IDRIS KHAN, Lying in Wait, 2008, film still from single channel 16mm HD transfer film. Courtesy Elementa, Dubai.

Be Lost in the Call

Idris Khan

United Arab Emirates

London-based Idris Khan is best known for dense and beguiling photographic palimpsests, which he creates by re-photographing or scanning and digitally overlaying entire series of existing printed works into single composite prints. By carefully calibrating the opacity of each layer and optimizing incidental details, Khan’s digital composites buzz with traces of their component images. In the past, he tackled 19th-century motion studies by Eadweard Muybridge, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies of industrial relics, and paintings by Caravaggio and Rembrandt. In more recent work, Khan has applied a comparable strategy to musical compositions and philosophical texts, condensing their many printed pages into single emblematic images. Moodily lit and thoughtfully installed in the Dubai gallery Elementa, the works in Khan’s latest solo show “Be Lost in the Call” extend this interest in music and text into new cultural and philosophical realms. 

Re-engaging postmodern debates about appropriation and authorship, Khan’s images resist the photograph’s arresting of time by re-introducing an affect of duration. While the spectral traces of notes and words remain visible in Khan’s final black-and-white photographic prints, their superimposition renders them illegible. The curving forms blend together into smudgy abstractions that resemble charcoal drawings. This temporal extension imbues the single image with the breath of experience, recapturing the actual sensation of reading or listening to music.

Though Khan’s modus operandi risks being gimmicky, his skill lies in his ability to convey the particular themes and histories of a work through these abstract forms. In Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (2009), based on the eponymous book by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the blurry gray lines of text resemble the carefully furrowed surface of a field, bisected by a pitch-black vertical gutter. The image’s muddy but unrelenting textual linearity evokes Lacan’s intellectual legacy—the shifting of psychoanalysis into the realm of language. The ten-foot-long, panoramic La Fin du Temps (2008) is based on the French composer Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time (1941), a chamber work first composed and performed while Messiaen was in a German prison camp. Six fuzzy black parallels, each corresponding to a musical staff, resemble tire tracks or—more poignantly, given the piece’s history—the stripes on a prisoner’s sullied uniform.  

While Khan’s past works drew largely on the Western canon, his recent work demonstrates a growing interest in Islam, particularly Sufism. This is reflected in the exhibition’s title, lifted from a poem by Jalal ad-Din Rumi, the famous 13th-century Persian-Sufi poet-philosopher. A trio of new works—Untitled III, Gratitude and 1 Book, 4 Sides, 2 Directions (all 2009)—use the complete text of Rumi’s Masnavi, a six-volume masterwork of spiritual poetry, as their source. Repeated but offset and in varying arrangements, the margins and gutters create irregular grids that establish distinct rhythms in the final images, recalling the minimal paintings of Agnes Martin. The title of the last of this trio outlines the process of its creation, showing how Khan rotated the book as he scanned the pages. This movement mimics the trance-like whirling of Sufi dervishes-; the resulting image depicts the blending of individual and collective that is the dance’s desired effect. 

Khan again establishes parallels between the practice of artist and dancer in his three-minute-long video, Lying in Wait (2008), a collaboration with choreographer and dancer Sarah Warsop. Originally shot in 16mm black-and-white film, Lying in Wait is comprised of close-ups of controlled hand gestures alternating with ethereal shots of Warsop’s body bending and rising, ghostly trails following the body’s movements. The choreography recalls the actions of Muslim prayer, and the soundtrack is limited to rustles which, given the video’s library setting and the other works in the exhibition, suggest the turning of pages.