Published  30/03/2022

Hassan Khan Infusing Objects with Texts – an Essay

Hassan Khan Infusing Objects with Texts – an Essay

Using sculpture, text and film, Khan explores power and corruption, forcing us to confront how our world is shaped. In this essay, we look at his work and consider his new show, Blind Ambition, at the Centre Pompidou

Window Display #2 from Rue Saint Merri with left to right: Purity Machine, 2021, print on aluminium. 150 x 150 cm (each); W ,2021, stuffed eyes, 3 x 10 x 10 cm (each, without plinth); SURPLUS VALUE, 2021, compressed polyurethane foam, plinth with mirrors, 28 x 25 x 25 cm (without plinth); Window, 2007, Cibachrome mounted on aluminium, 150 x 100 cm. Photo courtesy of Hassan Khan.


In a decade, it will be 200 years since the Rue Saint-Merri, which reaches towards walls of glass that house works by the artist Hassan Khan (b1975), was the site of the final struggle of the Paris Uprising of 1832, an outbreak of violent resistance to the monarchy. An effort that was crushed, in a year when a cholera epidemic spread across France.

Invisible walls and disorienting inclines set the tone for this text-rich, conceptually complex distribution of Khan's work from the past two decades. From inside the museum, look forward and there she is again. The Rue Saint-Merri, a storied place that competes for focus as your mind’s eye scans objects, text, moving images, sounds and compositions. Saint-Merri lures you through an always-changing soundscape on to a sequence of inclines and planes that, like the street and the square, architecturalise happenings among the wide range of idiosyncratic items strewn about to draft the exhibition Blind Ambition. The title, taken from the artist’s oeuvre, cunningly expresses ways this British-born Egyptian artist reflects on society, industry and culture.

In the works, which are seemingly born out of playfully earnest concern, Khan appears to ask: where am I/where are we? On the heels of a pandemic, in the shadows of revolutions stamped out, in the middle of a war between Russia and Ukraine, he demands a reckoning with concepts: what is X? For today, what is the nation-state? Khan doesn’t talk politics, but mediates and deflates the forces driving the meta-structures that determine too much of what it is we live in and through.

At the time of the Paris Uprising, Victor Hugo was in earshot of Rue Saint-Merri, closer to Les Halles, when he heard and followed the sounds of that last battle, which in his writing 30 years later, was codified and sent into the future through the publishing of Les Misérables and its subsequent life onstage. Khan, too, has made power and corruption, tyranny of the subject, his subject, and they assume uncanny and unpredictable ranges of forms.

Slogans with rhythm cut into and painted on sheets of aluminium measuring 150cm by 150cm are not easily distributed, passed around, unlike pamphlets and newspapers. They are propped against walls, or installed in a window to be read from the street. Messaging is for those in the know, those attending an art event. Those in the museum, or at its door.

Hassan Khan. Purity Machine, 2021. Print on aluminium, 150 x 150 cm (each). Photo: Aurelien Mole.

Harvest of Guilt, Purity Machine and The Self is Fragile and Vicious (all 2021) sit on the floor, located to be looked down on. They were designed using a colour codex recalled in a wall painting more than twice their height and six times their length, Simpler Times (2019). An alarm sounded in yellow, a yellow the stuff of bus-stop signage. Spectacle is an operative in this show, but it is not a lone actor. In balance are didactic gestures in messaging that are muffled – or, perhaps more precisely, redirected through one of the colour schemes, which could have been excerpted from toy shop shelves full of plastic, yellows and pinks. And another colour scheme from a time before high definition, in hues and tints of maroon, sepia.

