Today, we hold more photographs in the palms of our hand than ever before, yet we physically touch next to none. In this Insta-age of post-physical-photos, London-based artist Idris Khan asks us to consider the spatial volume these many thousands of images would fill, stacked one on top of the other, should they be printed. Shaped like a tapering exclamation mark, his public sculpture65,0000 Photographs – officially announced its presence in One Blackfriars square this morning, 5 November.

Commissioned by St George City Ltd with London Borough of Southwark, as part of its One Blackfriars residential development transforming the South Bank, the artist had full creative flexibility. ‘They initially had a much smaller sculpture in mind, but they allowed me to build much higher,’ he says of the soaring 8m sculpture, which escalate skywards, its constituent blocks growing in size in relation to dimensions of standard photographic prints: 5x7, 10x7, 12x16 inches and so on.

65,000 Photographs, 2019, by Idris Khan, installation view at One Blackfriars. Photography: tephen White. Commissioned by London Borough of Southwark as part of the One Blackfriars Public Art Programme on behalf of St George City Limited

We’re speaking at the artist’s enviable north London studio, which he shares with wife and fellow artist Annie Morris. Together, to understand the inspirations behind the work, we flick through albums of family photographs nestling for space on the computer screen. It’s easy to see how the artist has amassed a personal collection of 65,000. Indeed, the whole studio is bursting with life, family and colour – traces of the bright blue from Khan’s famous abstract paintings (the latest iterations of which are currently on view at Victoria Miro Venice) leave blue fingerprint smudges on the coffee mugs. I come away with a stained blue palm, branding everything I touch across the city an Idris blue.

Fabulous as his space is, it’s no place to have created the monumental aluminium structure (which wouldn’t fit through the doors of Khan’s workspace). Instead, Khan joined forces with fabricators and international design studio UAP, whom he previously partnered with on his vast Wahat Al Karama centrepiece to the UAE Memorial Park in 2016. Somewhat fittingly, the work for 65,000 Photographs was largely managed photographically, with virtual images bouncing back and forth between Khan and UAP’s foundry, which the artist visited just once.

Top, the sand casting process at the UAP foundry. Photography: Cian Sanders. Below, 65,000 Photographs at One Blackfriars. Photography: Stephen White

As such, Khan does not see 65,000 Photographs as a negative comment on today’s progressions in digital photography, and the artist acknowledges the value that a platform like Instagram holds as a communication tool. ‘I choose not to have an Instagram presence myself,’ he explains, ‘but I have created an account for the artwork, in the hopes that the public will enjoy interacting with it. I think they’d be more interested in seeing this, than seeing pictures of me!’

Rather than scrolling through a million images at a dizzying rate, the sculpture itself asks us to pause for a moment in quiet contemplation. Its textured surface, which appears almost frayed, echoes the delicate edges of each photographic print. Together, these lines create a dynamic rhythm that relates to much the artist’s other works, in which lines – sometimes of text – are overlaid hypnotically.

The sculpture distills Khan’s photographed life into a physical column. Despite its long-distance production method, and initially austere physicality, this is an immensely personal project for Khan. ‘I feel like a Londoner,’ says the Birmingham-born artist, who moved to the capital in 2002 to nurture his career and family. ‘This is my way of giving something back to the city that has given so much to me.’ §