Human traces: Idris Khan explores the horrors of war in haunting new show
For over a decade British artist Idris Khan has been seriously playing with the idea and form of the palimpsest - multiple-layers of words and images, a compressed stretch of time where the past leaves visible traces. In previous works he has made composite photographs of every stave of Chopin’s Nocturnes, every page of the Quran, every Bernd and Hilla Becher photograph of gas holders and every one-a-year-for-forty-years image of the Brown sisters by Nicholas Nixon, amongst many other things.
In each case, Khan’s subject gains a new rattle and hum, becoming less distinct, sometimes dissolving and other times becoming more substantial. Always though, Khan’s images have an odd beauty - he is not afraid of that - and the Polaroid melancholy of the past in the present
In his new show, however - ’Conflicting Lines’ at Victoria Miro Mayfair in London - Khan’s traces are his own. He has scrawled phrases in oil stick, roughly wiped them away, then scrawled again and again till his blank square is blackened over. He has done the same thing in reverse with chalk on blackboard. The phrases are not random but, as the exhibition title suggests, a response to the waves of images of bloody conflict that now wash over us; each one super-imposing itself on the last, creating its own fuzzy fog of war.
Khan has photographed these scrawls somewhere between 500 and 2,000 times, pushing in, pulling out and changing angles. He has then painstakingly put all these shots together, picking up particular curves and edges of text.
Khan talks about Roland Barthes’ idea of ’punctum’, the particular detail in a photograph that ’pierces its viewer’ with its emotional charge, This is what Khan is aiming for. The final, large prints are mesmerizing, as though Khan were coming at Agnes Martin Minimalism from new angles.
Khan has always pushed photography towards the painterly, his repeated marks acting like brush strokes. In a series of five platinum prints - the result of printing process that produces a richer tonal range than normal printing with a matte finish - his abstracted scrawls become almost monochrome water colours. And if Khan’s process is more hidden in these images, the effect is more complex and haunting.