The palette and physical planes that steer eyes and body among the works on show unfurl in patterns that find reflection in the logic and pacing of words, sentences, statements, announcements and pronouncements in texts on objects, in sound and song, on walls, and on these metal papers. For the street, the work Purity Machine, made of two panels – one image-centric, the other of words – calls to passersby, to all the walkers, to read a twist on the format of a manifesto, the likes of which would once have been published in a paper. The messages unravel in a flow set to upset thoughts on how it is that the police function. Khan abstracts time and place: location, am/pm. The text is framed as a report, the phrases as varied as sites within cities (a shared seat on a bus, a vista across time, a food cart). There is an image in words of a crowd brewing in a neighbourhood. And they, in their affects and facets, interrogate where they are, what is this place? A word salad. Parole. To the tricks and clever moves in language that have links to the situationists. Perhaps for their comment on the sublimation of the impulse of thought and action, when one is derailed by the lure of spectacle. And then there is another antecedent. Another anchor from the field. A chain to the futurists, who in 1909 published a reckoning with society and culture in this city’s paper, Le Figaro, and went on to generate thousands of pamphlets, brochures, manifestos and documents to play with language as they felt fitting for a world on the brink of a dramatic, perhaps in some respects necessary, rupture with the past. Within Purity Machine, there is a statement titled The Police Function, which says:

It might seem that these ignored but real drives are about the aspirations we promote, maybe they are about constructing not destroying, about purity and moral cleanliness, about the phantasm of good taste and high civilization. It appears what we have been dealing with all day is the insidious element known as “the police function” which seems to have utterly devastated this neighborhood.

Throughout the show, text transcribed on to surfaces, movable or not, magnifies the impact of this arrangement of objects, demanding that the viewer play a game of association. I note how bound to this artist’s literary work are my observations, sensations and realisations, whether discussing the place in the show of sculpture, drawing, moving image, or, especially, music.

Purity Machine, which leverages phrasing and a grim image of an iron claw and bound hands, is not anomalous in this artist’s practice. There are anomalies, but this is not one. Khan has indicated that he is a reader of Philip K Dick, and the connection can be traced in construction, character formation, dialogue formation and pacing. Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said tells the story of a celebrity who wakes up to learn he has been erased from public memory. There begins Jason Taverner’s journey between places, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, through the interiors of a sequence of women, always in juxtaposition with different levels in the hierarchy of policing in a paranoid, security-driven culture. Dick draws characters to resemble a sociologist punching above his weight, clumsily leveraging themes from psychology. Khan similarly objectifies his subjects so that, perhaps, they evade being understood, avoid the awkwardness of being revealed. Near the end of Flow My Tears, Taverner is recognised, he is remembered. Yet his interrogator, Felix Buckman, orders him to fade, to never again assume the power and currency of a public persona:

Someday your story, the ritual and shape of your downfall, may be made public, at a remote future time when it no longer matters. When there are no more forced-labor camps and no more campuses surrounded by rings of police carrying rapid-fire submachine guns and wearing gas masks that make them look like great-snouted, huge-eyed root-eaters, some kind of noxious lower animal. Someday there may be a post-mortem inquiry and it will be learned that you in fact did no harm – did nothing, actually, but become noticed.

The real, ultimate truth is that despite your fame and your great public following you are expendable, he thought. And I am not. That is the difference between the two of us. Therefore you must go and I remain.

What occurs when a literary mind finds validity in the visual realm? What happens when ideas are distilled into cues and clues and signs with obscured referents? How can the field, the field of art or the art industry, contend with this moment’s short attention span? A period returning to levels of violence that echo our last century. Are revisions and rewrites of power’s pattern made available to walkers and onlookers here?

General exhibition view of Hassan Khan: Blind Ambition including: Purple Stuffed Creature with Bleeding Eye, 2019, foam, long hair fur fabric with digital print, 300 x 150 x 150 cm. Collection Centre Pompidou, Musee national d’art modern; Dense Object, 2013, metal object, wooden table, 10 x 5.20 cm. Collection of the artist; The Rams, 2006, three photographs printed on photographic paper and mounted on aluminium, 160 x 100 cm (each); Simpler Times, 2019, wall painting, 350 x 700 cm; Banque Bannister, 2010, brass, 209 x 206 x 22 cm; The Slapper and the Cap of Invisibility, 2015, black and white video, sound. 8 min 34 sec; Abstract Music, 2015, glass sculptures, wooden platform and plinths, variable dimensions. Museum für Moderne Kunst (MMK), Frankfurt. The acquisition was generously supported by the BHF Bank Stiftung; 2013 Curtain Remix, 2021, printed fabric, 350 x 840 cm. Photo courtesy of Hassan Khan.

