Yazid Oulab, Échafaudage (Scaffolding), 2009, rope and resin, approx. 118 1/8 x 61 3/8 x 20 7/8".

Yazid Oulab, Échafaudage (Scaffolding), 2009, rope and resin, approx. 118 1/8 x 61 3/8 x 20 7/8".

Yazid Oulab

Yazid Oulab, Échafaudage (Scaffolding), 2009, rope and resin, approx. 118 1/8 x 61 3/8 x 20 7/8".

Sufism—Muslim mysticism—serves as a sort of philosophical base for Yazid Oulab’s fragile sculptures, often made of everyday objects and materials that the Algerian-born, Marseille, France–based artist endows with new significance. In his latest solo exhibition, he continued to allude to that esoteric strain of religion—or rather spirituality—that he perceives as an important part of the peaceful, meditative essence of his native Algerian culture, and to its use of lyrical chanting as an invocative activity. A long-standing fascination with the poetic language of the mythological texts of North Africa and the Middle East recently led the artist to the ancient Egyptian ceremony known as the judgment of Osiris. As recorded in the Book of the Dead, written to guide the souls of the deceased to the afterlife, the heart of the deceased was weighed on a scale. Responding to the Egyptian-hieroglyphic text, in which the soul of the deceased enumerates the various types of harm that he refrained from committing during his lifetime, the artist in his video The Negative Confessions, 2010, recites in the dialect of his native village: “I’ve never been in jail. . . . I’ve never used drugs. . . . I’ve never insulted a woman. . . . I’ve never been a terrorist.” Thus right is associated with the crimes not committed during one’s lifetime, rather than with the ultimate virtues.

The objects and materials in Oulab’s works—sheepskins and snakes’ sloughs, for example—could be perceived as referencing the environment of his native country. But his artistic use of them often escapes such a direct reading; he strives to reveal a mystical and magical dimension in everyday life, reaching beyond its geographic and temporal limitations. In Balance, 2010, pieces of snakeskin are scattered around an octagonal wooden cage covered with wire netting, serving as a counterweight to two small birds in a separate cage. The two cages are connected by a wooden arm suspended from the ceiling, a contraption that looks like a gigantic balance scale but acts like a mobile—notably, the work was conceived during a residency at Alexander Calder’s studio in Saché, France. According to the artist, the snakes’ sloughs allude to transformation, while the birds represent the power of poetry. The movement of the piece was enchanting: The birds occasionally gently swung the entire work with their weight—but most of the time they remained calm, finding a peaceful repose in their cage.

Such lyricism does not mean that Oulab’s works are devoid of political significance, however. Given the ongoing debate about the real meaning of Islam, they could be viewed as a commentary on its complexities. The two hands made of barbed wire and placed horizontally on the wall, one atop the other, in Mains (Hands), 2009, are intended to represent the hand that gives and the one that protects, and thus to expose the paradox and the futility of this duality. But the spiky barbed wire suggests a discomfort that extends beyond the realm of meditative poesis. Similarly, The Negative Confessions alludes to sins that might be part of a discussion about what separates different cultures from one another in the past and in the present.

Oulab seeks to close the gap between the sacred and the profane. Échafaudage (Scaffolding), 2009, made of cord primed with resin, looks both ethereal and concrete. (The piece is a smaller version of a site-specific work erected in the dunes of the Tinerkouk region of Algeria in 2007.) Like the scale in Balance, Échafaudage is a fragile but stable construction, devoid of direct functionality but not of purpose. The work might be perceived as a surveillance tower, but with lace-like ornamentation on the upper part, it looks also like a remnant of a fantastic structure that might’ve witnessed the glory of the artistic achievements of Oulab’s native culture.

Marek Bartelik