Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Farewell to a Painting

It was a genuine wrench to walk away from True Belief Belongs to the Realm of Real Knowledge, a huge, sublime wall-painting by Idris Khan. The Whitworth Gallery exhibition of which the painting is part closes today, but leaving this particular work was something more final, since after the show the gesso on which it is stamped will be sanded and painted over. Facing up to this was probably a healthy exercise for someone like me, who tends to cling to and be weighted down by objects which embody memories for me.

Even before its major renovation and expansion the large, cool, minimalist spaces of the Whitworth had a reverential kind of feel; there’s something cloister-like about the way in which the high, echoing ceilings make you feel you should whisper. It suits the contemplative mood of Khan’s black-and-white paintings and prints, with their mixture of inspiration from philosophy and Western ‘high art’ – Nietzsche and Stravinsky – alongside and blended with aspects of Islam, such as references to the circumambulations of the hajj.

Sitting in the gallery, observing viewers, was interesting. A retro-hipster Dad, over-dressed and Brylcreemed, confidently told his children that True Belief… was an iron-filing pattern made with a magnet. He then got close enough to see that actually it was made of thousands of repeated lines of mixed Arabic and English text, but didn’t correct himself.

Another Dad, with an older and less credulous child, was having a more informed and engaged discussion. He, interestingly, assumed that the texts in the two languages were the Quran and the Bible, overlapping one another. Not entirely correct, but the title is taken from a saying, apparently beloved of Sufi contemplatives, attributed to the Prophet’s son-in-law and fourth Caliph, Ali ibn abi Talib. And Khan’s work is certainly informed, not only on the philosophical but also the aesthetic level, by the Islamic tradition of using text as visual art.

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