I haven’t read much Lacan, but over the years I have read and reread one particular area of Lacanian analytical theory. In his 1964 seminar lectures Jacques Lacan suggested that much of the most interesting artistic output is not only reflective of the zeitgeist into which it is born, but is also an effective bellwether of coming trends and thinking. He suggests that great art can operate as a societal subconscious that might be mined by the open viewer, offering us glimpses into collective motivations and subliminal cultural mechanics that could hint at possible futures. Perhaps the rise of abstraction in Europe foretold of changes in psychoanalytic thinking, suggested social, political and cultural democratisation, the foregrounding of the individual, the opening out of Western society, and perhaps even the rise of forces that stood against those phenomena. It is a beautiful thought that, over the years, I have wanted to make true.
The work seemed to be a critical narrative on culture and identity that navigated the cultural geography in a manner that was new to me.
I first came across Idris Khan through a particular piece of work, A Memory … after Bach’s Cello Suites, during the summer of 2006. I watched the six-minute film of multiple overlaid performances of a cellist playing Bach in a temporal vacuum of visual awe, unaware of the passing of time, yet every overt visual cue in the film was a reminder of tempo, repetition, time. I began at the start of the film thinking it was beautiful, but by the end I left thinking it was transfixing, arresting; it seemed to subtly say something awkward, but to do it with such eloquent efficiency that I was left changed. The work seemed to be a critical narrative on culture and identity that navigated the cultural geography in a manner that was new to me. A work of obvious beauty, that on the surface plays with multiple musical narratives, but also alludes to our own multiple understandings and complex cultural genealogies, this was the crossroads of the intercultural debate crafted into film. It seemed to describe an ambient condition: so many of us were having difficulties establishing our bearings in the post-millennial landscape. But it was not even a latently prescriptive work. It was not a quest for new answers, or an attempt to draft new maps; it reflected anxiety, neuroses, mourning for the loss of certainty, and it made us conscious of our desperate, almost romantic, need to establish a means to chart the new geography and negotiate a new relationship to difference. Through A Memory … after Bach’s Cello Suites, I was opened up to the thinking of Idris Khan: memory, identity, existential complexity, the possibility of renewal and our deep romantic longing for it.
I was opened up to the thinking of Idris Khan: memory, identity, existential complexity, the possibility of renewal and our deep romantic longing for it.
Soon after seeing A Memory … after Bach’s Cello Suites, I was able to meet Idris Khan and he spoke movingly about faith and loss and his own past. I asked him about his work, but he returned over and over again to Glenn Gould. Gould’s seminal interpretation of Bach’s piano opus needs time. It took me some years to find the hours it needs, and I am yet to find the considerable time it deserves. Finding that time did not just open up a new facet of Bach, of Gould, but also led to my re-contextualising Idris Khan.
Gould gave the Goldberg Variations a unique vivacity – teasing us with the barely perceptible, punk boundary-bending alterations in tempo, contained within an austere, almost autistically disciplined constraint and control. Bach composed the Goldberg Variations as music therapy, a treatment for insomnia; but in the hands of Gould, the freedom he finds within that containment, the possibilities within tiny windows of play were, and still feel, radical. Repeated, yet never quite repeated, constellations of notes become a hypnotic equation, a symphony of mathematical poems, no longer a search for sleep, but a portal to a parallel state of mental consciousness. Gould turned a therapeutic exercise into a prayer, a musical challenge into a meditation, an incantation. He used the most advanced recording technologies to hone and tauten his work, until it became a search for something more than musical perfection, more than a cure for insomnia: a means to an altered psyche. In the analogue recording world of the 1950s this was obsession, discipline, and ambition almost beyond sanity. Through Gould I came to further understand the ontological hinterland from which Khan draws his ideas; the scale of ambition of a project that probes deep beyond the socio-cultural context within which I had instinctively confined it.
Seven Times invites us to contemplate spiritual self-investigation and to do so at many levels.
It is now years on from that first conversation, but Seven Times has given me a chance to revisit Idris Khan’s thinking in a world profoundly changed by George Bush, Iraq, the collapse of financial markets, and so much else. But also in the intervening years of listening to Gould, there have been significant shifts in my understanding of the interior scope of Khan’s project. And so I came to Seven Times with both expectation and hope.
Khan’s Seven Times invites us to contemplate spiritual self-investigation and to do so at many levels. It is a study of the search for a fundamental truth, within, around and beyond the words of the Muslim daily prayer. It is an examination of how, through consideration and reconsideration, we might seek to find a point where we are no longer separate from words. It is here that it also reaches out and becomes what Carl Andre sought, a quest for a kind of abstract purity, the hunt for a transcendent Platonic truth that exists beyond place and time. And while this may be about stillness, it is also mining a kind of energy. Particle physicists write about energy never dying, of every grain of sand holding the memory of everything it has been, all it has touched, of every relationship between objects around which it has moved, holding the history and potential of every interaction it has ever made and will make. It is this awareness of that sense of interconnectedness that is sought, to commune through prayer with infinity, through repetition to build an understanding of self in relation to others, which connects Muslims over geography and time. Each whisper, identical in words but unique in intention and context, combined as a coordinated repetition of prayers, shows both the similarity and the notion of existential particularity that is inherent to being human. It is to be reminded in our search for truth and immortality that we are human.