There are through-lines I note in Khan’s work. Some are rendered in this show, others are not. The prominence and visibility granted to Purity Machine and Simpler Times hints at one. The agony you cannot escape of tilting your head to read five stories on a wall reminds me of another, returning me to Khan’s books. The thinking process of this writer, compelled by narrative, with the empathy demanded of those who write characters, people in relation to others and the other, is what strikes me as notable in his work. Yet, the extent of his writing is but nodded at in Blind Ambition, where language is instrumentalised. Nonetheless, we are granted a touchpoint: the police and power and power brokers. The source of the logic and systems that determined the arrangement of works is discernible in a past project.

Perhaps the bookstore could stock Twelve Clues, Khan’s second book, set in 1995, which takes as a point of departure his undergraduate years? The book was born in an art context: Khan guest-curated the 10th Sommerakademie im Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland, in 2015, and the book was published a year later.

The book begins without ambiguity. Chapter One is titled The Invisible War. The cast of characters feels familiar within his work. The form and construction of his video installation The Hidden Location (2004), which tells stories through the simultaneity of four interrelated projections, echoes in Twelve Clues. Quite opposite to the work you first meet at Blind Ambition’s near beginning. An always-changing piece, The Infinite Hip-Hop Song (2019), mastered according to an algorithmic logic, created by an algorithm, that arranges ad infinitum singers the artist collaborates with, who sing his lyrics.

Hassan Khan. The Infinite Hip-Hop Song, 2019. Algorithmic hip-hop generator, original lyrical and musical material written and produced by the artist, recorded vocal content, wall text and painted logo, sound system, variable dimensions. Photo: © Centre Pompidou – hélène Mauri.

The recurring question is: where is power? Twelve Clues is a tight story that spans the globe. Sites include Bourj Hammoud, an Armenian quarter in Beirut; the Smallville Hotel in Badaro, Beirut; Hong Kong harbour; Budapest’s Oktogon station: a world order of a magnitude that Dick would relish. Six friends from university, who once created a secret club, The Holy Idiots Society (THIS), have been tapped, individually, by a corporation that is experimenting with the question, what is it to be human? The experiments take different forms, including the creation of a hybrid species.

The resurfacing of characters from earlier publications suggests that in this book Khan is developing an epistemology to orient and anchor what at a glance might seem a fragmented, disjointed art practice. To look at his work, it is helpful to extrapolate how he thinks and constructs to order and express knowledge.

Memory, like friendship, is fragile in this story. Khan sets the stage with fraught, age-old bonds that are steered and manipulated by Carlo Bucci, a global traveller and social instigator operating from the base of a monopolistic corporation. Khan observes power over multiple publications: 17 and in AUC – the Transcriptions (2004), Nine Lessons Learned from Sherif El-Azma (2009) and the essay In Defense of the Corrupt Intellectual (2010) are the provenance of Twelve Clues’ undulating and revealing musing on power. In Defense began as a lecture:

The corrupt intellectual is the result of a historical experience, a legacy. Egypt’s now-failing middle class staked a claim within a national power base over the past 60 years by locating its claims and subject positions within the collectivized motivations of a constructed national project. This educated petit bourgeoisie forged its identity through the goals it announced for itself, and then used that identity to generate content for the propaganda it produced for the general social order … the Egyptian intellectual’s relation to the imagined collective has always been a public one.

