Driss Ouadahi’s paintings have rooted themselves in “Systems of Demarcation”, a collaborative exhibition detailing architectural mechanisms of control.

The artist’s grand representations of urban sprawl offer points of reflection, poignantly addressing migration, colonialism, barriers and exclusion.

Driss Ouadahi in front of his piece "To the ground", 2007. Photo: VDHM. Image courtesy Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle.

Driss Ouadahi in front of his piece ‘To the ground’, 2007. Photo: VDHM. Image courtesy Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle.

Oceans of steel and glass are mesmerisingly daunting, yet they maintain a serene familiarity. Fragmented wires and grids offer the same escape: seemingly shattered and forgotten, but nonetheless enchanting in the histories they hold. When peering up at a skyscraper or magnificent feat of contemporary architecture, it is curious to image its inhabitants; who has walked these floors? Who cleans the windows? Who is looking down on the city below?

Algerian-born painter Driss Ouadahi ponders these questions and captures them in an overwhelming state of incompletion, much like many of the structures he paints. They are shells of an idea, monuments to a disconnected, disjointed time and place and people that are entirely other. In exploration of this geometric fragmentation – both within landscapes and socioeconomic barriers – Germany’s Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle presents “Systems of Demarcation”, featuring a series of paintings by Ouadahi and his poignant interactions with other artists in the field.

Driss Ouadahi, 'Brise', 2009 oil on canvas, 190 x 240 cm. From the Krefeld Private Collection. Image courtesy Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle.

Driss Ouadahi, ‘Brise’, 2009, oil on canvas, 190 x 240 cm. From the Krefeld Private Collection. Image courtesy Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle.

Influenced by the curious dimensions of his homeland – a characteristic which can clearly be seen in his early colour field paintings – contemporary, glossy architecture became a central theme in Ouadahi’s practice. His process is one of contemplation and decelerated observation, finding minute details and surreal geometries within high-rise structures. While many of his pieces exhibit a surreal, almost alien landscape, it becomes known that Ouadahi’s edifices are direct representations of those throughout European and North African countries, namely the luxurious or ambitious “shell constructions” that have been left perpetually-unfinished.

Driss Ouadahi, Untitled '(Unterführung 2)', 2017, oil on canvas,190 x 240 cm. Image courtesy Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle.

Driss Ouadahi, ‘Untitled (Unterführung 2)’, 2017, oil on canvas, 190 x 240 cm. Image courtesy Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle.

Political Geometries

Through this, Ouadahi highlights the precarious situation of those trying to find a home in the modern nature of rapid construction. His subject matter is thus not the architecture itself, but the purposefully constructed environments of urban alienation: sterile modernist public housing developments, barrier fences and lavish structures with faceless offshore owners. Ouadahi paints works of paradoxical beauty using this stark urbanism – which is inevitably tied to issues of exclusion and barrier – as a jumping off point.

The grand landscapes are montages of his neighbourhoods and communities, though rendered unfamiliar through the omission of human-scale details. Further, the accuracy of Ouadahi’s execution – the painstaking process of painting grid after grid – contradicts the precariousness of the realities he paints. Ouadahi’s fences recall the wire-netting common in the metropolitan suburbs of France and Algeria. They demarcate privileged zones and stand as symbolic borders with strict or impossible entry requirements. As the artist notes, they are “both minimalist abstractions and signifiers of separation”.

Driss Ouadahi, 'Oppressed blessing II', 2016, chalk on paper, 252 x 500 cm. Image courtesy Driss Ouadahi, Oppressed blessing II, 2016 252 x 500 cm. Image courtesy Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle.

Driss Ouadahi, ‘Oppressed Blessing II’, 2016, chalk on paper, 252 x 500 cm. Image courtesy Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle.

At the heart of “Systems of Demarcation” are the urban tenement blocks, relatives of the ground-breaking, utilitarian living spaces devised during the mid-20th century as a necessary solution to decades of urban migration after industrialisation. Ouadahi’s designs have evolved in the collective consciousness from futuristic utopian mass dwellings into signifiers of wage gaps, displacement, migration and the inaccessibility of quality living standards in many developed nations. The modernist influence on his grid structures, mirroring the thoughtless and repetitive of tower block, also belies an obsession with perspective and the incongruent narratives that come with it. He states:

Marginalised objects have often been eminent subjects in modern and contemporary art: think of Édouard Manet, Marcel Duchamp and the Arte Povera artists. With these marginalised urban zones, my choices were based on real architectural elements, omnipresent in their richness and their diversity, which form part of the particular psycho-geography of the space and of the non-space – a form that contains a physical, psychological and conceptual infrastructure that in turn constitutes these urban worlds.

