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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

UAE memorial artist Idris Khan on the 'overwhelming' nature of making award-winning Wahat Al Karama   

The artist says he could not create new work for a year-and-a-half after finishing the Abu Dhabi monument, which has just won the CODAworx design and art award

Opposite Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a series of heavy grey slabs lean against each other, as if arrested in the process of falling. Some appear to be supporting the weight of others; others seem simply caught, mid-descent.

The work is a memorial to the UAE’s martyred soldiers, titled Wahat Al Karama, or “Oasis of Dignity”, by British artist Idris Khan. It opened to popular acclaim in the UAE two years ago, and has been winning critical awards since.

The Pavilion’s internal walls are clad with more than 2,800 aluminium plates, some of which are inscribed the names of the UAE’s heroes. Each of the illuminated plates are engraved with the hero’s name, rank, service branch, location, and date of death. They are made from aluminium reclaimed from armoured vehicles used in service with the UAE Armed Forces. Christopher Pike / The National
The Pavilion’s internal walls are clad with more than 2,800 aluminium plates, some of which bear the names of the UAE’s fallen soldiers. Christopher Pike / The National

Over the summer, the German Design Council announced the memorial had won one of their Iconic Awards for architecture. This was followed a few days ago by the CODAworx design and art award, which recognises, in the words of one of its jurors, how the project calls “our minds, souls and bodies to respond simultaneously”.

“The work has started to get a lot of momentum on the global stage,” says Khan, a soft-spoken, unpretentious artist who lives in London with his family.

Idris Khan. Nick Harvey / REX / Shutterstock
Idris Khan. Photo / Rex

The project was also recently longlisted for a Dezeen award, from more than 3,500 entries, and last year won an American Architecture Prize for cultural architecture.

'The project took a lot out of me'

As for Khan, two years on from completing the project, he still feels the effects from the memorial.

“It took me quite a while to get back to creating again,” he says. “It was about a year-and-a-half before I could really feel myself getting back into the studio – not the ongoing work that you sort of know how to make, but fresh ideas. The project took a lot out of me.”

“To achieve something of that scale – it was quite overwhelming,” he says. “I look back at it now thinking: I actually did that. Not many artists get the opportunity to make a monument – where do you go from there?”

The answer is, of course, onwards. Khan, who was knighted with an OBE last year, is currently working on an as-yet unannounced civic project, as well as a major commission for the British Museum’s new Islamic Art wing, opening mid-October, for which he is making a series of works on paper.

Khan achieved success early in his career with composite images that played with time, legibility and personal memory, and which were finely attuned to texture and materiality. Paintings of architectural structures are made, for example, out of black dust and rabbit-skin glue.

This mix of the visible monumental and the haptic human-scale is also at play in Wahat Al Karama, which is striking enough to hold its own when seen from 100kph on Sheikh Zayed Road, but also unfolds on a more intimate gauge to visitors who wander around.

Designed by the British artist Idris Khan in collaboration with the Brisbane-based architects bureau^proberts and Urban Arts Projects, The Memorial is the focal point of the Oasis of Dignity. Christopher Pike / The National
The monument had to work with the grandeur of the mosque.

The falling blocks, clad in aluminium, are inscribed with poetry written by Sheikh Zayed and the aluminium bricks in the pool area below, lit through chinks in the walls, bear the names of fallen soldiers.

Khan admits it was a tough brief. “You have the big road running by, and then you have to compete with the grandeur of the mosque [Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque] with the quite minimal sculpture. I had to think about grandeur in terms of scale,” he says. “It was an intense period.”

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Read more

Abu Dhabi's Wahat Al Karama wins 2017 American Architecture Prize

Wahat Al Karama memorial to open for public

Leaders honour UAE heroes at Wahat Al Karama memorial

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