Visiting the private view of Lydia Ourahmane’s new commission at Chisenhale Gallery, you first notice the audience. Rather than featuring objects, the space is filled with people: chatting, sitting, walking around. It takes a second to spot the work in the far-right corner of the gallery. A golden tooth is unassumingly mounted on a pin, sticking out of the wall. A cabinet with documents is standing next to it. In the middle hangs an x-ray. It takes another moment to realise a low humming is coming from the floorboards. It finds resonance with the room, with the bodies in it, and creates a feeling of being ‘within’ something latently present. Ourahmane’s show, ‘The You in Us’ envelops itself around its audience, presenting a careful narrative of belonging within a history of personal and political crisis.
The French-Algerian war (1945 – 1962) cost over 300,000 Algerian lives. Through personal documents, such as conscription cards and a French passport, we learn of Ourahmane’s grandfather Tayeb Ourahmane, one of the highest-ranking snipers in the military. ‘Driot de Sang (Blood Right)’ (2018) is a testimony to his experience of the French-Algerian crisis.
In protest against his forced conscription into the French army, Tayeb pulled his own teeth in an act of resistance. ‘In The Absence of Our Mothers’ (2015 – 2018) which comprises an x-ray scan of Ourahmane’s jaw and two identical gold teeth – the one presently on the wall, the other surgically inserted into Ourahmane’s mouth - bear witness to this history of violence, torture and uprising. Past, present and future are folded into each other through the melancholic powers of fetishism, creating a talisman of remembrance that keeps a lost loved one close. Fitting the gold tooth in the empty space of Ourahmane’s missing molar re-enacts a play of presence and absence, of the displacement of war, the shifting of borders and generational inheritance.
The war in the Middle East and its subsequent migration surges, the looming reality of Brexit, the rise of Trump, increased border awareness and a hyperactive fear of terrorism show a world increasingly anxious about feeling whole. The everyday is tainted with micro-crises of belonging, cross-stitching gender, politics, the social and geography through visa-applications, social media, increasing numbers of homeless people and political efforts such as the #MeToo movement. Visibility has become bureaucratic.
‘Paradis’ (2018) questions how individual trauma can be felt on a collective level by enacting what it feels like to be part of something. Featuring sounds recorded on site in Oran, Algeria, mixed with music scores, the resulting hum reverberates within the chest, binding the audience to each other and to history, turning them from passive viewer into an active participant.
On our way out, I push through large metal doors. ‘Doors’ (2018) functions as a point of inversion, physically and symbolically. With every hand touching the surface upon departure, the black slowly turns silver, becoming a mirror that asks a question: where do we go from here?