An overdue body
There would be false movements. That of logic, for example, which would not yield any perspectives, but would instead result in the return to itself rather than a rhythm: a return in waves, variations, varieties. The art of Mehdi-Georges Lahlou pierces the visual field of his body’s galvanizing movements—both untimely and serial. The artist performs an incessant shifting between bodies and objects, dances and postures, upsurges and offsets, all of them reprises and repetitions. He confronts aesthetic and bodily markers of religious traditions (Muslim and Christian). In its degeneration, tradition becomes somewhat too self-assured for the sake of reproducing itself. Taking up and shifting the aesthetic factors that puff up tradition is a first attempt in the process of repetition. It is belatedly exaggerating the “charm” of revelation and its spiritual effects, before fanaticism compels tradition to a choice of realism or objectivity.
A body in series
Since 2007, Mehdi-Georges Lahlou has multiplied the image of his body within a series that I am now calling MGL. These images materialize primarily in the successive acts of disguise performed and/or put into visual form, and are also conferred to the mediating object for that which the body cannot bring forth by itself. This delegation takes the form of white busts cast from his own body and produced in series. Mehdi-Georges Lahlou is thus always a variation of the MGL series. These are all the signs and materials that pass through his body in this serial, object-based process. The body-MGL is therefore both a material and an unstable form, not reducible to the permanence of the obvious. So engrained in the range of his appearances that one context can never hold him in entirety, the body-MGL cannot be reduced to a single identity. It is through this economy of material and formal augmenting of his body, divided between an Arab-Muslim culture and a Euro-Christian one, that it is possible to attempt a reading from the perspective of an identity paradigm, wherein the artist’s oeuvre raises questions on the mode of burlesque.
The spiritual disguising
Mehdi-Georges Lahlou shapes his body to be a support for the processes of disguising and multiplying. In my opinion, the disguise acts here as a spiritual medium, as is manifested in his 2010 performance, C’est Charmant VII (It’s Charming VII). When the artist uses high heel shoes to strike objects on the ground, he summons less the spectacle of the modern cross-dresser but more so the return of the repressed—a pagan, demonic figure that delegates to the object its power of mediation with poltergeists.
Acts of cross-dressing by Mehdi-Georges Lahlou do not simply summarize the seeming transferability of identity and sexual types; this is only one of the possible functions. The artist does not enact sexual and racial modalities that intensify his body as pretext for a battlefield, but rather for a field of strength that is truly versatile: brief, changing, capricious, unstable, unreliable, whimsical, superficial, unresolved. As a gesture of appropriation, when the artist dons red heels, a veil, a hijab, a niqab or an Andalusian robe, his dress is not attempting a process of realistically assuming the female or feminine body, if that genre of body even truly exists.1 Mehdi-Georges Lahlou preserves his body elsewhere in an encoding of masculinity: hirsute and bearded. Here the cross-dressing operates figuratively. It is the means for revealing the exact moment of the shift from one state to another and not the result of this passage.
Removed from their common uses, where they produce meaning as symbols, the garments, accessories and objects distort the body of the artist but do not transform it; they delineate other contours in it. They make the body into a surface of montages, collages and encodings where their related constructions and oppositions are played out. In such an arrangement, the supposed attributes which distinguish the bodies by sexual types are made visible on one single body. The latter is limited to a paradoxical effect: ultimately, we can attribute no specific gender to this body that is all encompassing. This antithesis of body type can be considered based on a reference to the Dionysian rites. During these rites, the type undergoes a process of radical reversal—but not one of transformation—in order to liberate the differences through an ecstatic experience of antagonisms: an outrageous staging of clashing types, one that creates violence and disorients the spirit.
