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Idris Khan on Exploring the Creative Process Through Imagery

By Conor Risch


Buckingham Palace by Idris Khan
© Idris Khan
"Buckingham Palace, London, 2012," which Idris Khan created on commission for The New York Times Magazine using portions of rephotographed postcards and vintage images. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

One of the more significant effects of our digitally plugged-in culture is an ability to gather data about the impact of just about everything from political ideas to brand messages. Through data, some suggest, people can more efficiently understand, predict, plan for, and even manipulate the outcomes of any number of social, political, scientific and commercial phenomena.  

Idris Khan’s artwork seems right at home in this milieu. Though his photographic and video compositions are less scientific and far more esthetically pleasing than data sets and infographics, they enable a previously unavailable understanding of the temporality and cultural impact of creative practices, from painting to writing to dance to music and photography.

Whereas critics and historians may make subjective arguments about the significance and influence of artistic work, Khan’s images get at something more concrete and measurable. By digitally layering Bernd and Hilla Becher typologies, or pages of Sergei Rachmaninoff piano compositions, or paintings by Caravaggio, Khan has created appropriative artworks that vibrate with the creative energy that begat them.

His latest work, which he recently exhibited at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, visualizes the act of writing and erasing texts on a chalkboard. To create the images, Khan repeatedly wrote appropriated texts that held significant personal meaning for him “until it became so abstract that what became interesting were the marks that were unreadable,” Khan told PDN via e-mail. He used a Canon EOS 5D Mark III to photograph the chalkboard at different stages, including after he erased the texts. Working with as many as 2,000 images, Khan then built the final compositions in Photoshop.

“I usually have an idea of what size I want the work to be and then create the work with all the layers, like a painter would start with a blank canvas,” Khan says. “Chance plays a big [role] in the writing, and then from there I choose what I want in the final composition.”

Among the things Khan wrote on his chalkboard was the title of a John Cage score, a passage of writing by painter Agnes Martin, and a poem Cy Twombly used in one of his “blackboard” paintings, which Khan took as inspiration and a jumping off point for the project.

While appropriation has played a significant role in his past work, Khan’s authorship plays a more important role in these “chalkboard” images. Whereas his previous work focused attention on the significance of the work of others, “A lot of what I have been doing recently is more about my creation,” Khan says.

Khan has spoken about the “performance” inherent in this work, and in his compositions we recognize both the artist’s hand and the passage of time. “The whole process of writing and erasing can be quite theatrical,” Khan says, “and the result after one photographs each layer becomes almost like a stop [motion] animation. What I like about the final image is that there is a real feeling of the transcendence of time and duration. A mark caught in the moment of erasure.”

For another recent series of images, which Khan created for The New York Times Magazine, he collected hundreds of postcards of the most celebrated tourist sites in London, where he is based, as well as vintage images he found online. He then photographed “different fragments” of his source images of the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament and the Tower Bridge, and layered them together. “It created an image of stretched time, capturing the essence of the building in a poetic and rhythmical way,” he explains.

Related Article:

Idris Khan Photo Gallery 

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