Published  06/05/2021

Idris Khan – interview: ‘There was a struggle making these works’

Idris Khan – interview: ‘There was a struggle making these works’

The British artist talks about his new works at Victoria Miro, freaking out in lockdown and encapsulating a year in colour

Portrait of Idris Khan, 2021. © Josh Shinner.


Idris Khan’s work emerges from a process of creation and erasure. He initially worked digitally. Khan (b1978, Birmingham) would scan material – Constable paintings, Chopin scores, passages from the Qur’an – and compress them into many-layered, ethereal monochromes. In recent years, he has branched out into public sculpture, including an award-winning memorial in Abu Dhabi to the United Arab Emirates’ fallen soldiers. And he has shifted towards the handmade, making marks using stamps of his own texts. As it amasses, Khan’s language (whether words, numbers, or musical notation) dissolves into texture.

When lockdown began last year, Khan and his family decamped to West Sussex. Cut off from his studio in north London, and awash with anxieties about the pandemic, he initially had artist’s block. But, gradually, the experience of being able to observe nature and its changing rhythms inspired a new suite of works, now on display in Victoria Miro’s east London gallery.

Idris Khan, Installation view, Idris Khan: The Seasons Turn, 13 April – 15 May 2021. Victoria Miro Gallery I, 16 Wharf Road, London N1 7RW. © Idris Khan. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.

The Seasons Turn is a collection of 28 small-format works on paper, all mounted on aluminium. They are Khan’s first foray into polychromy. Each piece comprises a watercolour background to which Khan has collaged fragments of sheet music of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. These sheets have then been stamped with further notes and bars, as if the music has leapt out of its printed score.

Organised sequentially across the walls of Victoria Miro’s ground-floor gallery, they present a cyclical portrait of a year. Each work expresses a different palette, from the blooming blossom of spring to the shadowy greens of winter. But the discord between rigid sheet music and bustling stamps, as well as the subtle variations of colour within each work, reflect the experience of 2020 as much as nature itself.

Idris Khan, Installation view, Idris Khan: The Seasons Turn, 13 April – 15 May 2021. Victoria Miro Gallery I, 16 Wharf Road, London N1 7RW. © Idris Khan. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.

Upstairs, Khan has concealed a wall alcove to create a smooth, four-sided space that is chapel-like in its calmness. Here, he has installed eight large-scale works, also on aluminium sheets, which are entirely blue. These are covered with gesso – which glistens with a metallic sheen under the gallery’s skylight – and then stamped with texts, which warp and shift as you walk around the room. As the words are stamped atop each other, they become dense thickets of pattern, trance-like in their repetitions.

Studio International met Khan at Victoria Miro, just before the gallery’s reopening, to discuss these numinous new works.

Joe Lloyd: What prompted you to document a year?

Idris Khan: I suppose the story of the work is that I left London on about the 20th of March, when everything was kicking off. We heard that the schools were going to close, and that there’d be home schooling. Everyone was panicking in the studio, there was all that fear.

We decided to look for an Airbnb, and managed to find one just outside Petworth, in West Sussex. Randomly, it was owned by an artist from Canada, and she had a studio at the back, almost a little shed, in which she painted. We found it when we arrived. So we wrote and said: “Look, we don’t know how long we’re going to be here for. Can we use the studio?”

We were in this little shed until the first lockdown was over. It’s where I got the idea of having a little more time to look at the changing seasons, getting out into nature. It was quite nice to see and encapsulate a year in a colour.

Idris Khan, The Seasons Turn – Summer 1, 2021. Watercolour, oil, paper on aluminium, 45.5 x 55 cm. © Idris Khan. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.

JL: How was the transition to colour?

IK: I suppose if you looked at my artist’s career, until then it was predominantly black and white, and then I went into blue a couple of years ago. I was always quite fearful of creating colour works, and I was concerned about shifting so abruptly; I think blue is quite a nice stepping stone. And I suppose it was a lovely excuse to move into colour: working with watercolour and oil to try to capture the year, in a reflective way.

There was a struggle making these works, and I think it’s because I’m not a natural colourist. My wife [the sculptor Annie Morris] is: she’s incredible with colour. But, for me, it was a real challenge to choose colours that were not necessarily available and try to find my own way within them.

