Idris Khan, Victoria Miro, London
Mystery appeal in dark material
Monday 12 April 2010
Serious photographers such as Idris Khan have to fight against the fact that photography has become the easy medium of choice for reportage with social networkers the world over.
In the minds of many, it's associated with quickness, frivolity. Facility means facile. Khan, who was chosen by The Independent in 2006 as one of its rising stars of the year, occupies an entirely different world of thinking and feeling.
The two large gallery spaces, upstairs and down, are low lit, almost murky. Each photograph claims individual attention. Each work, individually lit, seems to draw a kind of slow, meditative space around itself. Khan, pursuing a line that he began to explore in his first solo show of 2006, is interested in what a photographer can make of text (including sacred text) and musical notation. How texts can be layered to create dense palimpsests of meaning and thwarted meaning. How texts and musical notation, blurrily over-layered, can take on the quality of abstract painting. The large-format photographs, inkjet prints on aluminium, look at first glance as if they belong to a minimalist tradition of spare and austere grid-patterning. The vertical grid. The horizontal grid. Various names spring to mind: Agnes Martin, Carl Andre. In The World of Perception, an English text is perfectly overlayered with another, and perhaps even another. We try to read, to see farther, deeper, but that very possibility is snatched away from us by all this dense overlayering. The further we manage to see into the text, the less easy it is to read the text for its meaning. In various places, entire lines are darker, denser, than others, as if this mass of confused voices has suddenly become much louder and more insistent. The fact that, in part, we want to read, and that we cannot read, this thwarting of a basic human desire, makes the work seem like the metaphor for speechless yearning. So many voices! So little communication! And yet the very fact that the work is organised in a grid formation, almost chilly in its formal rigour, makes it seem as if the piece has set its face against the idea of the expression of emotion, as if, like Donald Judd, it is all about the creation of units, stacked one upon another.
Upstairs, the minimalist influences meld with ideas of the sacred. At the far end of the room, 144 cubes of polished, sand-blasted blue steel sit on the floor, all perfectly equidistant from each other. Once again, they bring to mind Carl Andre and his habit of organising blocks of wood and steel tiles into regular patterns – rectangular, on the curve – the simplest of structures possible, in order to draw attention to the materials with which he is working, to the fact that, for him, sculpture is not so much about doing things to materials as arranging them in order to let matter speak for itself. There is much more to Khan's cubes though. There is the significance of Arabic text. Each one is inscribed with the text of an Islamic prayer. Here is where Khan parts company with Andre. In fact, the appearance of these cubes of steel, arranged with such perfect regularity across the floor, remind us of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin – how a low block (the Holocaust's blocks rise and fall), one of many, drawn up beside others in serried ranks, can come to stand for anonymous humanity, ever repeatable. The prayer seems to rise up from that block of steel, to claim uniqueness for a single imploring voice. A small thread of human utterance amid the silent, solemn modernity of sandblasted steel.
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