The burlesque or the body off limits
Mehdi-Georges Lahlou is the producer of his “Arabic mouth,” a muzzle effecting fantastical projections: “the idiot sputtering with amplified gestures,” as he refers to them. What is provoking here is the hypervisibility of the discrepancy in the economy of this projection. With this fantasy jutting out, the effects are performed, shown, exposed to the outrageousness of their objections: this is not a veiled beard, nor a bearded veil, but a veil-beard/beard-veil. The artist draws out these extravagant effects from the popular genre of the burlesque show where cross-dressing operates as a form of dissonance with the norm. The burlesque claims to displace the registers and regimes of normalized representation, a paradigm that presupposes a balance between subject and style, content and form.
In his performance of 2009, Saut de haies en chaussures rouges à talon sur carrelage mosaïque (Jumping hurdles in red stilettos onto mosaic tiles), the artist succeeds in his jumps despite the incompatibility between his dress and the athletic nature of his action. He also succeeds in his landings, despite the predictable skidding of the heels on the tiles which are not affixed to the ground. On the contrary, the heels shattered and fragmented the mosaic. The heel, an attribute of feminine seduction, becomes a weapon of destruction. Each successful jump does not confine the body to the result of the action that would render it a definitive state; on the contrary, each leap renews the body through a tense dynamic that hovers between instability and the assurance of the moment’s duration.
This gap is meant to produce a critical distance, at least when not essentialized as pure, dramatic effect. In other words, an awareness of that which performs in ambivalence and not a blind belief in solid, uncompromising evidence. In the work of Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, the burlesque proceeds by further encoding the signs which prompt the licentious, namely the grotesque, outrageous imitation. It shifts the incarnation of a symbolic, contextual, stable model towards a surface of projection and fantasy, one like the artist’s body. This movement renews itself within a performative oscillation of the body between subjectivity and objectivity, outside the confines of an individuality enclosed within a dogmatic ideological and aesthetic framework. Here, the formula that desires for shape and sign to be indication of identity will always be experienced as excess, inflation, a “foolishness,” a blocking of the gesture’s power to act and to remind.
Repetition, endurance, balance…: factors of time
In this disturbed economy of body and object—of surface and depth—repetition, duration, stamina, tension, and balance are therefore carriers for the transformative, temporal energies of obviousness. They are like the signal of an entropic activity that transforms the physical certainty of the body into a field of energizing forces, like a revelation of the body renewed with vitality. This temporal aspect is not without suggesting its importance in the religious services and rituals, such as the repetition in prayers for endurance, seen in a martyr’s ecstasy. The time factor is invoked here for its revelatory, supernatural function more than its religious one.
When the artist walks thirty kilometers in eight hours and thirty minutes while sporting red high heels (Walking 30 km with red high heel shoes, between 2 art spaces), he contradicts the structuring function of the heel, one intended to contour the body to a particular form. The length of the stride restricts this function to the duration of the body’s movements, even as the heel shapes each stride: the nature of the result remains unconvincing in its resolution. This gesture of tightrope walker is given as pure consumption and resistance in a body that is not absorbed by a specific symbolic context.
The series of assemblages Équilibre à… (Balanced with…), or the balances performed in the video series Stupidités contrôlées (Controlled stupidities), present the artist’s bust, cast or living, in acrobatic postures. Traditional objects borrowed from the Arab-Muslim culture are placed on his head. In these assemblages, the gripping point is a space of tension between the cast bust as support and the object as an accessory, unless it’s actually the other way around. Arranged in this way, the balance is not searching for a formal harmony between body and object. Rather it functions like a visual sophism that has a rapid effect and results in a bizarre shape. The aloof appearance seems to stabilize the posture for a moment while the acrobatic figure acts subsequently, like an eccentric, profane effect at odds with the rigidity and permanence of the whole. In the video of 2009, Stupidités contrôlées II (Controlled stupidities II), the artist’s naked bust faces the camera, a copy of the Koran balancing on the head, while he eats a banana for more than eight minutes. The gap between the religious symbol and ordinary gesture is increasing over time here, prompting a situation devoid of meaning. This absurd, stupid, childish attitude destabilizes the timeless symbol. It lets the symbol into an aesthetic and a temporality without context: a secular, unstable universe where all kinds of games are possible.