Driss Ouadahi, Untitled '(Unterführung 1)', 2017, oil on canvas, 190 x 240 cm. Image courtesy Driss Ouadahi, ohne Titel, (Unterführung 1), 2017 190 x 240 cm, Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle.

Driss Ouadahi, ‘Untitled (Unterführung 1)’, 2017, oil on canvas, 190 x 240 cm. Image courtesy Driss Ouadahi and Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle.

Driss Ouadahi, Untitled, 2016, oil on canvas, 125 x 150 cm. Image courtesy Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle.

Driss Ouadahi, ‘Untitled’, 2016, oil on canvas, 125 x 150 cm. Image courtesy Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle.

“Systems of Demarcation” has taken these gigantic symbols of migration, urbanisation and exclusion and worked them into a poetic response to what Foucault termed the “places without a sense of place”, urban landscapes that simultaneously define and alienate the lives of their inhabitants, and more specifically, those who do not.

In general, the works, and the constructions themselves, are embedded in a system of spatial effects of power and are located in societies where all places are in a certain relation to this power. The buildings become heterotopias, mirroring an envisioned utopia, but inherently connected to local histories and composed of boundaries between and against all other places around them.

Driss Ouadahi, 'Césure', 2016, oil on canvas, 180 x 220 cm. Image courtesy Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle.

Driss Ouadahi, ‘Césure’, 2016, oil on canvas, 180 x 220 cm. Image courtesy Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle.

Architectural Interactions

While Ouadahi’s work deals with systems of alienation, his cityscapes play off of and intermingle with the work of six other artists in “Systems of Demarcation”: Susan Hefuna, Mona Hatoum, Kader Attia, Mounir Fatmi, Tamara K.E. and Saadan Afif. In an effort to explore the interconnected themes of migration law, colonialism and diaspora, “Systems of Demarcation” becomes a collaborative arena; after all, such subjects refute singularity in favour of like-minded and group-centred progress.

Mona Hatoum’s 2009 installation Paravent is one of the active contributors. A six-foot cheese grater, the piece juts through the gallery like an old-fashioned room divider, shielding what hides behind it and confronting viewers with a humorously violent warning. Situated next to Ouadahi’s canvases, Hatoum’s structure speaks of control, or more specifically power of architectural elements employed as mechanisms of control.

Mona Hatoum, Paravent, 2009. Image courtesy the Sander Collection.

Mona Hatoum, ‘Paravent’, 2009. Image courtesy the Sander Collection.

Mounir Fatmi’s sound-system-as-cityscape Saving Manhattan (2007) is also on display. An assemblage of 90 speakers casts a shadow of one of the world’s most familiar skylines onto the gallery wall and plays a continuous loop of sampled radio broadcasts, sirens and helicopters. The installation’s dramatic atmosphere oscillates between fiction and reality, evoking memories of pre-9/11 New York and adding an ominous, yet familiar atmosphere to Ouadahi’s structures. In a seamless space, the piece provides the exhibition with a vulnerable vision that is symbolic of modernity and the memory of its destruction.

Mounir Fatmi, 'Save Manhattan 03', 2007. Photo: Gwangju Museum, Korea, 2014. From the Nadour Collection, Düsseldorf/Paris. ©VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2018

Mounir Fatmi, ‘Save Manhattan 03’, 2007. Photo: Gwangju Museum, Korea, 2014. From the Nadour Collection, Düsseldorf/Paris. ©VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2018.

The nature of Ouadahi’s series, and “Systems of Demarcation” as a whole, is dichotomous; it is awe-inspiring, but inhabits a cold detachedness. It is like looking into a skyscraper’s vast mirrored windows, pondering about who or what dwells within, and realising that this anonymity is everlasting. The exclusionary idea of what these structures hold – or could hold – is as intangible and incomprehensible as the ‘systems of demarcation’ that are geographically, politically and economically implemented globally.

Megan Miller

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“Systems of Demarcation” is on view from 25 February to 6 May 2018 at Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle, Im Haus der Jugend, Geschwister-Scholl-Platz 4-6, 42275 Wuppertal-Barmen, Germany.

Related topics: Algerian artists, painting, museum shows, collaborative, art and architecture, events in Germany

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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