EXTRA is the new exhibition at CENTRALE for contemporary art, on display until 17.09.2023, presenting works by French artist Mehdi-Georges Lahlou who for the occasion has invited South African Berlin-based artist Candice Breitz as a guest artist.
Both artists explore various topics such as identity, violence, collective memory etc. tackling them from a very original perspective but most importantly by an extensive and intense use of their own body, reclaiming the role of corporeality as a heuristic tool for their artistic practice.
The exhibition begins with four screens of the video installation Spicy “turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, henna”. Mehdi-Georges Lahlou’s body is there, covered in a dense fog of fine particles such as spices and powdered pigments that give the title to the video. This work re-enacts the first use of the asphyxiating gas used as a chemical weapon, known as yperite, by the German army during First World War and then banned in 1925 by the Geneva Protocol. What strikes of this installation is that even though the artist doesn’t show the horrendous consequences of the gas on the body, its steadiness, almost powerless to the thickening of the fog, generates in the viewer a certain discomfort. The gas was also called mustard gas and the fact that the artist used spices for the installation shows the macabre perversion of the language which aims to trivialise serious and heinous facts.
With the sculpture Of the Grenadier (a bronze cast of the artist’s body) Lahlou plays more overtly with the polysemic and ambiguity words: in fact, grenade in French both means the fruit and the explosive weapon, while grenadier signifies the fruit tree and the soldier. One word carrying its opposite, the fruit is historically the symbol of abundance, prosperity, and fertility; the weapon is synonym of a sterile battlefield where the only abundance is that of corpses. Of the Confused Memory, a series of re-elaborated photographs of corpses, retrieved from the archives of Ypres’ In Flanders Fields Museum, these pictures were taken by the German army to analyse and optimise the impact of mustard gas, complete the room. The particular technique of covering the pictures with a layer of charcoal conceals the images which, according to the degree of attention of the viewer, appear or disappear. In a visual culture like ours where violence is utterly displayed, often with a certain morbidity, our gaze is anesthetized and violence shown in plain sight is rapidly overridden by something else, perhaps to hide it in plain sight can be the key to shake our rusty gaze.
The same principle can be applied to the series of glazed ceramic plates called Casablanca. Here Mehdi-Georges Lahlou deals with the photograph of a homophobic attack that took place in Morocco in 2016. The core issue for this work was how to talk about and report violence without compromising the victims, which is exactly what happened in that case when the media relaunched the image obsessively leading to the imprisonment of the victims. To avoid this, and give voice to victims while respecting them, the artist has reassembled the image so that it is not recognizable anymore, what remains is the story and that is all that matters.
The exhibition continues through the site-specific installation The Walls Remember, Archives of Insults. Walls of a bunker displaying a collection of graffiti with misogynistic, homophobic, and racist insults and slurs that accompany the urban landscape experience of marginalized groups. The installation reminded me, by contrast, of the militant work of a collective based in Brussels, Collage Feministes which uses the walls of the city to react to the pervasive and systemic verbal violence of the society, reclaiming their own voice in the urban landscape. We can see these two different approaches, to a certain extent, as complementary. Mehdi-Georges Lahlou’s collection aims to defuse the violent scope of those insults and at the same time keeps their harsh memory alive, Collage Feminists, instead, reacts and put in place a strategy of verbal and visual resistance.
Talking about verbal violence the work of Candice Breitz comes into question, throughout the years she has collected a wide range of found footage fragments that document white people talking about race. Breitz appropriates and ventriloquizes these voices channelling them through her own white body, wearing nothing but a white dress shirt and zombie contact lenses. It is not a simple mockery of the white supremacist discourse that is gaining more and more visibility in the media sphere, but in my opinion, it is a great warning of the fact that often we don’t speak about this topic but rather we are spoken by the framework dictated by the far-right; one should instead elude this imposed framework and use different words and concepts.
The exhibition ends with Extra, a video installation shot on the set of Generations, South Africa’s most loved soap opera. It plays with artist’s role of an absent presence or a present absence, an extra who is at the same time a very visible and pale sore thumb, a glaringly white question mark, as stated by Breitz. The white presence is a weird minor character yet cumbersome. It catalyses the attention of the viewers, against their will, with its pervasive intrusion, disturbing the unfolding of the story whose major characters are black.
Photos by Giuseppe De Michele