Thursday, 19 April 2012

Idris Khan, 'The Devil's Wall' - a review

Idris Khan: The Devil’s Wall at The Whitworth Art Gallery 23 rd Feb - 3 rd May 2012: Review

Idris Khan, The Devil's Wall, 2011. Courtesy of Victoria Miro Gallery, London and Yvon Lambert Gallery, New York.

Idris Khan’s installation The Devil’s Wall consists of three monumental sculptures, teamed with seven drawings chosen from a series of twenty one, called 21 stones, and four photographic works entitled Voices. Khan draws inspiration from the Hajj; the pilgrimage to Mecca, and presents both religious and secular imagery, utilising the written word in Arabic and English, as well as musical scores.
Khan’s use of text in order to draw shapes in the 7 of 21 drawings is somewhat reminiscent of traditional Islamic sacred art, whereby letters and words are used to create elaborate patterns. However, with these drawings Khan has not created elaborate, overtly beautiful patterns. Instead there are largely circular, uneven formations composed of overlapping phrases. These shapes which are simultaneously violent and joyous correlate with those parts of the text which are discernible; a combination of sacred chants and deeply personal disclosures. In this way parallels can be drawn with concrete poetry, and as such the 7 of 21 drawings reference both traditional Islamic Art, and much more recent movements in the history of art. The way in which Khan emphasizes similarities between techniques employed in traditional, sacred art forms and contemporary art is also evident, and much more pronounced in Voices, which are based on 20th century minimalist compositions.
The Voices series is visually very different from the other pieces; they are rectangular, lined and effervescent, where the 7 of 21 drawings are round, with inky black and blue. Moreover, the roundness which Khan has produced in the 7 of 21 Drawings is clearly echoed in the three weighty sculptures which mirror their shape and colours, but with a smooth and glistening perfection. The immediacy of the drawings is not present in the sculptures, although they too have overlapping phrases recorded upon their surface. On the sculptures words are inscribed, showing as silver upon a glassy, seemingly infinite surface, and instead of becoming incomprehensible in a mess of ink at the centre they flow together and disappear into the dark.
Significantly, the title of this installation The Devil's Wall, refers to one particular ritual within the Hajj; the stoning of the Jamarat, during which, pilgrims throw seven stones at three walls in three different locations. Thus, it becomes clear why there are three sculptures and seven drawings, the concave shape of the sculptures represents the bowls which are used to collect the stones after they have been thrown, and following this logic perhaps the drawings are an illustration of their impact. Stones are thrown in order to rid the body and mind of destructive thoughts and pain, and the combination of religious and personal statements which are just about discernible in the 7 drawings could be the residue of a meditative purge.
An astonishing amount of people take part in the Hajj each year, experiencing their pilgrimage together, and the concept of shared experience is thoroughly explored in The Devil's Wall, with a definite sense of multifarious and overlapping voices, elegantly expressed with tangled lines of text. Furthermore, Khan's use of three languages is compelling , in that it seems at first to make language a dividing tool. The experience of a viewer who understands Arabic, English and can read music could be very different from somebody who is fluent in only one of them. Yet, everybody is equally unable to read as the words and notes overlap and merge together in each piece, which in turn evokes a nonlingual, more primal kind of experience.
The distinct feelings which becoming part of a crowd engender, whether in religious or other circumstances, are explored and represented by Khan throughout; particularly in Voices where meditative chanting and repetitive sounds are depicted with transcribed music. Here Khan employs one of his signature techniques, overlaying delicate photographic prints to create a visually confusing, ghostly image which seems to long for movement whilst remaining still. In Voices Khan uses the scores of compositions by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, pieces which famously use repetitive structures and overlapping rhythms. By including Voices within The Devil's Wall Khan contrives a direct association between the communal actions of thousands of pilgrims simultaneously taking part in the rituals of the Hajj, and the meditative, stupefying potential of experiencing a performance of these minimalist scores.
The use of lighting in this exhibition is also significant to the viewer's experience, and is particularly striking is terms of Voices, whereby direct lighting makes the pieces appear as golden windows shining into the dim room, bringing to mind sacred buildings and again exemplifying Khans mingling of religious and secular imagery. At the Whitworth Art Gallery low lighting is often employed to protect the delicate fabrics and papers of their collection. However in The Devil’s Wall notable atmospheric lighting is used in the display of contemporary pieces, which lends them the type of reverence usually only afforded to historical works. In the shapes and effects which Khan has employed we can discern bowls, walls and temples, but also black holes, explosions and a perhaps most of all a sense of immensity. Khan's treatment of profoundly sacred subject matter successfully humanises and demystifies religious ritual, whilst simultaneously preserving a sense of awe in linking such ritual with contemporary and secular forms of contemplation.