Idris Khan, The Seasons Turn – Autumn 2, 2021. Watercolour, oil, paper on aluminium, 45.5 x 55 cm. © Idris Khan. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.

JL: The colours appear drawn from nature, but not always in the most overt, obvious way.

IK: When I look at the works, I definitely think of blossom, and I think of moving in daffodils and bluebells – I have vivid memories of the bluebell forest starting to bloom. And I suppose there’s an element of reflecting on colours in nature. Memories, too, perhaps: it wasn’t as if I went out to take pictures first necessarily, or painted in nature, but more about thinking of tones that reminded me of a certain place or time.

JL: Each work demonstrates a huge variety of hues, dancing around the background colour.

IK: I think that is to do with the collage element, too. I was, in a way, using the music – and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons made sense to me, in the fact that it is all about the four seasons. And it’s a great piece of music, I’ve always loved it. But when you watercolour sheet music, you don’t always know what you’re going to get. There are beautiful little details: the way the watercolour doesn’t quite sink, or sits on top, or bleeds over the printed section. It gives a variation.

Idris Khan, The Seasons Turn – Spring 2, 2021. Watercolour, oil, paper on aluminium, 45.5 x 55 cm. © Idris Khan. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.

The collaged element allows me to bring in other colours as well, so it’s not just the basic watercolours. Each colour is mixed, rather than straight out of the pot. I think it’s very playful, but also considered: there was lots of testing, making them work. It’s very layered: the watercolour is about five or six layers on top. So you get these subtle shifts within the colour as well. And I used lacquer, so it sometimes feels as if it’s still wet, which is nice.

One thing that’s quite nice about the exhibition is that the both the works upstairs and those downstairs are dealing with rhythm in some way. When I think about the shifts in the blue upstairs, and the spaces in-between, I often think about musical notation: the bars, and the spaces in between the bars. I quite like the fact that upstairs you have this line that shifts through each work as you go around. I suppose I probably didn’t really consider it that much when making the work, but here you have this beautiful cut line that shifts through each work, which adds another rhythm to the piece.

I suppose it’s sort of a nod to Brice Marden’s works, the top filled, but then he leaves in the bottom. I think his work has quite a spirituality to it, which I really got on board with.

Idris Khan, The Seasons Turn – Winter 6, 2021. Watercolour, oil, paper on aluminium. 45.5 x 55 cm. © Idris Khan. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.

JL: The Seasons Turn is installed in the gallery in a single, cyclical loop. Did you intend them to be displayed this way?

IK: I have seen all of them up in the studio, but I’d never seen them in this way. Actually, I could have probably done two lines on top of each other, and then you’re looking at it in a completely different way, not sequential or linear. And then you can go around the room, and that’s about time. Whereas if it was all on one wall, you’d be looking at a big palette. It’s nice that you can get this jumble and this rhythm, that it feels musical. It does all work together, and it does have a harmony as one work. I don’t ever want the set to be broken up.

JL: How did you find making these works in such a tumultuous year?
IK: There was an anxiety to the process. This year has been incredibly anxious for a lot of people And I feel there is a tension in them as well.

The studio [in North London] was closed for the first lockdown. After that it opened up a bit, and since then we haven’t had to stop again. But it did take a long time. I think it was about working it out, in terms of the composition and the way I was going to make them. I was supposed to open this in January, so the delay was actually a blessing, because I don’t know how I would have finished. There were so many swathes, so many different texts. It was a really long process, a lot of work in a way. And I think you can see it in the choices, which were endless.

Idris Khan, Burnt Wood, 2020. Oil based ink on gesso, on aluminium, 250.5 x 200 x 30 cm. © Idris Khan. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.

JL: Do you have any particular favourites?

IK: That bluebell one is amazing. Because I was looking at this bluebell forest and thinking, fucking hell, I’ve actually never lived anywhere that I’ve seen that happen. You could hear of them, see photographs, all that kind of stuff, but I’d never lived through and seen it. And the thing about bluebells is they’re not just blue – they’ve got purples in, they’ve got rich hues and deeper colours. So, that’s where the idea hit. Spring was the real moment when we were all in lockdown for the first time, in this crazy situation.

