Meet the Artist: Idris Khan


– Thank you very much Dan.
– Thank you. – And thank you Melissa, Lori, and Amy, the Hirshorn and Art in
Embassies for having us. The most important thing on my CV today was not mentioned by
Dan and that is that I was the very first
person as a lowly writer without a lot of income,
to buy Idris’ work when he was a student
(audience chuckling). – It’s true.
– And so I have followed him with great
interest and did follow him particularly in his early
years and then I’d been living in San Francisco, he’s in London. We haven’t seen each
other in a very long time. So it’s actually a joyous occasion for me to be sitting here with him.
– Me too. – This detail of the Essence of Existence which is the painting which hangs in the American Embassy in Islamabad. We’re going to return to
that painting but we’re gonna start at the beginning, at
the very beginning actually if we could have the next slide. Just a word about Idris’
background, Idris is a really beautiful name and I remember thinking that the first time I
met him and Idris is both a mountain in Wales in
the UK and a prophet in the Koran?
– Yep. – And your mother was a
Welsh nurse and your father was a Pakistani surgeon.
– That’s right. – And tell us a bit about your upbringing from a religious point of view I guess, and how you came with medical
parents to be an artist. (audience laughing) – I am a Welsh Pakistani
raised and born Muslim. My father, yes, he is a
sort of a refugee of sorts. He was born in Lucknow in
India and in the partition between the countries it’s in Pakistan. He moved to Karachi as a
very young boy so he had a lot of trauma from that
experience and raised you know, not very well. Very sort of poor, on
the streets and managed to find a way out through
you know, education and becoming a doctor
where he moved to Wales. And he started practicing
as a surgeon in Cardiff and my mother was a
Welsh, as you say, nurse and she was a surgical
nurse and he met her in the, at the hospital and–
– In the operating room? – And probably in the operating theater itself actually yeah.
(Sarah chuckling) And you know, this was sort of late ’60s so difficult time for mixed race marriages especially in somewhere like Wales, especially working class. My mother was a very working class woman. Her father was a butcher
and so when she was bringing a brown person
home, so you can imagine the sort of shock that
happened to him there. And then they had four kids
and I was one of those. Third boy and you know,
they lived through some difficult times, race
riots in Bristol and moved around the country and
finally settled in Birmingham Central England and that’s
where I was born and raised. – And how did you come,
did they appreciate your interest in art? – Very much, no, not at all actually. (audience and Sarah laughing) How did it happen? They, luckily for them I
wasn’t really interested, that interested in art
through school anyway. It sort of came to me quite late. I wasn’t a natural sort of artist. I can, you know, I’m married to a very natural painter and sculptor. My wife’s an incredible artist. But it didn’t come, you
know, fluidly is what I’m trying to say, it
didn’t come naturally and I wanted to be an athlete. I wanted to be a runner and
then that didn’t work out. I hurt my leg and that
failed miserably and I started to pick up a camera
and that is when I realized I could translate my ideas
into images and conceptual art. – The camera is indeed
very liberating for people who don’t like to draw.
– (chuckling) Very much so. (Sarah giggling)
Exactly. A different way of looking
at the world, yeah. – Next slide please. So this is the very first
work that Idris sold every page of Susan
Sontag’s On Photography. – My first 800 pounds from
selling of photography. (Sarah laughing) And it wasn’t even in the degree show, it was in the interim show. It was the January before
I graduated in July. – Yeah.
– And the position of this work was so unusual
because I positioned it really, really low down on a staircase. It was the only wall left
that I was allowed to show on and it was really, and
suddenly I met Sarah walking along and she
was looking at this piece and we started a conversation and you were the very first person to buy that work. – And I have had the
pleasure of living with it and so for me right from
the beginning and still to this day, its been a
kind of utopian picture and a dystopian picture. As a writer and a reader,
I love the fantasy that I can just take in
a whole book, every page of a book at the same time, you know? There’s the fan… Especially when you’re
a student during exams, you’ve got a stack of
books, like, if I could just inject it all into my
brain so that’s kind of the utopian kind of emotional reaction I have and then I have a dystopian
one which is I can’t make heads or tails of this book. None of it makes sense, it’s so confusing. Because of course,
there are very few words that you can actually
pick out although there is reference to personal expression in the bottom right hand line.