Cairo’s history over the past 60 years is the history of this voice. Under attack by the constantly shifting power relations within the social order, this voice has steadily become more and more hysterical as it fights to maintain the clearly defined positions of its class base. This relationship, between the public speaker and the stage he or she performs upon, is one in which the voice has always been inflected and motivated by the process of forging public associations between terms and their referents. The intellectual’s main role has thus been that of charting the relationship of the public to the organizing principles of the collective. Public discourse is what will always be a product and a victim of this relationship. Here witness the poet declaiming, the teacher speaking, the imam sermonising, the guest on a talkshow arguing.

Revolutionary drive feeds on the noting and surgical dissection of societal and institutional constructs, but futures are drawn by the people who sew all the parts back together. Khan’s lecture notes sound an alarm. Calling that we investigate the past carefully, with attention to detail. Images from another novella in a long line of stories by a wide range of authors (Bertolt Brecht, the Marquis de Sade, Antonin Artaud …) of the cruel and the violent spin in my head, getting stuck in my eardrum like tinnitus. It is the figures in FT Marinetti’s novella Untameables that persist. The characters of this novella bring our attention to the sadomasochistic underpinnings of modern society and its bureaucracy, the arrangements and systems of the early twentieth century and now.

Later, in Twelve Clues, Khan conveys the nature of what it is not to drown in the wake of a contested revolutionary moment. These chapters wrangle with defeat and the torture of its admission. To do this, he invents a fractured character that jostles among positions and voices. Bucci banks on his operatives’ shallow goals for their easy manipulation. Within a few short paragraphs, Bucci straddles multiple vantage points, questions his plan, and elevates himself to the status of a visionary who sees possibility where others see systems, before collapsing into scepticism, doubting he is more than an idealist, living in an illusion fed on networks that are smaller than they feel. Thus, Khan brings into focus the impossibility of revolution in the digital era. He does this by performing the inertia implicit within the digital sphere that cycles and spins at a scale that perverts plans, rendering them hollow.

Exhibition view of Hassan Khan: Blind Ambition. Left to right: evidence of evidence II, 2010, digital print on vinyl, 350 x 298 cm; My Mother, 2013, colour photograph. 40 x 40 cm; The Self Is Fragile and Vicious, 2022, print on aluminum, 150 x 150 cm. Photo © Centre Pompidou – hélène Mauri.

In Blind Ambition, the massive digital print of a flower (the source of the show’s maroon- and sepia-tinted backdrop that frames yellow and orange explosions) next to the modestly sized photo of his mother echoes an element from Twelve Clues. In the book, artist Shahab Fotouhi responds with a photograph of still flowers to the story of X, who is caught in a web of violence, fistfights, cold-blooded murder and rape. From the onset, the question of what constitutes an authentic human being ping-pongs through truncated conversations. Contingent on memory, its fallibility and suggestibility, the self becomes unmoored with time, and through the effects of ingesting different substances. Through a traumatised mind, we meander in a world that is the fantasy of the powerful.

Bucci is behind CORPORATIONINCORPORATED’s most important secret project, ProjectProject, made up of primates whose memories were erased by specifically designed drugs and experimental artificially intelligent beings whose memories have been wiped clean. What were their memories? Within this schema is an image of a wizened man, wearing black jeans and a white shirt, slumped as if tossed face-forward into a wheelchair, in direct defiance of the spine, feet dragging behind, wheelchair harnessed to horses as if a chariot for the weak and beaten. The artist Crack Rodrigues ladles terror on to the description of Bucci and his capacity as a generic mastermind who wears a white suit, recalling the forces of power and order, the Paper People and their black jailers, in Marinetti’s Untameables. This novella strikes me as containing, disturbingly, a codex for deciphering the power of position, its impact on identity and behaviour, the pathways set for us to travel, that twist and pervert our ethos and worldview so that we can behave deplorably, blindly, with little room left for self-awareness, reflection, mitigation, correction, ethics. The linkages connecting Khan’s characters and Marinetti’s reach past costuming, and through to their different yet considered analyses of the ways we organise and use violence.

