Hassan Khan: Half a Life in Art Reviewed
Salt Beyoglu, Istanbul, September 21, 2012–January 6, 2013
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Do you know those people who never say hello or goodbye because they are already midsentence by the time you are close enough to hear them, and later, as they turn away to leave, their voice simply trails off with them? And how, because you are perpetually entering and exiting something that is already underway, you find yourself lost in the discussion at hand?

That’s how it felt at Hassan Khan’s survey exhibition at Salt Beyoglu in Istanbul, which ran from September 2012 to January 2013. Regardless of which of the three floors at Salt Beyoglu you began on, you found yourself abruptly entering into the artist’s fervent conversation with the world, one that he has conducted in numerous media, from still and moving imagery to text, objects, and sound since the mid-1990s.

Since you found yourself joining a dialogue already underway, you had to pick things up as they unfolded. You quickly noticed that in Khan’s hands everything undergoes significant amounts of processing. Found material is transformed and retransformed as in the room-sized sound installation Dom Tak Tak Dom Tak (2005). For this piece, Khan took six classics of shaabi (popular) music, rerecorded their beats, had street musicians improvise over them, and then remixed them together. In the gallery, this was presented as six thirty-second excerpts played with interludes of a ticking metronome, followed by a wash of red floodlights.

Khan’s work attempts to process and reflect upon his personal experience to an almost tedious level of intricacy. For example, in order to create 17 and in AUC (2003), Khan spent four hours each evening over a period of two weeks in April 2003 in a one-way-mirrored glass box, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and ranting, unable to see his audience. At one revealing point in the monologue, viewable at Salt on a small monitor accompanied by a volume that transcribes a nearly unpunctuated stream of consciousness, Khan recounts walking to university while stoned, growing more paranoid along the way.

Self-consciousness emerges as an important component of Khan’s practice in Insecure (2002), consisting of eleven phrases printed in minute text on the wall. Among them: “Look at yourself in the mirror and try to imagine you are someone you are meeting for the first time”; “In the morning act out something embarrassing you did the night before in front of the mirror”; and “Wonder what you really want from the closest person to you.”

Moving through the exhibition, you begin to sense that Khan has two broad artistic concerns: the process of artistic creation and the position of the artist in relation to society as a maker of meaning. There is often a flat-out refusal to play the latter role, as in Lust (2008), which comprises fifty digital cell phone pictures showing, among many vignettes, a disused piano, the legs of passersby in the street, drab curtains, an old chandelier, empty theatre seats, a tree missing a limb in a park, and fingers pressed against a mirror. The snapshots seem neither random nor explicitly connected, portraying neither a particular place nor itinerancy – perhaps only related by the momentary spark of interest in the person holding the phone. In a similar vein, Evidence of Evidence (2010) is a three-and-a-half-meter high digital print of a damaged painting of a potted geranium that has been enlarged to over ten times its original size. While it is vaguely humorous to behold this amateur still life enlarged to a monumental scale, the image is perfectly unremarkable, yielding information neither about the original painting’s creation nor the creator.

What makes Khan’s works challenging, and often alienating, is that they are never entirely abstract – which would permit them to be viewable or audible on their own terms – nor ever concretely narrative. The four-channel video installation Hidden Location (2004) follows a similar pursuit of calculated opacity: the artist and a friend conduct a fragmented conversation about the possibility of making various hypothetical claims, and a discussion of dating a girl and her family runs in the background. On the other two screens is a figure dressed in blue coveralls rearranging a bed, looking through the peephole in a door, and silhouetted images of gilded home furnishings. One begins to feel like the blue-suited man looking in from the outside, eavesdropping on fragments of conversations about subjects you have no hope of understanding, or catching glimpses of a domestic interior whose rather ordinary contents have no significance to you.

Had you entered on the second floor of the exhibition, you would have encountered a similar, non-chronological selection of works. Yet, the mood here is more surrealistic – more concerned with the latent structure of the apparently illogical. Appropriately enough, everything seems to float. Banque Bannister (2010) is a precise replica of the brass railing at the entrance of Cairo’s Banque Misr (Bank of Egypt), suspended in mid-air without the staircase underneath it. In The Dead Dog Speaks (2010), animated figures of a man’s head (an unnamed Egyptian film star), a woman’s bust, and a dog hover and move about on a red ground, “speaking” dialogue: “He won’t forget. I won’t forget. No, you have to forget.” They aren’t in conversation; rather, the three virtually generated voices are talking past one another, at you, as if issuing from a maniacal artificial intelligence. Nearby are two large photographs of statues purportedly owned by the artist since 1989, from which the shadows have been digitally removed so that they levitate on a white ground. The objects are refused status as objects in and of themselves and are brought to our attention only by virtue of their relationship to the artist, a triviality or kind of cosmic randomization – an illogical reason for their presentation, that is.

