Monday, 21 April 2014

Idris Khan | Zurich Opera Magazine


I was commissioned by the Zurich Opera House to write about the London-based artist, Idris Khan in relation to his set design for Wayne McGregor's new ballet, 'Notations'. 

Floating Notes 
There’s black and then there’s black through the eyes of the London-based artist Idris Khan. It takes on a translucent, silky and luminous quality with incredible depth. The 36-year-old has always made work in a predominantly monochromatic palette, so his photographs, paintings, sculptures and wall drawings blur the distinction between light and dark, history and present, rendered and erased. 

The Royal College of Art graduate layers varied information in different media. His photographic composites have condensed every page of the Quran into a 136 x 170 cm digital print; transformed the eminent psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud’s seminal text on the uncanny into an eerie mass of words and combined Bernd and Hilla Becher’s extensive series of industrial machinery into ghostly apparitions. 

Khan's technique of overlaying appropriated imagery and text is certainly at it's most poetic with his photographs of complete works by composers. Pieces such as ‘Struggling to Hear…After Ludwig van Beethoven Sonatas’ from 2005 capture the cacophony of sound or the lack thereof for Beethoven with distilled poignance. It was works such as this that caught Wayne McGregor's attention. And it seems to only have been a matter of time before the right collaboration would require Khan's visual language: 'I think his choreography is really complex and he saw a relationship between my way of thinking about layering and got in touch.'

Following in the footsteps of Picasso and David Hockney, this will be Khan's first set design, which one might expect to be a daunting undertaking when your natural habitat is the confines of a gallery: 'The context has completely changed so you have to think about the dancers, the lighting and their interaction with the art. One thing that really struck me straight away was when are you going to get the chance where an audience is going to sit and look at one of your pieces for forty minutes. So for me it was all about how the audience responds to looking at something for that length of time. I don’t think you really think about that when you’re creating work for a gallery.' Rising to the challenge, he's effortlessly translated his artistic practice into an immersive design that eloquently marries the sublime fluidity of McGregor’s choreography crossed with the serene tones from Richter splicing of Vivaldi’s 'Four Season'.

This is the first time Khan has ever created one of his music pieces using an arrangement by the Baroque composer: 'I always used music that has influenced my life in some way, whether it’s my mother’s favourite pieces or something that's educated me. It made complete sense to create a music piece because of the nature of what Max did to the Four Seasons. When I listen to that piece of music it’s all about stripping it down and keeping something familiar and then creating something new and that’s exactly what appropriation is.' And Richter's composition of disarranged notes comes alive in Khan's large gauze screens printed with superimposed sheets of Vivaldi's complete work. 

Every note is seized in a state of limbo. They're caught between lines, squeezed between other notes, gripping each other and sandwiched together. What is once claustrophobic is also a release from conformity as notes meld into one another, inadvertently posing as another. They're captured together in a single moment that will last the duration of the performance. There is no beginning or end, just now. There is no order, only chaotic exaltation.

This intense compression of information is balanced by the contemplative element of the entire design that echoes Vivaldi’s priestly background. Accompanying the notes will be a sculptural structure that has certainly  been informed by the physicality of Richard Serra’s large-scale steel sculptures along with Sol Le Witt's obsessively drawn formations: 'I wanted it to look almost like a sketch on the stage in the middle of this black field and you'll only see the curve when the light hits it. I’ve used the same process as I do for my paintings with layers of gesso, which is made with rabbit skin glue, black pigments and slate dust and then it’s sanded back and sanded back so it creates this incredible marble finish. What I love about gesso is the way is absorbs light, it really sucks it in.'

But the curved form isn't just inspired by Khan's artistic background, it also mirrors the performance's context of dancers interacting and responding to music. It'll sweep down the stage like a bass clef, emulating the arced movements of the dancers as well as providing a constraint to their presence on stage, a boundary to which they must adhere. By restricting the space on stage Khan creates a tension for the dancers to reverberate off. But he's also created a realm aided by the lighting design of Lucy Carter where they will literally physically interact with the music: 'I've used transparent gauze so when you light it from the front, the audience will see the music but when lit from the back they'll see the dancers. So at any one given point the dancers are immersed in the musical notation, becoming part of the music, becoming notes.' 

In the same way that McGregor will build phrases with his ten dancers and Richter has rephrased the notes of 'Four Seasons', Khan has created a design that echoes these abstract interpretations to create a new orchestration: 'At any one point I'm jumping over phrases and putting them back on top of each other, almost creating my own symphony.'