– There is, yes. – Tell me, I mean, how exactly
did you make this piece? – These were sort of, some
of the earliest photographs obviously, so and I was
using negative at the time. I was using five four
cameras and I would have the five four camera setup
over the book and I think, you know, being a student on an M.A. in London the first time
I sort of, I didn’t, for the first year of the M.A. I couldn’t make any photographs at all. I couldn’t go out into the world. I was never to sort of go
out and document anything, document the world in any way. So I would always try and
I suppose, make images that were to do with the
knowledge I was gaining. That’s why I most like
these books down, you know everybody’s, I mean,
most photography students or people with interest
in photography have read Susan’s Hearts on Towers
on photography, you know. It’s just like a book in
photography and so I thought okay, can I take the sort
of the energy in a sense or maybe the sort of I guess essence, if you like (chuckling), but to photograph every page and capture in many moments because there’s hundreds of pages, what it would be like to take in the entire piece of knowledge. And I suppose it was more
of an overwhelming thing you know, at college
you’re like read this one or read that one, read that and you know, when at the time the book
series went onto using Roland Barthes’ Camera
Lucida or Freud’s Uncanny. Any sort of art book that was
sort of, I was told to read I was sort of gaining
knowledge and through that knowledge I would
make the photograph. So it was almost like a
sort of portrait in a way perhaps of the actual author. – And so you’d have
your camera on a tripod, on a stabilizing device
and you’d turn the page, take an analog photograph–
– Yes. – Turn the page–
– but there were multiple exposures onto
one negative so I would probably do around sort of five or six and then change the
negatives and then I may have played with the camera
and then again and again. And then I would have sort
of you know, however many negatives, scan them in, and
then they would work, yeah. I Photoshopped.
– Then you worked digitally. – Yeah but not too much
I mean, you know, it was quite basic back then (chuckling). I wasn’t sort of a genius
at using that as a tool and you know, I think it
was just about accumulating time and space.
– Yeah. – I didn’t see it as this thing, you know, I didn’t want it to go to total black. I knew I had to control
it in a certain way where I wanted the viewer
to, wanted the viewer to find an immediate attachment
to the beauty of the image. They saw this book, they
couldn’t read the words, they were looking deeper into it you know? So it was just about, you know, and yet it looks like a very
minimal painting as well. – I like the idea that this was your way of grappling with the
icons of the discipline. – Yes.
– Could we have the next slide please? So here we have every
Bernd and Hilla Becher prison type gas holder.
– Yes. – And one of the many
things I find astonishing about your work is the
way you take photography and you know, it’s so deeply photographic. But at the same time,
this looks like a drawing. You’ve transformed many Becher photographs into what looks like a drawing and also, it looks like it’s spinning. So you’ve brought movement into what is an incredibly static body of work. I mean, those Becher
images in the original are so still and solid,
like, there’s not even a breeze blowing by in those images. – And they are incredible,
incredible pictures. The amount of time
they’ve taken to find the right moment and I think it
wasn’t about sort of being derogatory in any way
to those works at all. It was almost, again,
trying to capture the energy between pictures,
showing the subtle differences between those, those
images and that’s what made this sort of spinning. You know, it’s the same thing taken over many places but from
just the subtle movements of the camera from distance
or close-up you just get this sort of slight
difference in the picture which creates the energy
which starts to look like a drawing and a charcoal picture. But the one thing I think, you
know, for all of these works is you know, the relationship
that I always wanted photography to have with painting. I wasn’t interested in my eye. I was interested in
always showing my hand. So that and then, so
therefore the, it was almost sort of just drawing, drawing with light. – That is so interesting. I didn’t even understand what you meant when you first said it,
not interested in your eye. So it’s not about what you
see in this treat and like… Very much showing what
you can do with an image. – Well it became about
sort of, especially moving to London as a really
busy city and the nature and the sort of saturated
nature of photography and everything sort of
on a tube or you know, in the street there’s so
many images coming at you all the time and I think
at that point when I moved to London I wanted to stop taking pictures and then almost recycle photography. It’s like, we don’t need to take any more. I mean, it seems a sad
thought that we take so many pictures now we
don’t even think about it. And even then in 2004,
with the sort of arise in digital photography it
was almost like we could just take as many as we
wanted to and sort of just disregard the rest, you know? So I wanted to make a comment on the fact that we can return to
something and even if we look back at something, we
can create something new with even more, I hate to
say it, even more energy or to take the stillness
out of photography and give it energy. – Beautiful. I mean a lot of Barr, Penn,
Sontag, and these authors and many, many photographers
out of the 20th Century believed in, that photography had essences or essential things that
the medium had to do. Do you think photography has an essence? – I think that it, I think
that it, of course it does. I think that in these images especially, I’m trying to find it.
(Sarah giggling) So it’s almost like searching a little bit and whether it’s, if
you think about looking at a book of images or
looking at images as we do you often, you know, a photography
can point to something. But, I think, what I’m
trying to look at is not sort of at that point I’m
looking at a totality. A totality and what
that totality can bring. There are many, many
traces of time built up to create one thing. – That’s beautiful.
