In a 2009 essay about ‘the rant’ for e-flux journal, Hassan Khan described a circular form that ‘begins and ends with the self’. While much of this prolific artist, writer and musician’s work wanders out into the city, most often his native Cairo, it always returns to the self. A sense of this persona – precocious, prolific, often contradictory – can be quickly gleaned from the tone of his titles: there is haughtiness (Read Fanon You Fucking Bastards, 2003–ongoing) and recursiveness (‘Evidence of Evidence I’, 2010), self-effacement (I Am Not What I Am, 2005–ongoing) and opacity (Lungfan, 1995). Tellingly, the Arabic title of the latter, Nafas, can mean ‘self’; personal history, here, is inevitably enmeshed with process and politics. As Khan noted in a 2009 interview: ‘On some fundamental level I am unable to escape portraiture.’
Why quote the artist twice in the first paragraph? Partly because Khan has been unusually active in shaping the discourse around his work. He is also unusually prolific. Khan is not yet 40, though this exhibition at SALT, the young institution’s first with a living artist, spanned some 17 years. The earliest works here, such as the pretty much unremarkable video collages Lungfan (a collaboration with Amr Hosny) and Do You Want to Fight? (both 1995), he made as an undergraduate. The inclusion of juvenilia felt self-regarding, but then Khan’s broader constellation of works depends partly on the ways in which youthful obsessions can percolate or be reconfigured.
Khan’s undergrad years at the American University in Cairo are endlessly dissected, worried over, ranted about. Indeed, stills from the early videos return in the aforementioned series of prints, ‘Evidence of Evidence I’ (what was the early work evidence of, we might wonder). And his student days are again invoked in 17 and in AUC (2003), one of Khan’s strongest pieces to date. The video sees the artist drinking and smoking inside a soundproofed one-way mirrored cube every night for two weeks – a performance that totalled almost 60 hours. This feat of endurance, and self-examination, was again returned to in 2011 with ‘14 Proper Nouns’, a two-week series of talks at the Delfina Foundation in London, which used the original transcripts of 17 and in AUC as the basis for discussions on cough syrup, John Cage, the auteur theory ... Verbosity, you might begin to realize, is kind of Khan’s thing.
But he is usually best when he is most concise. One of the first pieces in the SALT exhibition was Jewel (2010), a video which – having been included in triennials at both the New Museum, New York, and the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, in 2012 – has brought Khan to broader prominence in the US and Europe. Little longer than a music video, it’s a remarkable piece: a phantom-like fish, practically prehistoric, flickers and transforms into a pattern of blue lights. The camera zooms out, and two men are dancing around this slowly rotating black box in an otherwise empty room, while shaabi (a form of Egyptian street music) plays loudly. Meaning in this lapidary piece remains just out of reach, though what Jewel seems to limn is a moment of genesis, when an atavistic form reveals itself in the present culture. Khan has worked with shaabi elsewhere, as in the pummelling sound installation DOM-TAK-TAK-DOM-TAK (2005), and it has also been the subject of some of his best writing. In an essay for Bidoun, for example, he gives a striking description of the moment when ‘a certain aspect of popular culture is rearticulated’ and ‘we’re left with a charged object to be encountered, loud, dumb and present’.
‘Charged objects’ is a good description for Khan’s sculptures. These works are often preoccupied with the extent to which an object can become infused with a narrative, and – on the flipside – to what extent a story can be mined from an intransigent thing. Often there is a palpable gap between object and claim, though, and it can be difficult (for me, at least) to grasp how intentional this might be. For instance, a new piece, The Twist (2012), is a floor-to-ceiling pole that becomes spliced and braided in the middle. Of this rather inexpertly rendered form, Khan says: ‘This gesture is about the origin of civilization.’ Certainly his work is full of origins – Jewel, for instance, feels like the growth of culture from the murky digital depths. But in The Twist there is a space between the grandeur of intention and material form; Khan’s sculptural objects, as he has noted, are ‘never completely comprehensible’. As in The Agreement (2011), which comprises five short stories and a shelf of ten tangentially related (and specially commissioned) trinkets and prints, objects here are somehow both tight-lipped and garrulous, resistant and overreaching.
I don’t share the enthusiasm that many seem to feel for the temporal games of Khan’s more sprawling films, such as Blind Ambition (2012), a 45-minute piece that premiered at dOCUMENTA (13), or The Hidden Location (2004), a 15-chapter, four-screen installation. And the exhibition at SALT was slowed by many odds and ends: an animated conversation between a dog, woman and man, dubbed from 28 voices (The Dead Dog Speaks, 2010), anthropomorphized cartoons of pigs (stuffedpigfollies, 2007), say, or a series of 50 defiantly banal mobile-phone pictures (‘Lust’, 2008). The portraits Khan creates, of the city and of himself, are compelling but remain tightly sealed. Escape isn’t an option.