Oil, sand and steel, materials that have defined recent global politics and economics of the Islamic world, pull us back from minimalism and abstraction.
Whilst that is satisfying, it is not enough. Khan is an artist, a fascinating one. He is also on a parallel journey. Like Bach he maintains the theme of his earlier practice, never allowing us to forget questions of identity, of ontology and being, but here he introduces something that should sit in awkward contra-distinction to these themes, he introduces a set of aesthetic constraints. The first manifestation of Seven Times that impacts on the visitor upon entering the gallery is the installation in its complete, almost austere form: 144 low steel boxes, oiled surfaces and sheer edges, placed with exquisite precision on an invisible square grid. He mines the work of Carl Andre, Frank Stella and Agnes Martin for their aesthetic authority to anchor his project in familiar art history. It is only when you move closer that a transformation occurs, one that straddles Khan’s being, as you become aware of the sandblasted words of the Salaat prayer inscribed across the surface of the marbled steel. Oil, sand and steel, materials that have defined recent global politics and economics of the Islamic world, pull us back from minimalism and abstraction. Suddenly, we are in a square that mirrors in exact size and form the Kaaba, the square opening at the heart of Mecca. The spot where a star fell, forging a conduit between heaven and earth – the Islamic centre of the world.
Islam is configured around well-established traditions, but the possibility of transformation, of change, is vital; transformation through study, growth, prayer, understanding. It is believed that the seven times that Muslims who visit Mecca circle the Kaaba offers the most important form of spiritual transformation and renewal. As in so much of Khan’s practice we and indeed the work are altered by repetition, by processes of duplication and sustained contemplation. And it is in part the difference, the catalytic triggers and the shadows left behind by those processes that seem to fascinate Khan and haunt our time.
Memory can be an aggressive thing. Seeing Seven Times for the first time, beneath the lattice of exposed rafters in the Victoria Miro gallery, I was carried by smells, sounds, tastes, to a moment I’d spent during the final minutes of Ramadan, listening to some young scholars recite the words of the daily prayer in the walled courtyard of a Timbuktu madrasah: ‘God is great, I bear witness that there is none other worthy of worship except God ...’ Parched tongues rasping whispers, backs erect, muscles taut with tension and fasting, heads down facing Mecca – ‘Allahu Akbar ...’ – the men in the room all knelt, connected by a single prayer whispered simultaneously on a billion tongues, united in a global incantation to God. This is repetition as a form of aural archaeology, an hypnotic, groping, experimental choreography of words spoken in search of a way to transcend the mundane, to find meaning through and around the contemplation of a simple but profound thought: ‘God is great!’ The point where the real and symbolic collapse into each other completes the act of worship. But like this memory, some particle of the prayer will never end.
The essay was first published on the occasion of an exhibition by Idris Khan, held at Victoria Miro in 2010. Khan's second solo show with the gallery, it consisted of two major sculptural installations and a number of photographic works that interlink seemingly disparate ideas of religion, Minimalism, music and poetry.
Dr Gus Casely-Hayford is a renowned museum director, cultural historian, writer and broadcaster. He is the inaugural Director of V&A East, due to open in 2023, and formerly the Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC.
About Idris Khan
Idris Khan is acclaimed for works in a variety of media that inhabit the space between abstraction and figuration, and speak to themes of history, cumulative experience and the metaphysical collapse of time into single, cohesive moments. Born in Birmingham in 1978, he completed his Master’s Degree at the Royal College of Art and lives and works in London. He 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. A solo exhibition dedicated to Khan’s recent work is scheduled be held at MoCA Westport, Westport, Connecticut, USA (2020).
Images from top:
Seven Times, 2010 (detail). Installation view, Idris Khan, Victoria Miro, 7 March–24 April 2010
A Memory... After Bach's Cello Suites, 2006
Listening to Glenn Gould's Version of the Goldberg Variations while Thinking about Carl Andre, 2010. Installation view, Idris Khan at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, 14 October 2016 – 19 March 2017. Image courtesy Whitworth Art Gallery (photography: Michael Pollard)
Seven Times, 2010. Installation view, Idris Khan, Victoria Miro, 7 March–24 April 2010
Seven Times, 2010 (detail). Installation view, Idris Khan, Victoria Miro, 7 March–24 April 2010
Listening to Glenn Gould's Version of the Goldberg Variations while Thinking about Carl Andre, 2010. Installation view, Idris Khan, Victoria Miro, 7 March–24 April 2010
65,000 Photographs at One Blackfriars. 65,000 Photographs was originally commissioned by London Borough of Southwark as part of the One Blackfriars Public Art Programme on behalf of St George City Limited. Photography © Stephen White
All works © Idris Khan, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro