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Victoria Miro

The World of Words Gabriel Coxhead

You never know quite where you are with Idris Khan’s ‘Beyond the Black’ series of works. Dark, shimmering shapes set against a dark, looming background, they seem indeterminate, secretive, protean, appearing to shift and warp before your eyes, never staying still: the swirling forms now gauzy and translucent, now thickly glistening; now expanding outwards, now collapsing inwards upon themselves. Stare at them, try to fix them in place, and, like a black hole sucking in light, your gaze becomes lost, led astray, spellbound by their roiling voids. At the same time, you always know exactly where you are with these works. That’s to say, part of the experience of viewing the works, of reflecting upon their chimerical changeability, is literally to reflect upon them – to confront your own reflection in their glossy surfaces as you stand before them. Not an exact reflection; but stippled, shadowy, ineluctably merged with the glinting darkness of the patterns themselves. It’s like a little duet, a moment of communion between the viewer and the work, combining to create something that would be impossible without either partner. And as the work draws you irresistibly in, to examine its hazy, coruscating surface, your reflection abruptly disperses, scattering like beads of mercury, and resolves itself into something else entirely. Like the astronaut’s awed description, in the film, 2001, of the black monolith – “My God, it’s full of stars” – Khan’s monolithic objects magically reveal themselves to be composed of thousands upon thousands of miniscule, teeming words, twinkling astigmatically. It would be a mistake, then, to characterize these works as abstract paintings – though that’s inevitably what they initially bring to mind, and is certainly part of the artistic lineage to which Khan is referring. But their use of written language means that they’re not abstract in the way the term is typically used, to indicate a lack of literal depiction (rather, text exists at a different register of representation altogether). Nor are the words painted onto the surface, but instead stamped in ink – a process of printing. And in fact the only aspect of the works which comes remotely close to painting are their matte, mottled backgrounds, in which pigment is mixed with slate-dust and glue to achieve a calcified, slab-like effect. But even here the accumulated layers are subsequently sanded back until perfectly smooth, a process more akin to sculpture or stonemasonry than traditional ideas of painting.

On the other hand, once again, you have to acknowledge that the final works certainly look abstract. For although the shimmering, macrocosmic shapes are composed of microcosmic words, it’s only at the fringes, the speckled penumbrae, that any individual words or snippets of sentences can be read. The rest of the text, stamped in lines that radiate into or away from the centre, is overlaid so densely as to become utterly illegible; to become, in fact, no longer text at all, but instead pure colour, dark matter – as if the words have been caught in the pull of that same black hole again, have collapsed and disintegrated under their own massed, inky weight. And the patterns which result suggest a fundamental, almost cosmological abstraction: regular, mathematical shapes such as a circle or a rhombus; or ragged, whirling, wing-like shapes, explosively amorphous, the sort of thing to conjure up thoughts of the Big Bang. Abstraction versus non-abstraction, flux versus stability, macrocosmic versus microcosmic, form versus formlessness – the constant feeling, then, when you’re viewing Khan’s ‘Beyond the Black’ works, is of a kind of elemental push-and-pull, a continual oscillation between contradictory states of perception, different aesthetic categories. It’s a bit like a sort of game, an aesthetic baitand-switch being played with the viewer – and certainly, this type of intellectual, sophisticated pleasure is part of the point of the works, and that’s a perfectly respectable way of making art. But there’s also far more going on here than that. Beyond mere aesthetics, the works are mainly concerned with opening themselves up to deeper, metaphysical questions – or rather, a link is made precisely between aesthetic and metaphysical questions. And it’s a link that becomes clear once the source of the works’ texts, illegible though most them are, is understood – which is that all of the writing consists of Khan’s meditative, personal responses to Frederick Nietzsche’s great work of metaphysics, The Birth of Tragedy. As Nietzsche argues, in the book’s cardinal tenet: “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified”1. And so Khan’s ultimate aim similarly becomes the revelation of a sort of metaphysical or existential truth; an attempt to grasp what, in artistic terms, it might indeed mean to reach ‘beyond mere aesthetics’ – or, to employ the language of Khan’s own writings, ‘beyond the black’. Published in 1872 when Nietzsche was only 28, The Birth of Tragedy is a peculiar, unruly work that performs several different functions at once. Partly a historical thesis on the origins and decline of classical Greek tragedy (by which Nietzsche meant dramas enacted on stage and set to music), partly a critical polemic on behalf of his youthful idol, the composer Richard Wagner, the heart of the book, and the reason for its enduring influence as a work of literature, is Nietzsche’s recognition

and elaboration of two primary, complimentary cultural forces, which he famously termed the Apollonian and the Dionysian. In brief, the Apollonian, named after the Greek god of light and dreams, denotes notions of concrete form and appearance, of the visible world, of rational knowledge and recognizable boundaries – including the boundaries that constitute individual selfhood. The Dionysian, by contrast, understands that all such definite forms are in reality mere illusions, and instead revels in a dissolution of selfhood, in formless flux, in a return to the primal, undifferentiated oneness of all existence – and hence takes its name taken from the god of intoxication and ecstasy. The purpose of great art, Nietzsche argued, was to combine both forces: to provide an Apollonian framework of beauty and structure, in order to channel the primal, Dionysian apprehension of the powerful truths at the heart of being. Indeed, the writing in The Birth of Tragedy is itself an example of this process. Although later in life Nietzsche criticized the book’s dialectic argument for being too obviously Hegelian and simplistic, he nevertheless couched his criticism in terms that echo his earlier formulation of Dionysian and Apollonian forces, describing the book’s voice as “stammering laboriously and at random in a foreign tongue, almost unsure whether it wished to communicate or conceal.”2 This sense of fluctuation between concealment and communication is also a perfect description, as it happens, of Khan’s ‘Beyond the Black’ pieces – with their reams of words streaming ceaselessly in and out of legibility, their stammering whorls of sentences. In fact, all of the works’ aesthetic contrasts, their oscillation between various aspects of form and formlessness, fit extremely neatly within an Apollonian-Dionysian scheme. Which isn’t to say that Khan’s works are meant as conceptual illustrations of Nietzsche’s ideas, far from it. Rather, what’s striking about the ‘Beyond the Black’ series is their uncanniness, that sensation of foreignness and estrangement that Nietzsche mentions in the quotation above – not an intellectual awareness of formal opposites, but rather an intuitive, sensory response, in which the very distinctions between aesthetic categories start to break down. It’s a kind of creeping, not to mention creepy, feeling: a glimpse of what it might mean for words and shapes, for our very selves, to be simultaneously formed and unformed, created and uncreated; for something to be a thing, and somehow at the same time also its opposite. In delving into such ideas, Khan is part of a lineage of artists who have responded to Nietzsche, and particularly to The Birth of Tragedy. Not for nothing did Nietzsche later describe his book as “an artist’s metaphysics”3 – though he meant that he himself, as the author, was the artist in question,

The Birth of Tragedy has also acted as an inspiration for countless metaphysically inclined artists (and what artist worth their salt isn’t, ultimately, metaphysically inclined), from Wassily Kandisnsky to Naum Gabo. Top of the list, of course, is Mark Rothko, who treated The Birth of Tragedy as a kind of personal manifesto, and who intended his paintings to act as a sort of quasi-mystical portal, bringing viewers into a numinous state of awareness in which to contemplate the awful transience of individual life, the sublime vastness of existence in general ­– culminating in those inexhaustibly powerful, unutterably tragic black-on-black paintings that preceded his suicide. There’s a crucial difference, though, between Khan’s own black-on-black works and the works of artists mentioned above. For those artists, Nietzschean concepts were fused with Modernist ideas about the autonomy of art: by pursuing abstraction in their work, by rejecting any representational connection to the visible world, such artists believed they could offer a purer, more unmediated, more truthful insight into existence. Yet this sort of confident, even strident belief in art’s separation from the rest of the world now seems decidedly naïve and old-fashioned, and in Khan’s work the issue is appropriately much more complicated. Specifically, the complicating factor is language. Indeed, Khan’s work is about language, particularly written language, in a way that modernist artists would never have been able to envision – about its capacities, its limitations, its strictures; about the way words can seem more mysterious, more substantial, than the things they purport to describe. This has been an recurring concern for Khan in many previous series, where he has responded to other great works of literature by producing photographic palimpsests or using his stamping technique in different ways – and where the abiding intention, paradoxical as it seems, is to attempt to transcend language, to somehow supersede language. That’s a fundamental aspect of the ‘Beyond the Black’ works, too, with their stamped repetitions, their fugue of illegibility: a sort of textual equivalent to repeatedly speaking a word aloud till it looses all meaning and becomes simply a sound. Yet for all the degeneration, there’s equally a sense of generation – that’s the simultaneity, the continuousness, inherent in the works. If anything, the ‘Beyond the Black’ series feels weighted in favour of writing, biased towards text and its creation – so that, for instance, the macrocosmic shapes ultimately tend to be read as exploding outwards instead of funneling inwards, as birthlike Big Bangs rather than concluding Big Crunches. And it’s interesting, too, how the viewer’s eye naturally snags on those few, legible words on the periphery, on the beginnings or ends of sentences. Although they make no grammatical sense, the simple fact of their forms – certain, familiar, Apollonian – carries a powerful resonance.