– And style maybe. – May we have the next slide please? We’ve already hinted
about this authorship. – Yeah I think, it is. It’s also about taking,
it’s not about owning the pictures that exist
and you know, it’s not I don’t really wanna bring
a copyright or anything like that in this sort of
conversation but it was very much about showing the dedication to a work of art and the Becher’s spent many, many years trying to
photograph a perfect thing. And then, through typography they collected all these images. And Karl Blossfeldt, he
photographed plant segments for 25 years in a garden shed. And I’m just like interested
for say the work… If you take all of these
photographs and you lay them on top of each other, what you’re capturing is what kind
of looks like a bunch of flowers in the end
(chuckling) but what you’re capturing is that sort
of subtle, dedication into something, so that which becomes almost like a portrait
of that person I think. – In these early works, someone might have might think that you
were perhaps overwhelmed by the history of photography or felt like the author was dead or that
creating an original image was too overwhelming. – Well you know, at the time when I was sort of like especially
being at the Royal College there were a lot of you know,
after 2000, September 11th and there was a lot of
sort of it was all a war, Tony Blair was going to anyway. All this sort of political
stuff that happened around it. There were a lot of artists in the school who were making quite political
work with their photographs and also it was sort of the rise of the British realism as well. People like Martin
Powell who were going out and taking like really
extreme, reality photographs and I couldn’t really compete with that. In some way, I had to find my own voice within photography and
I think that’s a very difficult thing to do and I don’t know whether I achieved it, who knows. But I think I wanted to try and find a way of making, you know,
having this relationship with painting and not
going out in the world and photographing the reality or the, or being political with photography. Trying to think about beauty and trying to think about, I mean, yes appropriation definitely came into it
quite a lot as it is, you know, I mean I worked with, I worked with the Brown Sisters
works by Nicholas Nixon. And, you know, ghostly traces that’s what I wanted to capture. – Nice, next slide please. So here we have every
page of the Holy Koran. – Not to be political. (audience and Sarah laughing) – Yes and I mean I
remember you talking to me about your idea to make this work and I felt immediate trepidation. I was like, okay are you gonna… Will this be protested? You know, has it ever been shown in the Middle East to this day? – No.
– Has it been shown in religious environments
like Muslim environments? – Not really but before
I made it I, it was my father’s Koran so it was his book. So essentially it was a
comment on my hip mate my family history and
understanding Islam internally and I think, ’cause I can comment on that. I have a name that allows
me to make work like this. You know, it’s okay for me to
sort of have a license, some. (Sarah laughing) But I think that, you know, it was… Look it still is a very difficult time at the moment for Islam and
I thought that this image would almost bring some sort of clarity to a very, in a way, a very
confused book or at someone. So if I strip it down,
if I just say basically, here’s two and a half thousand photographs two and a half thousand pages
went into making this picture. Now what does that sort
of get, it’s quite nice. It looks like the sort of
back end of a plate camera as well with this sort
of frame within a frame and this all this content,
this very confused content especially at the time
when I was making it. To create a very sort of simple image. And I like the funnel in the
center of the book as well. It sort of allows you
to fall into it, like it’s very sort of sublime in that way. And because we can’t read
it and it’s undecipherable then we just see it as a,
we just see it as a book. The power comes from obviously the title. Everyone knows then what
it is and without being political you suddenly, are. – It’s kind of interestingly
demystifying of the Koran and mystifying of the
Koran at the same time. – Yes, I think so.
– And I, I look at it and I think of like, how
those words being recited and memorized over and
over again over the years, it is a very different
kind of book, let’s say to Susan Sontag’s.
– Well it’s supposed to be exactly that, you don’t read
The Crime like a normal book. You read it a page a week essentially. The same page repetition
and something we haven’t talked about in the work
as well is the repetition that goes in with all
the work that I make. But, there is sort of
it’s definitely a comment on that way of reading
as well, page after page after page after page and sort of memory. Taking it in. – Do you think the
function, I mean photography has always been a form
of visual memory for us. Do you think that’s
shifted lately with the arrival of Instagram and
smart phones with cameras? Have we lost the memory of the history for the sheer deluge or how do you…? – Yeah, I mean, look the
numbers are incredible. You know, I did some,
I don’t know how I… We’ll go on to something
I’m doing in London a little bit later, but
you know there are I think there have been, I don’t
know how you can actually think about this in terms of
number 3.2 trillion images made since the existence of photography. So therefore, that in
terms of space and volume take you to the moon and
back in terms of images laid up on top of each other. And then there are 40 million images posted on Instagram a day, probably more. And then, you know, it’s unbelievable that do we realize what we’re, do we realize that we’re taking pictures anymore? Or when does that point stop? And also the lack of printing as well. – Next slide please. Then you moved on to, from
words to musical notes. Can you tell, what prompted that shift? – I grew up around music. My mother was a talented pianist. She never really made up but I had a lot of music in the house so there are lots of pages of music everywhere. I grew up with sort of
just lots of written music and I guess that’s the sort
of memory of that as well. And I also think music
is a trigger to memory and so photography as well. You know, you listen to a piece of music, it takes you back a place
in time where you listened to that, whatever it is,
be it a romantic time be it a difficult time in your life. It triggers something
and I think a photograph does the same thing so I
was marrying the two things. Bach’s Cello Suites was one of my mother’s favorite pieces of music
but it was also made as a, Bach used it as sort of exercise. They weren’t actually
made to be concert pieces. They weren’t made to
be played in that way. They were supposed to be
for the mind and body. They were supposed to be studies for Bach to get stronger in
exercises within playing ’cause they’re very, very
difficult pieces to make. So I was fascinated by that
idea and then combining the two, the fact that you’re
seeing every single note in one image as well,
again, looks like, you know, I love abstract expressionism. It looks like a sort
of Pollock if you like. The energy behind each note is there and it’s got this sort
of amazing sort of energy within the image and you’re
sort of, while looking at the picture, quite
like say, you entitled that The Sight of Sound. You’re looking for the
sound I think somehow. You know and you can feel it so I think expressively as well within it also eludes to my hand again so I
was always tryin’ to play with things that leaded
to painting and drawing. – I don’t read music but I can read– – You don’t need to.
– No, you don’t need to because if we could have the next slide, the difference between
Bach Cello and Beethoven is pretty visceral (laughing). – And yet, when he was
making these, he was losing his hearing so
it’s kind of interesting that it became so dense and– – You can hear dun, ta dun,
dum (chuckling) you know? You can see it I should say. – Yeah and it’s actually, the title is actually called Struggling
to Hear because I wanted to viewer when they came up to the work to almost press their ear
against the photograph. I know that sounds a
weird thing, but I wanted it to be so dense in some
way that you’re really struggling to see the notes. So the was the densest one. The other ones were a
bit sort of floating, Mozart’s Requiem and
again, but it’s the things experiences that I’ve had
instead of photographing those experiences I photographed the music to return to the places
where I heard that music. So there are visual memories you know? Each and every one of the works. – Can we have the next slide please? We’re gonna move on to
sculpture, but this is a kind of nice transition
between the musical photographs and what are
musical notes on for– – Pieces of rusted steel. So if you take the
appropriation, you could think of this as a slight Richard
Serra, One Ton Prop, one of his first works
and I quite like that sort of reference it makes. You think about sort of,
you know, minimal sculpture and then its got the expressive
hand over the top of it. So what I did making this work, it’s based on a piece of music called
Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messiaen and he
was in a concentration camp when he conceived the
music and actually tried to perform it within the cell. He scratched the music into the surface of the wall and I found
that very fascinating to sort of scratching the
surface and sort of making those marks within, with
it embedded into a surface. And I rusted the steel
for four months in the South Coast and then I
made musical templates of the music on each side
of the four pieces of steel. I sandblasted layering so instead of using a photograph, I was using
a templates of music. So there were steel
templates, I sandblasted through the template
which removed the rust and then I went on with the next template and did that again and again and again until you get this sort
of layered up, you know, layered up mark making on the steel. So it’s you know, to
sort of try and capture that experience of
scratching music into a wall. – He was a Jew in a concentration camp during World War II?
– Yes. I think it’s–
– In his– – Yeah.
– Do you feel like, your wife is Jewish–
– Yeah. – Do you feel like that– – It was an interesting
wedding (chuckling). (Sarah and audience laughing) – If we had more time we’d like to hear about that in detail. Do you feel like your
connection to Judaism through her gave you more
liberty to tell this story? – Yeah, I think so and
actually she was the first one to sort of encourage me
to move into sculpture and move into different
things away from photography. You know, she didn’t come
along and suddenly say, “You should layer every
page of the Torah.” (chuckling) Or anything like that, but– (Sarah laughing) – I am so glad you’d make that work. – Right exactly and that would have been a slight, a touch too
far although it could be quite beautiful, anyway. (all chuckling) Maybe one day but yeah it did– – A commission.
– Of course but it was more you know, like I said, I
think that these stories and especially through learning about art through knowledge,
through books, and through learning about music,
you find these stories and you know, I’ve said to you before, I feel like they find me. So it’s, you can have
that, you know, you can… I just found that so
fascinating that he was going through these
struggles and if you think about struggling, struggles
in life to actually achieve, to make art, it’s nice
to sort of get back to that. – And also, his desire
to visualize the music in his head was such that he would scratch on a wall is similar in
some way, or not similar. There’s a perpendicular relationship to it with your desire to visualize– – Yeah, yeah.
– As well. – Yeah, I think that if you think about the sort of the rusting
element of this as well. The sort of the time it
takes to get that orange rust on there and to embed
those notes, you’re almost embedding it within the material. And I quite like the fact that you know, sandblasting when you
sandblast steel it’s such a violent act as well. Something quite aggressive
about it ripping off a surface of the actual
metal and then it leaves something quite delicate
and soft on the surface. So it’s almost saying
that if you’ve got this sort of, you know, steel
where it’s very sort of like you know, especially in minimal sculptural or a sculpture like
Richard Serra or something like that, it’s a very sort
of physical, heavy material and even almost wanted to lighten it up. And I think that’s what the music does. – Next slide please. – It’s a bit of a jump (laughing). – And then the next slide again. These are the same, the
same work from two different angles and a work you’ve
just completed in Abu Dhabi. You can see the, how it, you’ve moved on from the Quartet piece
but you’re echoing it. – Yeah.
– I have so many questions about this piece. It commemorates some 300 Emirati
soldiers who died in Yemen? – Yes, correct that work. – But what I really wanna
know is how you made it? In terms of its, the
geography of its production. It was sourced–
– Yeah all over the world. I’ve gotta start from the
beginning even though it’s quite a long thing to talk about. I’ll be as quick as possible. So I was invited to present a proposal for this piece of public art. There was no real brief,
it was just essentially we want to create a
memorial park and we want a sculpture to be part of the park. And that was in January
2016, ’16 and I won the competition in March
2016 and when I was told and you know, it’s a massive sculpture. It was 23 meters high by 150 meters long. And I was told that I
had two years to make it. I then, the next day was told
I had seven months to make it. (audience laughing) – And also it involves
also a pavilion, correct? – Yeah I designed the pavilion. – Okay can we just see the next slide? Okay and it involves a pavilion as well as the large scale sculpture. – So the entire park
was 42,000 square meters and I became quite an
integral part into the design of the entire park itself,
but I made it between Brisbane, Shanghai, and Munich. And it took, I mean it was crazy. I had seven months, I opened it in, I mean the date’s wrong
unfortunately but I opened… Sorry, it was my fault. I opened it in November 2016
and it was a phenomenal effort. Each one of the, it was
basically a steel structure, a steel core and there
are 900 aluminum panels over the entire thing which have been all hand painted and sanded back. There’s also text which
has been sandblasted into the surface of the aluminum. So we cast all of those
and put them together and some how piece together
and it was almost like a sort of jigsaw puzzle to put it together but it was quite a feat. – I love the way how its,
works as an abstraction and also you kind of feel like they’re fallen soldiers some how.
– I think that you know it… Yes it was about soldiers. It was about a country
adapting to the fact that they’ve never been in a war before and then they were and
then they didn’t realize what they’d, anyway, all of
that sort of story behind it. But you know, for me, I
wanted to create and I think you know, a lot of the work that I make is about a sort of loss, a
sort of loss and a trace. And I think those are very
emotional point of this, to everybody who will go
through losing someone in their lives and could I
make a sculpture about loss? Could I make a massive,
huge, steel structure feel delicate, feel like
it was almost capturing the moment of not falling? Because what you want in that point is for someone to push you back up. So I wanted to create
something where you walk up to it and you feel this
sort of energy of loss and of losing anyone
and you can relate to it in anyway whether you’re losing soldiers or whether you’re losing
people close to you in your family and in life
it’s just about having that human emotion of
just not wanting to fall. So if you have a structure around you to wanting to push you back up. – Can we see the pavilion,
next slide please? So at first glance, one might think, well you’ve come a very long
way from photography, which you have, but it
occurs to me that the ceiling kind of looks like an aperture. – Oh yeah, it does. – And the way you
commemorate each soldier– – In the glass, glass plates. – Is with a little line of light. – Yeah so this is the pavilion space and surrounding the glass
sculpture in the sense which I made in Munich, funny enough, with the same company who make the big, massive pieces of glass
at the Apple stores. Just wanna say that.
(Sarah and audience laughing) – Designer shoes.
– The most pristine glass you’ll ever find in your
life, it’s incredible. And then I put some
Arabic words in the center which was the solider’s oath but around the actual sculpture itself, remember this was an extremely fast process. It was like answer this, do this. So creating that work at that pace, no one had any, like you couldn’t say, it was almost like just do it, you know. The most exciting thing
I’ll ever, honestly it was incredible the sort of pace that happened and you sort of, you know, you were thrown into a
position where you had to make decisions very quickly. Around the entire, pretty
much of the pavilion there are 2,000 tiles each. So I basically brought
back armored vehicles from the conflict and melted them down and used the aluminum in
the surface of the walls. So every time a soldier
gets added, it was quite a strange brief because it
was an on-going memorial. So every time a tile is
taken off and then replaced with the name and then a light comes on. So eventually it maybe, I
mean, God forbid it won’t be it might be a ream of light. – Wow, next slide please. So this is a sculpture
that you are in the process of making, this is just a mock up. It’s near Tate Modern in London. It’s called 65,000 Photographs. – Yes, it is and hopefully
I’ll be completing it by November this year. I just literally got this two weeks ago. Been working on it for quite awhile. It is the concept of which
we’ve just touched upon is the fact that we don’t
understand the volume of pictures that we’re taking now. So I wanted to make a
sculpture about that. A can I visualize the amount
of pictures I’ve taken, over the last five years I’ve
taken 65,000 pictures roughly. My wife’s taken probably more. We have 125,000 photographs
on our iCloud account. You know what I mean? It’s getting crazy but and it’s a boom because I have kids and
you know, it’s like… (audience chuckling) – Any cats or dogs?
