Drawing inspiration from the history of art and music as well as key philosophical and theological texts, Idris Khan investigates memory, creativity and the layering of experience. Khan's works – in media including sculpture, painting and photography – rely on a continuous process of creation and erasure, or the adding of new layers while retaining traces of what has gone before. He is well known for his large-scale works in which techniques of layering are used to arrive at what might be considered the essence of an image, and to create something entirely new through repetition and superimposition.
Khan first gained attention for work in which he used digital technology to overlay and combine series of visual or textual work: every Bernd and Hilla Becher photograph of a gable-sided house, every page of the Quran, every late Constable painting, every stave of Chopin's Nocturnes. While photographic in nature, the resulting images possess characteristics more akin to drawing or painting and are presented as a kind of palimpsest, animated by the accumulative intervention of the artist's hand.
Repetition and action have always been central to Khan's practice along with a restricted set of processes. However, while his earlier works drew on pre-existing cultural artefacts and were about creating a totality from discrete parts, his more recent series introduce another layer of mediation and are resolutely hand-made. To create the works included in his 2013 exhibition Beyond the Black, printed texts were stamped in densely overlaid geometric shapes on the surface of paintings, works on paper, sculptures and wall drawings. Often taking many weeks to create, the results consist of many thousands of individual strands of text drawn from the artist's own writings in response to classic art historical, philosophical and religious tracts. These texts have profound resonance for the artist and describe his approach to creating work. However, for the viewer their full meaning is elusive. Khan appears to suggest that our linear experience of time and place has a more shadowy relationship with memory and the subconscious, and that they cannot be so easily grasped.
For Conflicting Lines, his 2015 exhibition at Victoria Miro Mayfair, Khan produced large-scale composite photographs made from a series of oil stick paintings which have undergone an intensive process of overlaying lines of writing repeatedly painted on to a minimal ground, until the language became obscured. Documenting the journey of the paintings, in these works Khan collects details of the line from every angle, and in doing so has the ability to constantly change its nature. The words are a response to the barrage of media images of conflict that are 'un-escapable' in today's world. By using Roland Barthes' theory of the 'punctum', Khan writes about a certain personal touching detail of an object or person that jumps out of the photograph and holds his gaze.
Commissions include a wall drawing commissioned by the British Museum in 2012 for its exhibition Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam. In addition, for the duration of the exhibition, Khan’s monumental floor installation, Seven Times, was installed in the museum’s Great Court. Also in 2012, The New York Times Magazine commissioned Khan to create a new body of work for its London issue. Focusing on the capital’s most iconic buildings and structures, Khan’s image of the London Eye featured on the cover. Khan’s major commission for a permanent public monument, forming the centrepiece of the new Memorial Park in Abu Dhabi, was unveiled for UAE Commemoration Day in November 2016. In 2017, it received an American Architecture Prize.
Idris Khan’s 21 Stones is currently displayed in The Albukhary Foundation Islamic Gallery which recently opened at the British Museum, London. 21 Stones is the British Museum's first site-specific artwork.
Khan has also worked on significant collaborations across art forms. In 2014 he worked with choreographer Wayne McGregor and composer Max Richter on Richter’s recomposition of The Four Seasons, producing sets for the production which premiered at Zurich Opera House. Lying in Wait, 2009, a collaboration by Khan and choreographer Sarah Warsop in association with Victoria Miro and Siobhan Davies Dance, is formed of layered movement that travels between three screens.
Whether working with the still or moving photographic image, painting on canvas or directly on to the wall, Khan retains an aesthetic of elegant saturation. The density and precision of his images allude to the excess of information in the technical age, while encouraging a slower and more engaged way of looking and responding to our collective history and culture. He creates an expanded sense of time.
Born in Birmingham in 1978, Idris Khan completed his Master’s Degree at the Royal College of Art and lives and works in London. Idris Khan was appointed OBE for services to Art in the Queen’s Birthday 2017 Honours List.
In 2022, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA will present the first career survey exhibition of the last 20 years of work by the artist in the United States.
His recent solo show, The Seasons Turn (on view at Victoria Miro from 13 April to 15 May 2021), featured a suite of 28 watercolour and oil collaged works on paper that incorporate fragments of the score of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and an environment of enveloping blue paintings whose rich bands of colour are layered with the artist’s thoughts, feelings and responses to the past twelve months. A major survey exhibition Idris Khan: A World Within was held at The New Art Gallery Walsall in February 2017, with solo presentations of the artist’s work previously staged at national and international institutional venues including the British Museum, London, UK (2018); Whitworth Gallery, University of Manchester (2016–2017 and 2012); Sadler’s Wells, London (2011); Gothenburg Konsthall, Sweden (2011); Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Toronto (2010); Kunsthaus Murz, Mürzzuschlag, Austria (2010) and K20, Düsseldorf (2008). His work has also been included in group shows at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (2020); Kunstmuseum Bonn, Germany (2020); Royal Academy, London (2019, 2018); The Whitworth, Manchester (2019); Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (2018); New Art Gallery Walsall, UK (2017); Saatchi Gallery, London (2017); Musée de L'Elysée, Lausanne (2016); National Gallery of Art, Washington (2015); Bass Museum of Art, Miami (2014–2015); Tel Aviv Museum of Art (2014); Jeu de Paume, Paris (2013); Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, Florida (2013); The British Museum, London (2012); National Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo (2012); Fundament Foundation, Tilburg (2011); Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York (2010); and Martin-Gropius Bau, Berlin (2009).
A major public sculpture for London by Khan, commissioned by St George’s Plc with London Borough of Southwark as part of the development of One Blackfriars, was unveiled in autumn 2019 In 2016, Khan was commissioned to make a permanent public monument, forming the centrepiece of the new Memorial Park in Abu Dhabi, which was unveiled on the UAE Commemoration Day. In 2017, it received an American Architecture Prize, a World Architecture News Award and a German Design Award. Further commissions include a wall drawing commissioned by the British Museum in 2012 for its exhibition Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam. In addition, for the duration of the exhibition, Khan’s monumental floor installation, Seven Times, was installed in the museum’s Great Court. Also in 2012, The New York Times Magazine commissioned Khan to create a new body of work for its London issue. Focusing on the capital’s most iconic buildings and structures, Khan’s image of the London Eye featured on the cover.