More than previous works by Khan, then, the ‘Beyond the Black’ series is about the ultimate inescapability of language. The textual eruptions in the works act like a sort of interference, an invasion, a stain, blotting out the rich emptiness of the background ­– a background, indeed, whose mottled patina resembles nothing quite so much as a late Rothko. It’s the text, too, that reflects us back to ourselves, that forces us to consider ourselves as individuals, even as we regard the works before us. To be standing in front of them – the works seem to say – to be human, to be born at all, is to be torn, traumatically, from the formless oneness of existence, to be thrust into a realm not of things in themselves, but of names for things and representations of things. Inverting Nietzsche’s title, we might call it the tragedy of birth: our brutal deliverance, our cold isolation within the world of words. The ‘Beyond the Black’ works thus represent a divergence, or perhaps a refinement, of Nietzsche’s ideas. For Nietzsche, it was form and beauty in general, but specifically the forms and institutions of Western civilization, with their veneration of rational thought, which acted as a barrier to the transcendent, Dionysian sublime. For Khan, that great barrier is language alone – and nothing exemplifies its impassibility better than his culminating mural piece, Beyond the Black Walldrawing, 2013, installed in situ on the gallery’s gargantuan walls. And yet, there’s an irony, perhaps also a greater humanity, to Khan’s position. After all, while it’s language that bars our way to a fundamental unity, it’s nevertheless also through language that we’re able to express our desire, our instinctive searching, for that same unity. That, it seems, is the final message of the mural piece – for it’s by gazing into its melancholy vastness, by seeing its reflection of not only our individual selves, now, but of other viewers too, that a reconciliation of sorts is reached. Khan’s ‘Beyond the Black’ works may not offer unmediated access to a transcendent, sublime universe – but by being orientated instead towards us, towards the realm of text and concrete forms, they become a kind of portrait, a picture of humanity. If to be human is to be bound by language, they suggest, then it’s also language – the loss, the separation, the perpetual yearning that goes along with it – that truly makes us human in the first place.


Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (Penguin Classics, 1993 ed.), p. 32


‘Attempt at a Self-Criticism’, Ibid., p. 6


Ibid., p. 5

Beyond The Black, 2013 Black Gesso and oil based ink on aluminium 200 x 237 cm 路 78 3/4 x 93 1/4 in

Pulled From The Darkness, 2013 Black Gesso and oil based ink on aluminium 200 x 237 cm 路 78 3/4 x 93 1/4 in detail following page

Beginning Or End, 2013 Black Gesso and oil based ink on aluminium 200 x 237 cm 路 78 3/4 x 93 1/4 in

Shapes, 2013 Black Gesso and oil based ink on aluminium 200 x 237 cm 路 78 3/4 x 93 1/4 in detail following page

On A Clear Day, 2013 Black Gesso and oil based ink on aluminium 200 x 237 cm 路 78 3/4 x 93 1/4 in

Emptiness, 2013 Black Gesso and oil based ink on aluminium 200 x 237 cm 路 78 3/4 x 93 1/4 in detail following page

Restraints, 2013 Black Gesso and oil based ink on aluminium 200 x 237 cm 路 78 3/4 x 93 1/4 in

What We Do Not See, If We Do Not See, 2013 Black gesso and oil based ink on aluminum 60 x 71 cm 路 23 5/8 x 28 in

Peacefull Stillness, 2013 Black Gesso and oil based ink on aluminium 60 x 71 cm 路 23 5/8 x 28 in

Action And Knowledge, 2013 Oil based relief ink on 480g screened acid free paper 100 x 118 cm 路 39 3/8 x 46 1/2 in

Beyond The Black, 2013 Oil based relief ink on 480g screened acid free paper 100 x 118 cm 路 39 3/8 x 46 1/2 in

Creation Of The Creator, 2013 Oil based relief ink on 480g screened acid free paper 100 x 118 cm 路 39 3/8 x 46 1/2 in

Intoxicate 1, 2013 Oil based relief ink on 480g screened acid free paper 100 x 118 cm 路 39 3/8 x 46 1/2 in

Peaceful Stillness, 2013 Oil based relief ink on 480g screened acid free paper 100 x 118 cm 路 39 3/8 x 46 1/2 in

The Illusion Of Reality, 2013 Oil based relief ink on 480g screened acid free paper 100 x 118 cm 路 39 3/8 x 46 1/2 in

Intoxicate 2, 2013 Oil based relief ink on 480g screened acid free paper 100 x 118 cm 路 39 3/8 x 46 1/2 in

Truthful Existence, 2013 Oil based relief ink on 480g screened acid free paper 100 x 118 cm 路 39 3/8 x 46 1/2 in

For my wife Annie Morris for all her encouragement and support in everything I do and my two beautiful children Teds and Teds 2 The artist would like to thank Seb Camilleri, Athene Greig, Marc Cowan, Philippa Bloomfield and everyone at Victoria Miro Gallery

Published on the occasion of the exhibition Idris Khan | Beyond the Black 20 September – 9 November 2013 at Victoria Miro, 16 Wharf Road, London N1 7RW Text by Gabriel Coxhead Design by Martin Lovelock Portrait photography by Suki Dhanda Photography by Stephen White Additional photography by Prudence Cuming Printed and bound by PUSH All images courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London All works © Idris Khan Published by Victoria Miro Gallery 2013 ISBN: 978 0 9568566 8 5 Copyright © The Victoria Miro Gallery All rights reserved. No part of this book should be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording or information storage or retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher

Idris Khan | Beyond the Black