Themes of authorship, memory, friendship, allies and foes, value, vantage points seep through the scripts Khan writes, the plethora of sounds he mines and remoulds, the shapes he forges into sculptures. A whirlwind of images are construed and ordered, sometimes, literally, by an algorithm, to indicate the fallibility of the image, and the fundamental impossibility of locating logic in an image.

The Slapper and the Cap of Invisibility, 2015. Video, B/W, 8 min 34 sec.

Within Blind Ambition two screens rise out of the ground on a pole. While easy to walk around, this object has two visually different yet conceptually linked projects within it. On one side is a film in black and white, The Slapper and the Cap of Invisibility (2015), which is an original script performed by two contemporary actors who channel celebrated 1950s and 60s film comedians. Their role in entertainment was to deliver canned jokes. Lines written in production company rooms. Authorship is convoluted, overwhelmed by the corporate structures that manufacture culture. The writer is obscured through the layers required when making images for mass consumption. On the other side of the monitor is The Dead Dog Speaks (2010), a video work with a backdrop of solid crimson deepened with brown undertones, with avatars answering set questions that abides an internal logic that refers to the avatars and the background. The content is disconnected from any broader reality or integrated dialogical exchange.

These signposts track back in my mind to the artist’s writing. Within Twelve Clues, Khan refers to a Brazilian film, 12 Clues, a fictional film acting as a plot device within the novella. Khan’s work drills down and inwards as frenetically as it casts its purview outwards. Riffing off this film, he masters friendly, intimate exchanges that over time grow weary. The flow of information is obstructed through a robbery. The victim, Sam, is beaten up at a Budapest bar, where his secrets are taken. Bucci looks on, hologram orb in hand, steering his grasp on plans for the future that push the corporation further, thinking beyond the relationship of provider and consumer, to work with the very fabric composing our reality. Material, commodity, modes of production are liquefying and reconfiguring. Power is not in what is made or even consumed in this coming phase. Bucci anticipates an altogether other mode of existence. And so, the hybrids gain strength, and the story edges towards confusion, a maelstrom of violence.

Dense Object, 2013. Metal object, wooden table, 10 x 5. 20cm. Collection of the artist. Photo courtesy of Hassan Khan.

They expand beyond the confines of their station, the plan set for them. Within Blind Ambition are strange, refined objects. Almost invisible, on a dwarf plinth shines Dense Object (2013), a form that registers as a commercial-grade battery for domestic purposes, a typical AA battery scaled up, maybe 12 or 20 times. The so-called battery displays the metals without the casing that would usually express the brand and specs. It abides by a formula visible in several of Khan’s sculptural works, though by no means all of them. There are as many that are oversized, plush fabric. This one, though, is of slick layers of varying colour that build this pneumonic device – a critical element in an arrangement that asks what drives us.

Confusion is the title of the chapter in which X, a character following orders, enters Borj Hammoud to murder an Armenian philatelist, Hraig Zakarian. Archetypical characters become unhinged – undressed – ready for redress, but actions and bad decisions, compromise their chances for redemption. The social order established in youth, THIS, which disbanded in 1995, is catching up with the force of the Primes, and another faction, the hybrids, are gaining strength and speed. Hybridity is mechanical and achieved through proximity and interplay, less static a creation than a typical cyborg made of parts natural and artificial. Archetypes are not sacrosanct, but in flux, within the collective unconscious, where group projection and hallucination, the crowd as a force and dynamic, synchronise to order the inhabited world. Khan, in writing and object-making, and in film and music too, performs an unstable litany of forms and references, perhaps to dodge being dragged down a prescribed, endless, pointless tunnel – to a hell where idea, form, and articulation are legible, charming, relevant and perplexing.

