Tal R – Sexshops, Idris Khan – Absorbing Light

by sfe medusa

Neighbouring galleries Victoria Miro and Parasol Unit are on the McDonald’s side of City Road, halfway between Angel and Old Street. Their gallery attendants happily chat to you about the work in a rare way that makes this callow, un-art-schooled noob feel like someone’s not bullshitting for once, and their friendliness is fully worth the mention.

The beautifully-roofed Victoria Miro houses Sexshops, an exhibition by Israeli-Danish Tal R (I always want to put nationality before a name but rarely think about how that affects the work, isn’t that weird?), featuring paintings of jelly-baby figures in powdery eyeshadow worlds, tinted by the kind of Crayola colour and skewed perspective you see with when drunk.
The paintings are always of views across a street. You are an observer, and it’s up to you whether you venture in – these places don’t need your interaction, or even your gaze. They’ll keep doing what they’re doing.

The upstairs gallery exhibiting Idris Khan’s show Absorbing Light made me wonder whether art spaces purposefully orchestrate some kind of distant rumbling bass to further solemnise a room. You know that feeling, of the biblioteca.
I had the same feeling in the Saatchi Gallery recently, in Gallery 10 of the Iconoclast: Art Out of the Mainstream exhibition, which aptly housed some otherworldly sculptures by Kate MccGwire, Douglas White and Alexi Williams Wynn. The room had the spooky hush of a dim church that’s seen much testier times than you have, you mere speck.

Idris Khan’s works were like symphonies you can’t hear: text repeated until oblivion, sheet music obscured by thick black paint, vertical lines in alternating black and slightly-less-than-black. It became a question not of what these dark shadows were obscuring, but what the pieces became when it accepted the darkness and censorship as part of it.

According to the exhibition booklet, Khan’s work stems from the testimonies of prisoners of the notorious Syrian detainment centre, Saydnaya. Despite the menace of Cell, a sculpture arresting in size and stature, the pieces themselves are a bit straightforward and predictable – unfortunately their darkness and inexorability fail to communicate those exact characteristics in an original way.

More stirring and unsettling is the work by Forensic Architecture and Amnesty International, now showing as part of the Beazley Designs of the Year at the Design Museum. It is a 3D recreation of Saydnaya informed by prisoner’s memories only.
The work addresses a fascinating tension: the memory of a place such as Saydnaya is so scarring and permanent, yet the recollection of a survivor is often subject to skepticism due to his diminished cognition – diminished only because of those very same torturous memories.
The veracity of the 3D computer model not only trail-blazes a fresh approach to this delicate subject, but asserts belief, support and honour for the sufferers.