The pinnacle of all these tendencies is The Agreement (2011), which presents a shelf holding ten objects, including: a plate with a picture of vegetables, a half-crystal and half-wood candy bowl, a hanging pendant, and a horse sculpture severed in half, its foam interior spray-painted red. Above the shelf are five short stories written by Khan that read as if they were excerpts, like the objects beneath them, which seem to have been pulled from ten different contexts. However intriguing or weighty certain characters or objects seem, their larger worlds are lost. Like waking from a dream, no matter how much you want to reenter it, its totality is long gone.

If you had walked up Salt’s staircase to the first floor, you would have joined the conversation at its euphoric pinnacle in the video Jewel (2010). In this work, two figures dance around a turning, luminescent speaker (whose lights recall the shape of the bioluminescent angler fish swimming through the opening scene) that emits a shaabi track. The figures, one portly and the other slender, dance incomprehensibly, at once awkwardly and ecstatically, seemingly entranced by one another or by the object between them. They are completely liberated and not the least bit self-conscious. The video is undoubtedly Khan’s wildest, weirdest, most enthralling, and generous work. It is no less strange, nor any less withholding of its deeper reason for being than any other work by Khan; in fact, perhaps its magic is that it compresses so much intensity into something that has no explanation. Watching Jewel was the only moment in the exhibition where it didn’t matter how much you didn’t understand, how much you didn’t know, or how far you still had to go to be on the same level as the artist himself. You were there conversing with the artist even if you were alone in the room, dancing on your own.

As both the most comprehensive gathering of Khan’s works to date and Salt’s largest exhibition of a single artist since it opened in 2011, this had the makings of a landmark show. Few, if any, other venues in the region (however that is defined) would, or could, support this kind of large-scale endeavor, especially given the conceptual complexity of Khan’s works and the technical requirements of certain pieces. So although Salt is unique in that respect, an exhibition of a living artist proved to be an almost anachronistic undertaking for an institution that has worked hard to establish itself as a place of critical thinking and research, primarily about art, architecture, and design in Turkey’s modern history, rather than as an exhibition venue for contemporary art.

In its first two years, Salt has pursued innovative ways to present or situate its subjects in discourses that are in need of updating or rewriting – in keeping with its stated mandate for “research and experimental thinking.” However, these twin aims seemed to clash in an exhibition of a single living artist whose practice is very much still in development. In this case: which party is responsible for the “research,” and who is doing the “experimental thinking?” The exhibition proved that, while Khan is doing more than his share of the latter, there wasn’t much evidence of research – that is, of new material (historical or intellectual) that could be presented along with the artist’s practice. Take the lone introductory text on the third floor of Salt. Its claims were nebulous, noncommittal, and perhaps not even specific to the artist himself: “Hassan Khan’s multidisciplinary methods of artistic production rely on observations, interactions, and engagements, as well as more internal sources. Some of the references present in his work stem from a personal biography, while others derive from figures and images that allude to separate contexts.”

The same text, while eschewing any specific mention of the cultural or artistic climate in which Khan developed – oddly implying that somehow he is without predecessors, peers, and entirely sui generis – did mention that the artist “lives and works in Cairo.” This was evidently important enough to mention, yet the organizers did not deem it necessary to discuss the broader Egyptian cultural milieu and debates that one supposes have accompanied Khan’s lifetime and before. There is undoubtedly an artistic and cultural context for Khan’s works, but either the organizers at Salt didn’t understand it well enough to speak confidently about it, or they failed to communicate it successfully – problematic either way. Contextualization need not be reductive or constraining and, in the case of an artist’s work, should be done by a third party. They used to call these professionals “art historians” and “curators,” but they could just as well be “researchers” and “programmers.” The absence of such contextualization created an exhibition in dialogue with itself, with the institution resigned to the role of host and facilitator, rather than inquirer and challenger.
Banque Bannister (2010), Hassan Khan survey exhibition at Salt Beyoglu, 2012-13, Photograph by Serkan Taycan.
Dom Tak Tak Dom Tak (2005), Hassan Khan survey exhibition at Salt Beyoglu, 2012-13, Photograph by Serkan Taycan.
The Agreement (2011), Hassan Khan survey exhibition, Salt Beyoglu, 2012-13, Photograph by Serkan Taycan.
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