In two recent sculptures, Head (2013) and Hourglasses (2015), the artist uses semolina in contradictory manners. A food that has become a cultural sign, the grain represents work in its very materiality: a unit derived from the crushing of wheat and repeated in countless grains. In Head, semolina serves as the material that shapes the form of the artist’s head. The obtained mold is then inversed on a pedestal. One might say “Lahlou-head-of-semolina,” like an idiotic formula that summarizes the symbiotic literalism between material and form. However, the head of semolina is actually an illusion, a magic trick. Semolina pretends to be a clumping material, but is actually set with an external element (here an epoxy resin acts as hardener). The unsteady frailty projects the form as a precarious reality where, at any moment, the head may dissolve into the material’s undifferentiated mode and no longer form a sign or shape. In Hourglasses, semolina is preserved in its individualized, atomic state. The grain becomes a unit of time within the body of an hourglass whose form is the artist’s effigy. Two glass heads, fused at the neck, inscribe his body within two transparent, intertwined dimensions: continuous flow and reversibility. The semolina becomes a nutritious substance feeding the body in its reversibility. This reversible, dual body, containing a nourishing substance and serving as a measure of time, makes this asynchronous rhythm of the future work together: both a vital maturation of the individual and a temporal circularity of life. It is an endless return which gives rise to meditation on this versatile, shifting, centrifugal duality.
The marvelous: fragmentation of the MGL series
The world of the MGL series is named Lahloutopia. It is made up of contradictions and paradoxes, thus acting like the definition of the marvelous itself. With Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, images are not reality, much like the manner of the Surrealists. What the MGL series creates is a universe of the body, marked by its contact with the world. This universe is considered within the excessive visibility of aesthetic antagonisms that establish a model for it; that is to say, a state where everything cohabitates within an atomic, remarkable, eccentric, contrasting, humorous, though inexplicable, effect.
The identity factor is diluted in this tension between the body’s appearance and its composition, between its reifying effects and its dissemination, where the gendered and racial types are not stable, consistent givens. MGL is truly atomic, opposed to the organic—just like humor and the marvelous, both of which crush the bases, but not their result: the series is not the product of this atomization’s aesthetics, but a temporal, ecstatic, and eccentric formulation of the body, between liberation and reification, subjectification and objectification. Between body-sprit, body-object and body-flesh. Other states of Mehdi-Georges Lahlou’s body seem to want to explore beyond their own existence—that which, until now, has served as the first material in the series of states for the MGL body.
A ritual of passage and self-affirmation, in a world that sorts all lives into identities and contexts, this series will largely borrow from the question of identity in Euro-American contemporary art since the 1960s; this is his way of provoking the history of art from its double culture. Emptying it to the dregs, he explores the dilemma of a Dionysian figure—farcical, troublemaking, unpleasant—actually becoming conducive to exploitation or recuperation.2 Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, as he puts it today, seems to have found the point where he can possibly surpass the presence of his body in the work. The MGL series would then work to exhaust and end a figure that has become a leitmotif of contemporary art: that of the global artist stuck in a process of excess, shared between several cultures and bodies, where the attributed identity becomes the paradoxical, ridiculous proposition of an excessively fragmented world.
Stéphane Léger biography
Stéphane Léger is an Art critic and independent scholar. His works fits into the crossroads of gender studies, art history, art criticism, and aesthetics. He is interested in finding exit strategies for the identity paradigm in contemporary representations. He currently pursues an independent research project about the theoretical and historical articulation between gender, identity and territory, as conceptual and critical elements. In this framework, he particularly questions the identification of the ‘masculine’ gender in the Western visual arts since the 1960s, as well as the critical reception of American minimalism through theoretical, historical, and critical feminist discourses.