It’s easy to imagine Idris Khan making his art. Turning page after page, putting each onto his scanner. As he flips a page maybe a paragraph or a quote sticks out, to be filed silently away in his mind as he works. Then he continues: he’s scouring for mistakes, irregularities, misprints, slight marks of individuality among the regimented lines of the printing press.
It’s also easy to spot one of Khan’s works. The British artist has developed a unique style of melding together the pages of great works of philosophy, mystic texts, psychoanalytical criticism and musical scores into one vibrating mass of deep black. He scans each page of a book, then he retouches, selects the opacity, before scanning the next page and laying that over the top – forming a steadily more incomprehensible mass of words, marks and lines.
Khan refers to the process as being a palimpsest: the habit of ancient Greeks and Romans to reuse manuscripts by scraping off the texts and writing again over the top, leaving a textual residue embossed in the background of the page. ‘When you layer things, you’re deleting something all the time,’ says Khan. ‘But you’re also adding something new. I try and keep an element from every page that I scan, whether it’s a mark or a detail or a misprint just outside of the square of text. Every choice is different for each page, and I think that’s the art of what I do.’
Khan was raised a Muslim, but stopped practising at the age of 14, ‘much to the disgust of my father’, he says. But his previous work with the Qu’ran, using the same scanning and layering process, came at his father’s suggestion. ‘I suppose I took a leap of faith and went into art around the time I stopped practising, at 15 or 16. I have a spiritual relationship to Islam but not an educational relationship. For these works, I thought about how people drive themselves into this other kind of place through religion.’
Khan’s latest show opens at Elementa this week. This time he’s used a work of criticism by Lacan, books of seminal Sufi poetry by Rumi, the scores of Toscanini’s final composition and ‘Quatuor pour la fin du temps’ by Messiaen for his layering pieces, as well as creating a video piece with contemporary dancer Sarah Warsop. The Sufi texts blaze on the print: the Farsi script bunches into a jittering yet sweeping charcoal-like burst, evocative of a sound wave. This time, rather than just scan each page, Khan then flipped the book over and scanned the page in reverse on top of the original, correct image. It confuses the images further, and coherence is lost as right and left scrolling words mingle and conjoin.
He tells us that the flipping motion he used in the process encapsulates some of that movement that can be seen in the dervish and Sufi dances. ‘It’s that beautiful rhythm of spinning that they have in Sufism that drew me to these texts,’ he says, and there’s something of the trancelike absoluteness of this Islamic form of mysticism about these works. They are incomprehensible and yet without title or indication of their relevance, the texts carry an inexplicable weight of reflection within them. Though blasted into a strobe-like effect of distortion and indecipherability, Rumi’s texts still appear, somehow, inscribed with holiness.
‘When you’re reading a book, there’s a certain amount of time that it takes you to read a page, then you flip and turn. But I wanted to condense that time, collapse that rhythm.’ Though Khan is interested in how we can witness an entire book in an instant, the real art to these works is the process that sits within each like a residue. He tells us that the title of the show Be Lost In The Call, is also the title of one of Rumi’s works that caught his eye as he worked. There’s a line in the poem that seems to toll through Khan’s pieces: ‘Until the juice ferments a while in the cask, it isn’t wine. If you wish your heart to be bright, you must do a little work.’
Perhaps with these pieces, Khan is pointing to the reflective space that being ‘lost’ in something offers. He talks about the practice of Islamic scholars who will pour
over one page of the Holy Qu’ran, over and over again, reading the same line from right to left for weeks. He calls it a rhythm, and perhaps his process, meticulously turning pages, flipping books and hunting for tiny irregularities in each page, mirrors not only the rhythm of reading a book, but a scholarly or religious rhythm of dedication. A creative space, isolated and reflective. And it’s this that forms the palimpsest, a residue of time that has embossed itself into each and every image.
Perhaps this is the ‘other kind of place’ that he says people drive themselves into through religion. It’s to be found in the trances of the Sufis, the primal introspection of psychoanalysis and the dramatic realms that a composer, who sets himself the task of writing his final work, must drift, like a rhythm, into.
Elementa (04 299 0064), Airport Free Zone. March 15-April 25