X flees, and the corporation hunts him down to find a shell that has forgotten all, including his name. Sensing its unravelling, the corporation triggers a self-destruction program, the “itch”. The hybrids are prompted to destroy each other. This pivot point mirrors in the arch of The Untameables, when Yessiir leads the Paper People, and manipulates the Untameables and their jailers back into muzzles and chains.

The stories of Khan and Marinetti share a filmic quality, pace and structure. Language is excessively dialogic, with all the hallmarks of science fiction that allow for theorising through explicit, repetitive witness to the ways structure dematerialises and reconfigures, as it has always been, as it had been, according to its forever, implicit, normative condition. We are called on to resist forgetting, to push away the hallmark of isolationism. We are teased and tickled into a woken state, for we must step away from our worship of authoritarians angling for total power.

In sentiment, if only because we are in a historical moment that is a hundred years old, the futurists pulsate. Destruction as cure, Marinetti’s hygiene for the world, echoes through a reference to a scene in the fictional film 12 Clues, a scene where a poet dreams of smashing a clay statue, an emblem of the human, made from mud. The poet is moved by the desire for transparency, the end of genesis, its mayhem and discourse rooted in disorder and its elusive promise that reordering the parts that make the shape of things, social order, a real possibility.

As devastating as it is rivetingly funny, Khan’s novella ends with the chapter The Joke, describing a system shaken, with small adjustments. The hybrids survive, having not succumbed to the “itch”. Like The Untameables, written two years after Marinetti broke ties with the fascist arm of the movement, resting easily in strong nationalism of the kind that bolsters the Venice Bienniale, establishing its pre-eminence as an art world venue, Khan maps a failed and co-opted revolution. His expression is oblique. Nonetheless, fragments told repeatedly, in different times, recalling violence, are an honest way to theorise and attend to the violence that immerses all of us.

Exhibition view of Hassan Khan: Blind Ambition. Left to right: The Agreement, 2011, five stories and ten objects, 285 x 1600 cm approx; 2013 Curtain Remix, 2021, printed fabric, 350 x 840 cm. Photo: © Centre Pompidou – hélène Mauri.

Khan writes from an anterior place, of what went before, charting the route and development of an event. Blind Ambition carries forward into the public and museum space long-explored concerns for this artist: power; corruption; forces and functions that prevail, that we muse about, that decide our day-to-day. Narrative, as appears on the wall, in The Agreement, tracks my vision and sight, sends me to the library to read. Each object as sign builds the show, a new story in this storyteller’s energized and reactionary analysis. And then plays with the state of us, within contemporary culture.

On Rue Saint-Merri is Église Saint-Merri, built in 1515 and expanded in 1612. It was the site of the last failed battle against the monarchy in the Paris Uprisings of 1832. Hundreds of years offer an ebb and flow of influence, use and relevancies. During the French Revolution, the church was closed for worship and used to make saltpetre, a component of gunpowder, a common metaphor in English for an action or force that cools lust. From 1797 to 1801, theophilanthropists transformed the church into a “Temple of Commerce” in their effort to supplant religion with transaction. The Catholic church regained control of the building in 1803. All this in the same place, a stone’s throw from the walls containing Blind Ambition with its offerings of readings of the currents that generate social conditions. The show is not a report, but a metaphorical structure, rooted in language, signified by objects that theorise the drives that influence how we see and describe the forms events continue to take.

Khan lives in Cairo and Berlin. His work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid (2019); the Kestnergesellschaft, Hanover (2019); the Museum für moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (2015); SALT Beyoglu, Istanbul (2012); Queens Museum, New York (2011); and others. He performs in concert at international festivals and has published a collection of short stories titled Twelve Clues (2016) as well as an Anthology of Published and Unpublished Writings of Hassan Khan (2019). He has released an album titled Superstructure Ep (2019). He was awarded the Silver Lion at the 57th Venice Biennale (2017).

• Hassan Khan: Blind Ambition, curated by Marcella Lista, is at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, until 25 April 2022.

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