– No, no exactly, imagine. And I’m not even on it, Instagram. But my point is that
we are consuming images all the time at a very, very fast rate. So I wanted to see if I
could make a sculpture by literally stacking
photographs on top of each other. So it’s not a great render, I apologize, but I took the very
standardization of photography so 5X7 print, 10X8 print,
12X16, 16X20, 25X24, blah blah blah, to create the
sort of structure of it so I will take all the photographic prints. You know, we don’t print,
we can not possibly print that many pictures
so I wanted to see what that volume of time could look like. So it’s a kind of little
mini-portrait essentially. So I’m casting 65,000
photographs in bronze and then stacking them
up on top of each other. Now, it would be 65,000 would actually be 16 meters but I couldn’t go
up to 16 meters (chuckling) so I had to do it in two bulks. But it’s an eight meter, it was an 8 meter sculpture in the end. I have no idea how I’m gonna
physically make it yet. (Sarah laughing) We’re working that out but I think it’s, it could be straight forward so I mean, there’s lots of engineering
and design elements in making it but I think the concept is quite lovely as you’re looking at this sort of this volume of space and time. But we don’t count out
the content anymore. When you do that you
know, you’re casting all these pictures and literally you casting but yeah, I just think
it’s kind of quite fragile. And I like the fact it’s just balancing on that 5X7 photograph footprint. – You’re re-analoging the digital. – Yeah, to make people aware about that amount of image making. – Can we have the next slide please? So, we’re not gonna talk
at length about this series but it is in the
Smithsonian’s collection and correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s there are five images–
– Yes. – That were initially commissioned by the New York Times, but you
have released as limited– – Yep.
– Art prints. – Yes.
– And one’s the London Eye. One’s the Houses of Parliament. – They were made for commission– – Saint Paul’s.
– For the Olympics, the London Olympics. Yeah and the idea and
the process is quite nice because instead of going in and photo… I was always obsessed with
these sort of tourist locations, how many pictures there are of them. You know, we go and we take
them and so many images and we all probably
have the same pictures. I decided not to go to the
sites to photograph them. I walked around London
going to every single postcard and tourist shop and
I bought all the postcards that I could find of the location of the, this is the London Eye, the Tower Bridge, and Parliament and Saint Paul’s and so I rephotographed all the
postcards and layered them up to create their image. – Next slide please. So Idris has made four
videos, none of which we’re seeing today in the interest of time and in the interest of
ending with painting. But because Cairos’ will
be coming to New York and Chicago and was met with
such acclaim in Zurich– – Munich.
– And Munich. This collaboration with a composer… I’d love to know more
about this collaboration you did with the composer
Max Richter and the choreographer Wayne McGregor. – And it was my first sort of time, I mean I worked with a dancer
before on a video piece and the first set I sort of made. But Wayne approached me, he
works with a lot of artists when he does sets and he’s one of the, a great choregrapher
in London and globally he’s getting a lot of acclaim. And Max Richter, of course,
is an incredible composer. Does lots of film scores
and he made a work where he recomposed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and it sort of made perfect sense. A, don’t take on Vivaldi,
you know, don’t do that. (Sarah laughing)
But he did and he managed to do it with such a
compelling way and incredible. So he basically did what
I did with photography. He cut up and layered up and all this sort of different bars and became
very dramatic piece of music. He approached me to then make the sets. So what you’re looking at
is actually the middle part of the ballet where the
front gores is every single stave of music and the back gore which is the square, that’s every single
note removed from the bars. So you’re basically
caught in these two places and that’s kind of nice word,
the chaos is a nice word because it’s a means
about sort of spatial. The big in between essentially of time. So then all the dancers became the notes and then you know, the scale
of it was quite interesting the fact that the notes were so massive and yet the dancers were sort of coming in and out of clarity and yeah. It was a lovely thing
to do because you know you can’t really go wrong with
like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. And then with such a great
composer and then bringing those three things together
it was such a lovely thing to be part of and I love
collaborating with them. I want to do more. – Good, next. So here we have a quite different series where you reveal your hand
in a very different way. So, you use chalk on chalkboard. – Yeah.
