When we observe the body of work accomplished to date by Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, three constant principles emerge, among others: the first concerns his relationship to the body, and the second is his relationship to space. We can even say that quite often the two are intertwined. His rapport with the body is obviously not removed from his formative training as a dancer, just as the one with space is linked to his work as a “sculptor.” This term is probably the most adequate to talk about his artistic approach, even including his photography—and here we touch on the third point: the question of memory—which is never absent.
Body, space and memory form a kind of trilogy with at least two of these components present in each performance, sculpture or image produced by the artist. All contribute, each in their own way, to a convoluted evocation of cultural references, religious beliefs or social attributes. For him, the concern is to revisit all of them in light of critical practices and the different processes that characterize contemporary art. One function of this art is to perpetually question certain taboos and beliefs of our societies, whether they be moral, religious, philosophical, political, social, cultural or aesthetic.
One could almost claim that the ambiguity of the results that Mehdi-Georges Lahlou leads us to is inversely proportional to the means he uses, means which are all relatively traditional for an artist of the 21st century at the crossroads of cultures, genres, styles and techniques. From time immemorial, in fact, artists have also practiced self-portraiture and sculpture; stained glass has lived through the centuries; and photography, ever since its origin in 1839, has constantly been used by artists, whether they are painters or not.
So from where does Mehdi-Georges Lahlou get his aptitude for producing ambiguous works from elements that are not themselves ambiguous? One cannot speak of Surrealism in his approach, but rather of an ability to dissociate all kinds of referents and sources in order to amalgamate new forms of thought. We see, therefore, the artist more as an alchemist affecting the images, materials, and media in order to establish new perceptions of them, namely the transformation of their identity, by producing objects or figures that are not categorizable due to their multireferentiality.
From this point of view, the busts with duplicate faces and the cubic Kaaba-shaped structures refer to different aspects of art history (self-portraiture, minimalism) whose codes of representation are then hijacked and redirected. It is also concerned with combining the works, either by multiplying them (72 Vierges – 2012), or by uniting them. The artist thus creates new works from older ones, placing them in a balance that is as improbable as it is evocative (Équilibre à la Kaaba – 2013), or even playing with the effects of inclusion, as in Home sweet home, a minimized structure of the Kaaba with one side turned into a video screen. The whole could be summed up by the title of another skillful installation piece, paradoxically called Construction cubique, ou de la pensée confuse (2011).
It is by catapulting between these different forms and figures, while remaining inconspicuous at first glance, that the artist manages to develop a particular universe. It is his own, but everyone has the right to appropriate it for him or her-self, insofar as its components are not foreign to us. On the contrary, they could almost seem familiar to us. The viewer has only to recompose the puzzle while attempting to unravel the sprawling thoughts of the artist.
SPICY “turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, henna” (video projections) occupies a visually important place in the layout of his exhibition. This work has the closest relationship to the ongoing theme of protest within the space that houses him: the centennial commemoration of the first gas attack by the Germans during World War I. With the Allies completley helpless against this new, utterly unknown “weapon,” its devastating effects were widespread.
At first glance, the four screens show us the breaking waves and picturesque clouds advancing from the background, eventually covering the artist’s face entirely. We quickly realize that pigments are raining down on him, but we are unable to immediately identify which ones they are. They are the four spices—turmeric, cinnamon, ginger and henna powder—which the artist has customarily used in his works. As is always his manner, the spices or other ingredients are diverted from their first, dietary function. They are used for their color or texture, as seen in the works which feature hourglasses, whose conventional sand is replaced by the semolina of couscous. The illusion is perfect and, knowing this, the gaze projected onto the work is altered. That which could have appeared as anecdotal finds itself considered otherwise, with the cultural dimension definitively taking precedent over any reading of it as gimmick.
The twists and turns in the usage of these materials is characteristic of Mehdi-Georges Lahlou’s approach and work. In everyday life, there are many who know the art of subtle, ironic humor—and some are cleverer still. One could say the same of the artist, if we place his practice on the level of ambiguity. He has the art of positioning himself precisely where we don’t expect him, teasing out the loopholes with which he becomes involved, playing with the ambiguity of convoluted, decentered materials and media. In other words, he redirects the common, expected meaning of comprehension and interpretation, beginning with the communally accepted/acceptable norm. These still remain passable on an intellectual level, but when it comes to addressing cultural or religious domains (especially those intertwined with Islamic civilization or Muslim religion), the risk of misunderstanding and hint of provocation are never far off. The false interpretations based on a simple reading (but can we possibly perceive any others therein?) are countless and, subsequently, can greatly alter the understanding of his work. Some recent examples demonstrate that he is not alone in this case and that the negative phenomenon of self-censorship is henceforth part of the order.
