing the layered scores of “Mozart … Requiem (Venice 2005) 2006, with ” Struggling to Hear … after Ludwig van Beethoven Sonatas “(2005), the perception remains that Beethoven scores are considerably darker and appear more compact and more stringent than the delicate rhythmic layering of Mozart compositions.

Every Stave of Frederick Chopin’s Nocturnes for the Piano, 2004, Lambda digital c-print mounted on aluminum, 35 x 110 inches.

In his video works, the viewers learn the act of playing the piano in close-ups of the pianist fingers on the keys while in another video he projects a close-up of cello playing. The sharpness of the images oscillates when it arrives in the transitions – similar to the photographs. The “Last Three Piano Sonatas … after Franz Schubert” (2007), which are presented as a three-channel projection, the viewer is accompanied by the music through out the whole exhibition. In one exhibition the projection of Franz Schubert video coincided with the projection of “A Memory … after Bach`s Cello Suites” (2006), and without the aid of headphones one would get confused about the source of the sounds. One may mistake the repetitive finger movements of the cellist by listening to Schubert’s piano music from the other end of the exhibition hall.


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