Interview with Idris Khan: Overture at Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

Overture, a solo exhibition of new work by London based artist Idris Khan is currently on show at Sean Kelly Gallery, New York. It includes over 25 new works exploring philosophical and theoretical ideas surrounding global displacement and conflict, demonstrating Khan’s profound interrogation of language and meaning over a wide array of media — painting, sculpture, photography, works on paper, and, for the first time in his career, works on glass. Khan has developed a unique narrative, drawing on diverse cultural sources including art, literature, philosophy and music. His densely layered imagery inhabits the space between abstraction and figuration that speaks to themes of history, cumulative experience and the metaphysical collapse of time into single moments. We speak with the artist.

A: Having previously engaged with diverse sources such as Beethoven’s musical scores and the Qur’an, what texts have you chosen to examine the central themes of Overture, global displacement and conflict?
IK: The central piece in the exhibition is a glass sculpture entitled Overture, which consists of seven panes of glass floating within an aluminium armature. I stamped and overlaid text onto each pane of glass until it created an abstract radial formation. All of the writings are my own, but were inspired by the philosopher Jacques Derrida and his theory of deconstruction. In a world where everyday we are faced with images of suffering in the media, his theory of critical self-reflection in order to avoid violence seemed like an excellent starting point. So with this in mind, I began my own investigation, exploring a new avenue in my work, which was to look at separation. In each of the works, I wrote about my reflections on confronting images of conflict and hearing stories from the people who are affected by displacement and migration.

A: How do you feel that the layered nature of your work engages with themes of collective identity and belonging?
When I make a piece of work I always feel that the most important thing is for it to engage with the viewer on an aesthetic level first. The multi-layered abstraction draws the viewer closer to the picture and then reveals something else entirely. At this point, one can either attempt to understand the words or accept not knowing the complete meaning of the text and fill the void with their own ideas. This moment becomes self-reflective and an exploration of one’s own belonging.

A: Is there a particularly current inspiration for Overture and its theme of migration, or do you find that your works have a more universal appeal?
IK: This is the first time I have combined all the different mediums I work with into one exhibition. Over the past year it finally seemed to make sense to do so. I chose Overture as the title of the show because this exhibition is an introduction to all my points of departure.

Migration is an incredibly emotional subject to try and confront in an exhibition and of course I can’t even imagine the feeling of being forced from my home, losing everything and feeling like I don’t belong anywhere. The only thing I can do as an artist is to reflect and create a work packed with emotion. With the white-on-white paintings in the show I aim to create an environment where one may feel lost within the work, therefore alluding to absence and displacement.

A: For the first time this exhibition will feature works made with glass. What excites you about discovering a new medium, and how has this developed your work?
IK: Not just any glass, Optiwhite – non reflective – crystal clear perfect glass! It has been a nightmare actually… Finding a perfect large piece of glass has been very challenging, but I got there in the end and I think the effect is quite beautiful. I love the fact that in this sculpture the viewer is drawn to the surface of the glass, instead of just looking through it. The effect of all the words being separated and then coming together creates an intriguing cloud of unknowing.

A: In its discussions of identity, does Overture engage with your own heritage?
There is a nice rhythm to this show and my late mother would have liked that.

Overture, at Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, until 24 October. For more information, visit

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1. Idris Khan, Overture (detail), 2015. © Idris Khan, Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly, NY.