– And if we could have the next slide, take
pictures of the process and create these Twombly-esque images. – Yeah that was very
much, the image before with the charcoal and chalk were very much sort of influenced by Cy Twombly. Sort of, you know, he’s
a master of painting and I never claimed to
be a painter, but what I quite liked about
that process was that it became about the process of removal. So something that the,
in a way, a painting can’t capture is the entire
span of that painting being made, if that
makes any sense at all. So what I mean is to the point of you have a chalkboard and I would come in everyday and I would, you know,
the one prior to this. – Could we go back?
– Could we just go back a little bit? This is called Over and
Over and I would literally write over and over and over and over and over and over every day as I, but I would photograph over then I would rub it away and I would photograph that and then I would, it’s
basically image made up of 2,000, roughly 2,000 photographs. So basically if you imagine
just, I wasn’t happy with the entire word
that I wrote so I would zoom in and just take the O and then the V and piece them all together to create this sort of, in a way, a
development of a painting. So it’s capturing every
moment of the process rather than the finished thing. And then I disregard
the painting afterwards. – Is this the first body
of work in which you’ve actually revealed your hand
in the old fashioned sense? You know, your signature, the movement– – Yes.
– Of your hand? – Yeah very much so but I
think, you know, it’s cheating because could manipulate
that mark and bring it together and piece them together. – Well painters always cheat too. – Yeah.
– They’ve always, and drawings always had the benefit of an eraser. – Yeah, I know, exactly. And then, so the next
picture in the studio this is when I started
making it with oil stick. So just having the canvases on the wall and then painting and
photographing that process. But I actually quite like the fact that they became
photographs because then I then I wasn’t sort of
competing with painters. ‘Cause everybody would be
like, Brighton’s better. (audience and Sarah laughing) But then I could get
away, I could get away with a little bit more by
making those kind of images. – Well, I’m gonna say something though. It may be unpopular, I
don’t know, but I so much prefer and love your
Twombley’s to the original. Next slide.
(Idris chuckling) Here we have something quite different, a departure from now
seven years ago where you these are drawings but
they eventually evolved into paintings, including
the one in Islamabad. And you used stamps and these
are actually text based? – Yes, so this is when I really, I guess, made what, the paintings or drawings. Where I wanted to find a tool of making an actual drawing itself
and it was tricky, very, very tricky time for me. I lost my mother, she was quite young, 59 and I lost, my wife and I lost a baby very late on in the pregnancy. Very, very late so it was stillborn. So it was a very difficult
year in terms of grief and I wanted to find
a way of making a very cathartic way of making
an image, essentially and photography wasn’t
sort of doing it for me at the time so I, this is when
I sort of started writing. And I would come into
the studio and I’d write with anything to sort of get away from the sort of grief that I
was feeling at the time. So there are little
messages or little pieces of writing that I would
then turn into rubber stamps and then I would use the
rubber stamp and I would just stamp away and what I
quite like about the sort of patternation that it created
was there is a particular pilgrimage in Hajj where,
it’s called the jamarat, where Muslims take seven
stones to three different locations and throw the stone at the wall. It’s supposed to represent
the devil which rids you of sort of any sort of grief or you wanna get rid of any sort of
baggage essentially. So I really, I was really
interested in that idea that if you had a stone
and it was full of these words and you throw it at a piece of paper and these words just sort
of exploded and splattered over the page and what
would that look like. So then I was using it
as a way of, and I think there’s a next slide, just
this is the exhibition. So there were 21 drawings around the room and it was almost this sort
of, these little messages and emotions caught in
this little painting. – And called The Devil’s Wall. – The show was called The
Devil’s Wall and these were the three sculptures
because at the bottom of the wall in Hajj the
stones are collected at the bottom so I was really interested in this idea of throwing
the stone and these words falling like well into the
abyss and you couldn’t see into the middle of those sculptures. So there are in the sculptures sandblasted with text and going
into, yeah, just throwing a stone into words and disappearing. – Next slide. – And these are the stamps. I have around about a
hundred and thousand now. – How many?
– About 100,000. – And how do you decide on your words? – Through, obviously through research, reading through poetry,
that sort of form like that and then I write and
just it’s my own writing. One day I may publish
them, I’m not really sure but I just see them as, the
writing is the starting point to making the painting so
I, in a way the language is transferred from written
text to then a composition of a painting and then
the content it doesn’t really interest me then when
it becomes the painting. It’s the starting point, if
that’s the way of engaging with paper and pen and
then to then the painting, it’s diluted, the content is diluted. It doesn’t matter to me in
the end what the words say. What I want is the emotion of the picture itself to come across. It doesn’t matter that
you can read the start of the sentence or the
end of the sentence. The central– – Could we have the next slide? Thanks.
