Looking up at Khan’s sculpture, which stands 8.2 metres tall between the shiny glass windows of new-build developments, the effect of its shape and form is both moving and daunting. The sculpture started as a stack of 65,000 sheets of paper, with its shape — almost like a reverse-pyramid — formed out of the dimensions of standardised photo prints. Khan then pulled and pushed the sheets of paper to create a ridged effect on its sides, before sand-casting and forming it in aluminium.
“It almost feels like the rings of a tree,” he observes, pointing to its corrugated façade. “I’m not showing the pictures themselves, you’re just seeing the edges of the paper. It is about using the physicality of a photograph to show time.”
In the process of lamenting his own life, Khan decided to look at that of his mother, who died nine years ago, aged 59. But he could only find 380 photographs from her life, and when he built the sculpture, My Mother stood almost 16 times smaller than 65,000 Photographs, at 53.3cm. The contrast between five years of a life with digital media and a whole lifetime without it is a testament to the evolution of digital media and humanity’s use of it to document our existence.
These ideas of time and memory, and the process of layering are present throughout Khan’s oeuvre. One of his earliest experiments in 2003 involved superimposing 380 photographs taken during his travels around Europe. Khan proceeded to do the same with every page of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Roland Barthe’s Camera Lucida, and Bernd and Hilla Becher’s inventory of industrial structures.
“Photography was a way into being creative,” says Khan, who studied for an MA at the Royal College of Art in London in 2004. “I wasn’t a sculptor or a painter, but when I picked up a camera it felt comfortable.”
“It has always been about trying to change the photographic practice into something that looked like painting or drawing,” he continues, referencing one of his more recent series, White Windows (2016-2018), where he repeatedly photographed whitewashed storefronts. But where layering in past projects has achieved similar aesthetic results, the outcome in 65,000 Photographs is entirely different. Rather than compressing the physicality of his subject, the sculpture represents the totality of Khan’s photographed life in a single, abstract, physical structure.
Standing just around the corner from Tate Modern, it is Khan’s first public sculpture in the UK, and he hopes it will trigger passersby to take a moment to reflect on their own time. “Public art is a different kind of engagement to going into a gallery space. It is for the unexpected viewer,” says Khan, who has set up an Instagram account for the sculpture, hoping it will encourage engagement. “It is amazing that we can still make public art in London. Art is a positive act, and I think putting this in the ground is a positive move for London, especially now.”