Of stupidity gender and Islam

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Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, teetering on his shiny red high heels, is walking on eggshells, and occasionnally breaking some a…., fraying some scarves and mats. Performer, more or less of a painter, “installer”, undoubtedly a video maker, he manages to build a coherent approach, swinging between the perilous abysses of stereotypes of the sexual gender, and the difficulty to come up with a strong and unbiased line about islam as an identity. How can one mess around again with the gender when it seems that Judith Butler said it all, how can one question the religious when the mere fact to rep- resent it, and thus to recreate and interpret can create dissension ? Can you aim right ? Irritate without laxity ? The work of Mehdi-Georges is comparable to his high heels : ostensive and even blatant, eye-catching, he also has style, a certain ounce of chic in the ridicule he portrays, and knows how to keep the line.

This commitment in the ridicule and the efficiency of his work lays in the fact that Mehdi-Georges Lahlou confronts these two thematics, that of the gender and of cultural and religious identity. However, these two questions are inherently full of conflict, from the biological innate sex on one hand to the vested gender on the other, built individually and socially, and conflict also between culture and religion. The resulting work lies on four different facets, which allows for numerous associations between masculinity, femininity, islam as a religion and as a social-cultural factor. The work of Lahlou seems to constantly, methodically and somehow humoristically dig into the tensional zones where these thematics collide, especially by performing, video making and photographing. He subsequently puts himself in the lineage of artists who use performance to meditate upon genders and social norms, from Valie Export to Molinier, Neshat or Michel Journiac, yet by accumulating several thematics. Mehdi-Georges stresses the importance of feminist performances as they occurred in the 1970s.

Let’s take an example : in 2009, Mehdi-Georges Lahlou releases two works based on the islamic veil, This is not an islamic woman (16cm/25cm, digital printings on aluminum, 4 copies), a self-portrait of the veiled artist, and Undress me (video installment, 3mn36 loop segment), where once could watch him rigorously put on and off his veil, in the meantime : the video is edited backwards.
And indeed, the man who puts the veil on and then off is a man, obviously arabic, hairy, fully-bearded, and whose inexpressive face isn’t devoid of a certain mischievous provocation. Therefore, the thematics at stake are dismissed : the victimization of the veiled Mohammedan woman is neutralized, the strong and traditionally fantasized perception of masculinity in the arabic world is directly linked to the former depiction of the veiled woman and is consequently foiled.

Stereotype + stereotype = null. Everyone’s wrong, arabic-muslims and caucasians judeo-christians are all in the same bag. Under the veil, one man.

But what man? The man with the face of an artist is in fact quite sporty: he accomplishes heroical feats, jumping hurdles, running, endlessly pilgriming around a black cubical object (resembling the Qa’abah), prays with piles of bricks on his back (Prayer – Al Fatiha, 30mn long performance, Brus- sels (BE), 2008). He’s a good craftsman: he can create traditional arabic decorative patterns (And by the roll?, acrylic and several other materials, 29x150x250cm, 2009), and moroccan dishes (Dar_koom, restaurant, performance, 2010), displaying his sense of hospitality. But the meal is for one person at at time. The traditional patterns are made industrially “by the roll”, which knocks down the cliché of the moroccan craftsman, keeper of the traditions. And the heroical or religious acts are all performed either in a full body garment or naked, exclusively wearing the now famous shiny heels. The artist puts on a drag, and traditions are then wiped out.

What about cross-dressing? To cross-dress is to change one’s identity by putting on a costume and modifying his or her general appearance. The word “transvestite” conveys a specifically sexual, gender-related idea of the body transformation. Cross-dressing is subversive in the way that, as Ju- dith Butler put it in Trouble with the gender, it can put in doubt, question what seemed to be un- questionable et eternally definite – i.e. the essential categorization as either man or woman. By capillarity, and because the body is at the crossroads of the personal and the political, be it about the gender to any norm whatsoever, the transvestite implies the disruption of the whole social order, thus his social place of dropout and the perilous nature of it. But to be disturbing, the transvestite must remain in an unclear in-between : to drastically become someone else or adopt a “typically” (according to the social norms of where he lives) feminine or masculine behavior may seem on the contrary as a way to strengthen the stereotypes. This in-between, Mehdi-Georges Lahlou maintains it through collage; he’s a man displaying obvious signs of masculinity: body hair, sex, muscles; and wears women heels. He’s an ambiguous and disturbing object of desire. Here again, he multi- plies the clichés: arabic man face + streetwalker shoes, stereotype + stereotype = null, nothing is viable anymore.

This is why his installment Cocktail or self-portrait in society (70cm/40cm, digital printings on aluminum, 4 copies, 2010) made of a set of praying mats in front of which were laid men shoes, except for one mat where were provocatively put the red heels, shocked and was attacked by partisans of a more traditionalistic islam. This, very simple, installment was disruptive in three ways:
1. a woman does not pray among men in a mosque: cultural and religious thematic.
2. what if this was not a woman? a man does not wear high heels, unless he is not a man : thematic of masculinity in the arabic-muslim world, and elsewhere…
3. one does not lay his feet on a praying mat: blasphemy of an evil agitator – or mere stupidity?

Almost everything creates tension: the approach, the use of mockery, the omnipresence of the per- former, three points which define the whole work of Mehdi-Georges Lahlou. The set is that of the box : the box of the “restaurant” in which you get in, but also that of the installment inside, in which you cannot enter – it was the front window of the art gallery that was attacked in virtue of blasphemy. The box in which are trapped and played the videos. The box of Home Sweet Home (2009), the video that mocked a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, refers to the box which holds the Qa’abah around which Mehdi-Georges Lahlou walks endlessly, high heels to his feet, stepping on praying rugs. In Art Brussels, this box was laid on a steel platform, conveying ideas of imprisonment and harshness. These boxes refer to the confinement of the individual. They are directly related to the close-ups from the videos. Aesthetically speaking, the angles made from the rugs, the boxes all communicate : it conveys the idea of a culture that imprisons you. But these boxes are also monitors, frames, the frame of the images, imprisonment then becomes that of the clichés, the stigmata’s. Lahlou opposes the cultural obligations, the weight of the traditions, the racial stereotypes and other commonly accepted clichés that this tradition conveys to other cultures. Getting out of a cultural frame is for Mehdi-Georges Lahlou to be confronted to another which shuts you in its turn. His work doesn’t deal much with the clash of the cultures rather than with the double imprisonment of multiple cultural identities.

Depressing? Double-bind? How to get out of the circle? How not to give into madness? One can act crazy and find a certain kind of “self”. Stupidity, which is a tradition in art, is a good way out and allows for thoughtlessness in a context often burdened with sense and strong thematics. Jean-Yves Jouannais in Stupidity, art, life, politics, method (Paris, ed. Beaux-Arts, 2003), names Breton and definies stupidity as a “distrust in theories and the dictatorship of the mind ; a contradiction leveled up to a haughty cultural language through a “modern recklessness” ; critique of the performance and its so-called renewal in spite of the depth of the artistic intentions”. One can then assume why Mehdi-Georges lives in Brussels, city stamped by the surrealism movement. Acting foolishly is going against seriousness, the heaviness of the religious systems – among others. Mehdi-Georges Lahlou is unstoppably burlesque, grotesque, foolish, stupid. His fit body, and his back obviously arched on his high heels, is inconveniently camped. In his series of videos named Controlled stupidities (2009), Lahlou is eating a banana with the Quran laying on his head, or biting into a tennis ball, with a traditional headdress on. Ludicrous. How can such a madman create any real controversies ? When one is a religious extremist, or stands to defend a straight notion of masculinity, full of self-insurance, one does not want to argue with that kind of foolish character, which would mean losing one’s own dignity and reserve. And to look foolish in its turn. The recklessness of the foolish man allows for anything and goes past censure, without barely struggling. Besides, if we still stick to Jouannais’ word, “‘stupid’ means simple, specific, unique. (…) Anything, anyone is therefore stupid as long as they only live for themselves.” One can then assume that there’s another outcome for that cat and mouse game and the mixing of the identities : being the clown, the fool who strongly expresses something still means stating something – no matter what -, that of a strong singularity, out of the box. The importance of the artist’s stature – Mehdi-Georges is an actor of all his performances – whose face appears from a video to another, from the first photo to the second, sometimes duplicated (Family portrait, 51cm/71cm, 4 aluminium printings, 4 copies, 2009), isn’t quite the sign of a narcissistic introspection, but implies the recurrent use of foolishness, in a comical purpose. For my part, I would be curious to see the young Lahlou digging further into that grotesque figure, and putting himself more at risk. And definitely toppling over to the Wonderful.

Emilie Bouvard, april 2010

About the artist
Mehdi-Georges Lahlou is the enfant terrible of an art that does not exist. Or not yet, since he is in the process of inventing it. How to be an artist of the interstice today, when navigating between north and south, between cultures, between several media, between multiple intertwined notions? "Do not see the problem through the wrong end of the telescope", is what he seems to (omit to) tell us...

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