– Which brings us onto the painting that is now in Islamabad. – Now, Idris couldn’t remember the text, but Art in Embassies supplied me the text and I wish I’d brought
it along for us to read. Although, given that you
don’t want us necessarily to overly focus on the origin,
it was beautifully written and I thought it was by a Sufi poet but it’s actually written by you. – It’s written by me. I’d like to be influenced,
you read the book you read them and you kind of write your own sort of version
of what you’ve read. There’s some really lovely
sentences in this piece and you know, I was just
explaining the process of something like, they’re
probably about I would say roughly 80,000 marks, 80 to 100,000 marks. I know it’s a bit random but they are, they become this kind
of, it takes me about four months to make a painting. – And what are the materials? – So it’s on a gessel
ground aluminum panel which is then with the
gessel ground which I mix and sand back and sand back and sand back so you have like an
incredibly smooth surface. And what I love about
gessel is that it really, it really holds the ink into the surface. And so once you do the
first layer, it sort of disappears into itself
and you have to build it up and build it up and build it up. But if you go to the next
picture, you sort of see the scale of it a little bit. And you know, so you get
a sense of sort of the build up of language
within it and that’s both Arabic and English which
gives it a nice patternation. I have made word drawings
that are five meters by sort of forming and big,
you know, and that’s nice because you’re sort of taking
this grandeurous scale. – Could we go back just
one thing that intrigues me is you felt that this process
was more cathartic for you. And I think a lot of people
feel that or just have the kind of knee-jerk reaction let’s say, to kind of the warmth and
emotionality of painting versus the kind of cold and
machinery of photography. Did you feel like that
was kicking in for you? – I don’t think that, I mean I always try to make a very emotional photograph. I mean, at the content of those pictures had so much energy and
expression, I don’t think I was ever, I think… No, I think they sort of
balance out in some way. I mean this is, you know but
this is much more tactile in some way I would say. – There’s texture.
– Yeah and then you’re physically stamping and there’s something within that stamping
process where you just sort of completely lose yourself whereas in photography I’m still
dealing with a line, a photograph, and a screen
and bringing those pieces together whereas this
is very much a build up of time and energy onto the surface. – And could we have the next slide please? Now, this is actually green isn’t it? – Yes it is green. – Now, Idris has like
maybe one very small body of work which is colorful but otherwise, your pallette is extremely
restrained and I’m wondering if you suffer from chromophobia? (both laughing) I’m only joking.
– But it’s true. You know, I think there is a… I mean I think there’s
a simple answer there and when I even branch out
into color as maybe it’s just one type of blue
or variations of green, it’s never, it is
monochromatic in some way– – Your work doesn’t need color so I– – I don’t think I’m a very good colorist. – Oh really?
– There’s no simple and complete answer, I’m not. Yeah, I don’t think so. My wife’s work is the
most extreme opposite to this you can possibly imagine. She has stacks and stacks of color. She is the colorist. I leave to her in her
studio and by the way, we share a studio so we’re
together 24 hours a day. (audience laughing) So I just see all her
color and then I just go off and be my black and white self. – And it, kind of lets you hone in on a different discipline doesn’t it? – Yeah.
– Because composition. – I don’t think, you know, quite simply, I don’t think that these
works, whether it’s this or whether it’s the photographs, I don’t even work in color necessarily. Oh there’s been moments where
I’ve used other paintings at times and on Caravaggio
where you’re not gonna make those into black and white. But, you know, the others, the charcoal, the chalkboard pieces or the paintings, if you make them in
color they become a bit sort of brown in there. They’re not, it just doesn’t work. – That’s true. Layering every page on top of each other you get muddy brown.
– Yeah, black and white strips it and gives you a
sort of sense of clarity and I think closer to sublime somehow. – And final slide and I’m
gonna ask one question, one more question before we
open it up to the audience and I do hope you’ll have
a few questions for us. What does it feel like to
be a cultural ambassador? Because (audience chuckling)
– Whoa. – Effectively I mean, the
presence of this painting in the American Embassy in
Islamabad but also your work in the Emirates, they’re
you know, your specific cultural history you’re
part of various tribes and families and that can be very nice. – Not so much with the Welsh side. (Sarah laughing) Yet, but I try not to
think about it too much, of course, but you can’t
help when it’s that question of whether you’re making a
political piece of work or not. It’s not a political piece of work. Somehow it gains a political
point of view anyway because of my background,
because of the kind of content it has it
can’t help but have that and sometimes that’s
the best way of making a political piece of work
is to not make it political and then as soon as you ask
the question whether it is it becomes a political work of art. But–
– And of course, an Embassy is an overall, mainly a
political environment. – Yeah.
– It is, not like someone’s bedroom.
– No, it’s not that’s true. So exactly, you know, you
go in and you think about that work differently
than you would if it was in someone’s bedroom probably. – Have you, I’m not
aware, but have you made any overtly political pieces? – No.
– As a last word, why not? – It’s not my first point of interest. I deal with poetry.
– And space and time. Thank you so much for coming and thank you so much with this.
– Thank you. – You were great, you were great. Give me a hug.
(audience clapping)

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