JL: Let’s talk about your blue pieces. How do you create the background colours?

IK: They’re gesso backgrounds, they’re on aluminium panels. I made my own gesso in my studio: 50% Prussian blue, 50% ultramarine. There’s something beautiful about it because it’s in between two colours that absorb light in different ways. And the oil on the surface is actually bronze. On the surface, where the light catches it, it’s actually reddish from the side, so it’s a bronze blue, and it changes with the daylight and becomes almost like copper. And gesso is such a beautiful surface. Oil gets absorbed and sits right into the powdery texture of the gesso. It almost feels as if the words have held, rather than being on the surface. And I like how, as your eyes adjust, the blue space around the sharp feels as if it’s pulsating.

Idris Khan, There are no eyes here, 2020. Oil based ink on gesso, on aluminium, 141 x 130 x 3 cm. © Idris Khan. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.

JL: What drew you to blue?

IK: It’s a spiritual colour, and I think it’s a colour that engulfs you. I’ve always said that it’s reflective, meaning that you reflect in it with your own stories. I feel like, if you come to it and you’re in a certain mood, then it can keep you in that mood essentially.

JL: The composition of these works are redolent of postwar colour field painting. Was this intentional?

IK: You can’t not be aware when you’re making a big painting with blocks that you’re going to be compared with Rothko. And, of course, you can’t not reference them and think about them when making works like this. But, actually, it’s coming from a very different place. It’s about looking at sheet music with the blocks and bars, and removing those so that what you’re left with is the space in between. That’s the fascination for me, and it’s why I create these compositions in that way. I’m trying to create a meditative quality within a language that’s been around for a very long time.

I love the rhythm that stamping gives to the mark-marking as well, because it’s controlled but random. You’re never going to get the same mark each time. You get this variation within a particular unit. I didn’t want them to feel like they’ve been painted by a machine. And there’s a delicacy to those that are not quite readable or that doesn’t hit perfectly.

It’s a very cathartic way of creating the marks. You have this hitting of metal and stamping on the gesso, and you get this lovely rhythm.

Idris Khan , There are no eyes here (detail), 2020. Oil based ink on gesso, on aluminium, 141 x 130 x 3 cm. © Idris Khan. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.

JL: The physicality of stamps is very different from the digital processes used in your earlier works. What led you to use them?

IK: It’s a cultural thing, I think – going back to places in Pakistan with my father, growing up around woodblock printing, the patterns, the saris. In 2010, I lost my mother – she was very young, 59 – and the same year, my wife lost a child, a stillbirth. That was the first time that I wanted to actually make drawings. I’d never made drawings with my own hands before; it was more photography, manipulating things. I started to stamp in the studio and it was almost like this ridding of grief. So that’s how I started stamping, to find a way to create drawings.

JL: How do you decide what words to stamp?

IK: They’re poems or diaries, I guess. Words that I’m interested in. I read a lot of TS Eliot over the last year actually; that’s where the title of the exhibition comes from. The text in these is about the last year and what I was feeling, what I was reading. They came out of all the anxieties. Like the news: I was obsessed with the news. I was running around the South Downs with my AirPods in, listening to the fucking five o’clock daily briefing. It was mad.

In some way, I kind of froze in terms of making art. Some artists felt quite liberated by the quiet or the peace. They could get on with their work and maybe try to shut out the outside world. But I absorbed it quite intensely for two months. I was fixated. I was going through the numbers – I actually should have made a numbers work! – all these numbers that were coming out, then all the political shit you have to deal with, schooling the kids. I was asked to do all these interviews – “What are you working on in lockdown?” I was like: “I’m not doing anything, I’m freaking out!”

JL: Would you ever publish or exhibit your writings?

IK: I’ve been asked! I actually prefer them to exist as stamps. I’ve got more than 150,000 stamps now, and they’re all in boxes at the moment. If Frieze happens this year, Deutsche Bank has asked me to be the VIP artist for its lounge. And if I do that, I’d like to create a room to show all my stamps. So, in a way, they’re not going to work as a written form, but they’ll exist as these blocks, these stamps. They become relics of the painting.

Idris Khan: The Seasons Turn is at Victoria Miro, London, until 15 May 2021.

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