THE SEASONS TURN. Idris Khan OBE is a British artist whose works in sculpture, painting and photography, rely on a continuous process of creation and erasure. Idris adds new layers while retaining traces of what has gone before to arrive at the essence of an image. His latest exhibition titled The Seasons Turn is at the Victoria Miro gallery in London and available virtually.
You can listen to this interview here.
Idris Khan, why did you become keen on photography in childhood?
I grew up in a medical household. My father was a surgeon, my mother a nurse. There was no art on the walls of the house. The camera my father gave me was my first creative tool. From the age of about 18 I thought, OK, I can express myself with this tool.
Did your parents encourage your passion for art or did it worry them?
In Muslim or Asian families you are either going to go into medicine, be a lawyer or continue a family business. When I said, “I’m going to be an artist,” there was a little bit of a step back.
How did you start in your environment?
My father had a little surgery at the back of the house and always had physical X-rays around that you could hold up to a light box. I was fascinated by the sense of transparency, of looking through a window into the world. My very early photographs are about layering transparent images on top of each other.
Your father was from Pakistan and your mother was from Wales and converted to Islam. Raised as a Muslim, you made the Koran into a work of art. Did religious faith inspire you, or was it just an idea?
My father wanted us to become Muslims; we were in the mosque every Friday, we were taught how to pray, and we were taught how to read the Koran every week with a tutor. At a certain age my brothers and I stopped doing it, but I still have a view over the Islamic world and can tap into it. That piece about the Koran, one of my first works outside my Master’s at the Royal College of Art, was at a very important point in Islam, because just a few years earlier we had the catastrophe of September 11 2001. All eyes were on the Islamic world’s difficult moment, and I wanted to show this image of what is a complicated book for many. I wanted to show its beauty and its power. I photographed every single page of the Koran and layered it up on top of each other, so you were standing in front of every single page, in front of its engulfing power, almost falling into its void. The question I was asking was, “Where you are within this world?”
Where did you show this work and where is it now?
I first showed it in London and now it’s in various collections in the world. Before I showed it I wanted to see how the Islamic world would feel about me making an image like this, so I went to Karachi, where my family’s from, and showed it to a lot of people and asked them: “What do you think of this?” I was young and needed to get some sort of credit for this work, there’s nothing sacrilegious about it. The book exists and I’m using every single word in the book and creating this long lasting image, almost looking like the book’s unfolding in front of your eyes in an instant.
I believe you made several copies, so is it in also in museums or only in private hands?
There is one in a museum in Argentina, weirdly. They’re very much spread around the world.
“The desert landscape has so many possibilities and almost needs to be filled with public art.”
Idris Khan: Wahat al Karama, 2016.
Idris Khan, as well as your photography and painting how come in 2016 you made a truly enormous piece of sculpture in Abu Dhabi called Wahat Al Karama (Oasis of Dignity)?
There was a competition that I won and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi invited me to make this memorial for the soldiers of the country. I wanted to create a sculpture about loss because a lot of my work is about loss, about ghostly traces. It’s twenty six metres high at the front and goes down to about four metres at the back, and it’s thirty two tablets leaning up against each other. It’s steel, its aluminium, it’s very strong looking, and you get these amazing shadows in Abu Dhabi. It almost feels like a sundial. As the sun goes around the sculpture, the shadows change and move and there’s massive scale. I wanted to get this sense that the sculpture dwarfed you, so when you stood inside it the shadows made you feel lost. We made it in seven months with many people and three foundries around the world, one in Australia, one in China and one in Abu Dhabi. Urban Art Projects were curators, and the architects are called bureau^proberts in Australia. It was a massive effort, and what’s left there is a huge sculpture.
Why in 2019 did you do paintings, photographs and sculpture works titled Blue Rhythms, shown in Sean Kelly gallery in New York?
I wanted to go out of the black and white world that I was in and investigate a new process. I mixed Ultramarine blue with Prussian blue, 50 percent of each, and created this beautiful blue that feels like it’s not night or day.
Is this going to be the famous Idris Khan blue like the famous Yves Klein blue?
(Laughs) I’ll leave that to somebody else to say, but it’s something that I’ve used for four or five years and a lot of paintings. I wanted to engulf the viewer, so when you’re standing in front of this colour it fills you with the emotions that you bring to it. Blue has that immediate effect on peoples’ emotions. If you are happy that day, you are happy looking at the painting. If you’re not, you may get a little depressed.
After months of coronavirus lockdown you just opened The Seasons Turn show at Victoria Miro. You use colours to portray the different seasons and add the music of the Four Seasons by Vivaldi, the famous Venetian composer. Why did you have this idea and how is music involved?
It’s nice to go back to my life before art. My mother was a very good pianist. She loved playing the piano, and I was always surrounded by sheet music on the floor in her music room, and it’s a lovely memory to have. She died very young, at 59. Music’s always been a thread in my work. I used Beethoven and Mozart before, overlaying every page in a score until you couldn’t read the notes anymore. At the start of the pandemic I left London and went to live in the countryside in Sussex. I never lived anywhere like that before. I never witnessed the seasons changing so vividly around me. I went on long runs and walks and was surrounded by colour. I wanted to reflect the beauty that I was seeing. I wanted to show these colours.
“Blue has that immediate effect on peoples’ emotions.”