A second work, a stained glass piece entitled Of the confused memory, continues in this trajectory of ambiguity. Its doubling of superimposed squares reprises a decorative element of Arabic geometry while the stained glass is primarily associated with the tradition of Christianity. It is an integral part of religious architecture that developed alongside the rise of cathedrals in the Middle Ages; it is a technical craft (in the historical sense) which has endured, with ups and downs of course, and returned as one of the most contemporary currents, just like mosaic or glasswork. Traditional stained glass was originally used to “educate” Catholic populations visually through illustrations, evocations of biblical scenes, and stories of the Apostles, without forgetting the figures of donors who represented civil or religious powers. We now arrive at conflicting notions of the Muslim religion with one that prefers to suggest—rather than banish—forms of representation, and is characterized by heightened abstraction.
In his undermining of common spaces and other established beliefs, Mehdi-Georges Lahlou replaced these religious figures with military ones but, once again, these were not just any figures. These are images of Moroccan armed divisions and Algerian Zouaves, chosen because of their status as populations colonized by France in the 19th century. In 1914, they were brought out and compelled to fight on the frontlines and in the trenches “for the motherland.”
Needless to say, it was necessary for an artist of Franco-Moroccan origin, like Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, to search, select and employ these documents and types of representations. It is a novel way for him to subtly denounce a certain form of colonization and, most of all, its consequences for the relevant populations, which would otherwise be completely excluded from this conflict.
The visitor is greeted by a Grenadier, whose form is a bust of the artist. This is often the case, for he puts himself in the scene when it comes to embodying a character, regardless of the gender—there is an enormous disparity between the figure of a bearded Muslim and the bust of Queen Nefertiti. The bust in question here is surmounted by a multitude of a single fruit, in this case an accumulation of pomegranates. Again, it is the identity of a fruit that gives body and sense to his artwork, his sculptures. It is a very particular fruit, one of few that has given its name to a weapon.* Mehdi-Georges Lahlou plays afresh with the ambiguity of its name and, in this case, with a certain formal relationship between the fruit and the weapon. There is another rapport, one that we can associate with the above-mentioned video projections which also conceals the figure of the artist—should we call it a universal model?—beneath a shower of spices as colorful as the pomegranate. Some of them seem open, exploded: a simple flash in the pan or something more dangerously de-pinned before approaching the irreversible?
The bust is imposing not only because of the enormous headdress that crushes it, but also because of the size of its base, a concrete pedestal which, in this space, also seems to serve as a headstone that could be read as commemorative.
The question of bases in the work of Mehdi-Georges Lahlou is not insignificant and all the pedestals are chosen with particular care, whether it be for their height, volume or texture. His relationship to sculpture also has a dose of ambiguity, ranging from basic classicism to testing contemporary cultural limits. Unlike a painting or video, sculpture has a backside and a space and, therefore, neither necessitates nor requires a unique point of view. The gaze, just as physical as the visitor, revolves around the sculpture, positions itself against it, takes account of the ambient environment. The gaze seizes the perspective of anyone who is influenced—in one way or another—by the work, regardless of their positioning in the space. Unlike a wall hanging, the installation of a sculpture results in a distinctive relationship with the space that reveals one way to approach it, consider it, or try to leave it behind (which is not the case here). Here the challenge is to piece together the parts which, a priori, have nothing to do with each other. We can therefore speak of an installation. The context and environment which house them do play an important role since they determine, in part or in whole, the conception and realization of these new artworks.
Starting from pieces and works that are extremely different in their form, technique and style, the common denominator, not to mention their common theme, emerges. There we see the art of Mehdi-Georges Lahlou: surprising his audience with elements taken from everyday life that, when juxtaposed (a confrontation with unexpected cultural referents), leads to reflection, to alternative realization, to a reevaluation of our principles and our widely accepted certainties.
*TN: the French word ‘grenadier’ can designate either a solider who tosses grenades or a pomegrante tree. Similarly, the word ‘grenade’ has a dual meaning as weapon or fruit.
Bernard Marcelis Biography
A historian by training, Bernard Marcelis is also an art critic and a curator. He is a regular contributor to Art press and Quotidien de l’Art and is the author of several monographs (André Cadere, Bernar Venet, Johan Muyle, Dominique Gauthier, etc.).