Syria’s most brutal prison, Saydnaya, and the experiences of its detainees are the inspiration for the British artist Idris Khan’s latest show at London’s Victoria Miro gallery (Absorbing Light, until 20 December). How inmates held in solitary confinement perceive their surroundings, and see through the darkness, feed into Khan’s pieces such as an abstract painting, Forty Seven (2017), and a towering sculpture composed of 15 columns, Cell (2017).
“I first heard about Saydnaya through Amnesty International, and then did further research,” he tells The Art Newspaper. “The initial [plan] was to focus on the current issues regarding this particular prison. But the work itself became about the history of that kind of detention, and the disorientation that prisoners go through. This inspired the work, which is about the prisoners losing perception and eventually their minds.”
According to Amnesty, individuals are “incarcerated in horrific conditions [in Saydnaya], and systematically and brutally tortured”. Thousands of people have died in confinement there, the organisation says. Last year Amnesty created a scale model of the prison based on the testimonies of former inmates. Their memories—from the sounds heard in the pitch black to counting the bars of a cell—shaped the model.
Forty Seven comprises a series of alternating light and dark stripes, which are subtly modulated and initially difficult to distinguish (the gradations become more apparent once the eye, and mind, adjusts).
“Forty Seven shows the 47 black bars that a particular prisoner described when he was losing his mind and became obsessed with counting—tiles on the floor, bars—and water drips, the sounds of footsteps,” Khan says.
The four-metre-square sculpture, Cell, looks like an impenetrable mass but, on closer inspection, chinks of light can be seen filtering through the work. “Cell is very much about making the viewer aware of the sheer volume of space that 15 people were confined to,” Khan says. The light seeping through is “the most important part”, he says. “It gives hope.”
Absorbing Light, 46 (2017) consists of 46 bronze sculptures inscribed with the words of Syrians who have fled the civil war. “[The pieces] hold them there forever,” Khan says.
Last year the artist unveiled a major commission in Abu Dhabi: a vast memorial to the war dead of the United Arab Emirates that stands in the Wahat Al Karama park between the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the headquarters of the UAE’s armed forces. The project was conceived and executed in nine months in collaboration with Australian companies Bureau Proberts and Urban Art Projects and recently won the 2017 American Architecture Prize for Cultural Architecture.