Timelessness and Precarity in Orientalist Temporality: Mehdi-Georges Lahlou’s Aesthetics of Disorientation


  • Conor Moynihan University at Buffalo




The Hourglasses (2015), by French-Moroccan artist Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, features five large hourglasses displayed artifact-like upon a table. As one would expect of an hourglass, these glass sculptures can be inverted to measure out time. This, though, is where convention ends, as these are filled with couscous, not sand. Unlike sand, couscous cannot measure time consistently and the inversion of any one of these five hourglasses results in a different measurement of time. In effect, they disorient any linear notion of temporality, raising the specter of Orientalism and its fantasy of a timeless East. Mehdi-Georges works in a diverse range of media including performance, sculpture, installation, and self-portraiture. Dealing with race, gender, sexuality, colonialism, identity, and representations of Islam and Catholicism, his work performs the instability in all these categories by critically complicating fantasies of “East” and “West” without relying on a mere binary reversal of meaning. Contextualizing his work within a larger history of Orientalism, my argument begins first with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” composed in 1817, followed by an analysis of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Orientalist paintings before leading to a concise discussion of contemporary Orientalism in art and art discourse. My analysis then circles back to the artist’s work to insist that Orientalism’s fantastical invocation of the East remains a disabling presence in the contemporary imaginary. Orientalism’s temporality, as glimpsed obliquely from Mehdi-Georges Lahlou’s hyphenated identity, is likewise rendered unstable in his work. As seen in The Hourglasses, his work produces what I call “an aesthetic of disorientation,” predicated on the artist’s embodied cultural hyphenation, which renders the Orientalist fantasy of the East absurd through its own tropes of representation. By bringing queer theory and disability studies to bear on his work, I show how his practice engages with Orientalism’s temporality to open up new possibilities of perceiving the world.

Author Biography

Conor Moynihan, University at Buffalo

Conor Moynihan is the Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow in Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at RISD Museum and a Visual Studies PhD candidate at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. His dissertation draws attention to the aesthetic conviviality between—and contemporary forms of—orientalism, primitivism, and exoticism in art and performance. His area of focus more generally is on transnational artists dealing with gender, sexuality, and ability, specifically focusing on artistic practices that move transnationally from/between the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey, and Iran to European and North American spaces. In addition, Moynihan has curated Drama Queer in Vancouver, BC (with Jonathan D. Katz, 2016), Ill at Ease: Dis-ease in Art in Buffalo, New York (2017), and Three Act, Three Scenes: My Care, Your Care, Careful Care in Brooklyn, New York (with Natalie Fleming, 2018).



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How to Cite

Moynihan, C. (2019). Timelessness and Precarity in Orientalist Temporality: Mehdi-Georges Lahlou’s Aesthetics of Disorientation. Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture, 8, 1–22. https://doi.org/10.5195/contemp.2019.272