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