Idris Khan, many people suddenly discovered nature, birds and animals. Did you feel that while we humans were in a very bad condition nature was flourishing around us?
That is exactly what I wanted to show. I wasn’t trying to get that exact colour of that daffodil or whatever it was, it was about the memory of those colours, a reflection. We all had time to slow down from our busy lives, and suddenly you were stuck somewhere and have to go for your hour walk every day. That hour walk became the most important part of your day, looking at things that you would never really look at before. These paintings are very detailed and you see little nuances and little anxieties, because when making them I felt the world was changing outside all the time.
The pandemic is not yet over, but there is hope of a solution. Are you planning a resurrection show?
This new path of colour is a really lovely way to go. I’m having a 20-year survey show in Milwaukee Art Museum in two years. That’s a very big focus for the studio now, but I’m also showing at Château La Coste in July next year.
What are you showing?
Richard Rogers‘s new pavilion at Château La Coste cantilevers over this incredible valley. It’s a beautiful space, and an unbelievably simple, minimal building. It’s hard to explain because I haven’t done it yet, buy I’ve got this idea that you enter the building and walk through time to the end of this space where you have this sheet of glass and you’re looking over this valley of nature.
You are married to Annie Morris, who is another well-known British artist. How is it for two artists to be together?
I met Annie in 2007 and we’ve been together 24 hours a day since then. We are intertwined in every single way. We share studios. She’s next door now. Every part of our life is shared. It’s an amazing thing to be able to do that. Annie is from a Jewish family, and Muslims and Jews coming together is an extraordinary thing in itself. At our wedding in the South of France we had to celebrate both faiths. My father was the mullah and Annie’s godfather, an amazing playwright called Israel Horovitz, married us under both laws, explaining to everyone the different faiths coming together. Children take on the mother’s religion usually, and at home we do some Jewish holidays. At school, our kids like to talk about their family’s religion and feel somehow they are Jewish. Annie’s sculptures are about colour: three and a half metres tall, sometimes six metres tall, with these huge colour spheres. It was inevitable that I was going to make colour works because I’m surrounded by this stuff every day!
Were you surprised when in 2017 you were awarded the OBE, Order of the British Empire, rewarding your contribution to the arts?
When I saw the letter from the Prime Minister I thought I had something wrong with my tax return. Some people don’t like that association, but for me, coming from a small suburban town just outside Birmingham, with a father who had come over from Karachi in the ‘60s and who married a white Welsh woman and raised four kids, it doesn’t happen. It just doesn’t happen to someone like me. It was an incredibly proud moment, and to be able to show other kids from those backgrounds that you can become an artist, work hard and be honoured in this way was a really lovely thing.
Idris Khan: 65,000 Photographs, 2019. Stephen White.
Idris Khan: A Fundamental Pause, 2019. Stephen White
Idris Khan: The Seasons Turn, Installation Image, 2021. Victoria Miro Gallery
Idris Khan: The Seasons Turn Installation Image, 2021. Victoria Miro Gallery
Idris Khan: Wahat al Karama, 2016.
Idris Khan: The Seasons Turn, Installatio Image, 2021. Victoria Miro Gallery
“The pandemic era will be a moment where you look at what artists created in that time.”
Idris Khan, what do you feel is your role as an artist in the confused society of today, especially you and your wife being a bridge of peace in this very awkward and unpeaceful world?
It’s a big responsibility to be able to show this unity in a very positive way. In April next year we’re having a show together in Tel Aviv. The working title is Unity; two artists’ lives intertwined, born into different faiths and on show. But what do we show? Do we show this explosion of colour? Do I mix Hebrew and Arabic words together in my painting? There are lots of questions to be asked, and hopefully we can show the public that this kind of unity can work within two artists’ minds.
It’s very symbolic, as it is also to prepare an exhibition in Château La Coste in a new building of a famous architect inside a park where there are many other buildings made by many other famous architects. It shows that art and architecture can live together. Do you also see this as an example of unity instead of conflict?
Château La Coste has this breathtaking vision to bring these two creative possibilities together. Amazing public sculpture that’s on show mixed with going into these unbelievable pavilions and buildings from famous architects. It’s a very inspiring place to be. Annie is going to be showing a big new six metre bronze in the grounds, hopefully opposite to Louise Bourgeois’s Spider, and of course I will be in Richard Rogers’s building at the same time.
The very large symbolic sculpture that you made in Abu Dhabi was a major engineering feat. Would you like to repeat the scale of this experience, which is so very different from watercolours and collage?
When I went into this other realm of public art and architecture and engineering, it was an amazing collaboration that filled my mind with all sorts of possibilities. It is something that I wish to do again.
Are there other proposals?
There are some cooking at the moment, again in that region. The desert landscape has so many possibilities and almost needs to be filled with public art. Hopefully something will come in the next few years.
After this moment of tragedy and reflection are we going to end up with a new named movement in art?
The pandemic era will be a moment where you look at what artists created in that time. You will be remembered by what you produced in the last year, and going forward now, and then that will mark a period of time.
Do you have many friendships or connections with other artists?
Absolutely. In London we have got so many friends that are artists, and especially within the gallery. There’s an unbelievable connection, but we are all making very different works. Colour is huge in the last year for a lot of artists, switching to something brighter in their work. Colour is coming back, not just to art but coming back to us all, out of this darkness.
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