PRINT November 2009



ACTOR, PLAYWRIGHT, AND VIDEO ARTIST Rabih Mroué has made the lecture-performance his métier. Picaresque journeys through Lebanon’s recent history augmented by archival evidence of dubious veracity, his presentations are filled with engrossing narratives. They lead audiences through a series of responses—among them laughter, disbelief, painful empathy, and horror—and leave them with a profound doubt as to the possibility of identifying in any accounting of the past anything that could reasonably be called the truth.
Mroué is not alone in exploring this territory. His practice took shape within a tight-knit community of artists, writers, and curators (each occupying multiple positions) who, in the early years of this decade, came together in Beirut to form an unofficial school. What the members of this cadre (including Walid Raad, Marwan Rechmaoui, Walid Sadek, Christine Tohme, and Akram Zaatari) share is an interest in analyzing the near-constant war of their youth, as well as a conviction that such analysis must entail the replication and deconstruction of both experience and representation. Text, image, video, and archival materials feature in many of their works, as does arch, satiric humor that provides intermittent release from the relentless recounting of violence. Mroué’s examination of the structures of live performance, however, distinguishes him from his cohorts. Like the experimental theatrical and choreographic artists (such as the Berlin-based group Rimini Protokoll and the French performer and choreographer Jérôme Bel) with whom he often appears, he creates work characterized by a reflexivity that abolishes the fourth wall of traditional theatrical space. Occasionally, he writes scripts for multiple performers, but his one-person shows and his videos—which undertake the same kinds of destabilizing epistemological explorations as his live works—are at the core of his practice.
While Mroué is a charismatic performer, his presence onstage is reticent. He typically appears seated quietly at a table with a computer and a single light source. Images are projected onto a nearby screen—his own documentation, ephemera, news articles, and other mediated materials—and this “evidence,” some of it fabricated, becomes his performance’s focal point. (In The Inhabitants of Images, 2009, a piece Mroué presented at this year’s Istanbul Biennial, for example, the artist meditates on the propaganda posters that are ubiquitous in Beirut, taking as his jumping-off point a surreal flyer that shows an impossible tête-à-tête between Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt who died in 1970, and Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister who resigned in 2004 and was assassinated in 2005.) Emphasizing voids in knowledge and meaning, the artist deliberately creates temporal confusion: Reflections on the civil war of 1975–90 are woven into a kind of double present—the textual present (when a lecture is written) and the performative one (when it is staged). His own professed and depicted confusion about these chronologies becomes the audience’s sympathetic experience. Spectators may feel they are watching a relentless unearthing, reassembling, and reexamination of available media and “histories,” including rumors and conspiracy theories—the navigation of a Borgesian labyrinth. Mroué deliberately plays with the trust that is generally assumed between actor and audience: His self-doubt undermines our capacity to suspend disbelief. Along with the artist, we are left to double back from dead ends, trying to recall paths already explored and attempting absurdist leaps of the imagination—at times, seemingly, the only option available—in order to unwind a tangle of possible interpretations.
The serious questions posed by this theater of mediation become all the clearer when considered in the Lebanese context—one defined by conflict and by authoritarian control of information (Mroué has had numerous run-ins with censors)—and the artist explored these implications in Three Posters, 2000, written with Elias Khoury. The work’s starting point is the videotaped suicide testimony of Jamal Sati, a fighter for the National Resistance Front in Lebanon, which was rediscovered by a friend of the authors’ on the shelves of a Beirut TV station, where it had been gathering dust since 1985. Reviewing it, the authors found that in fact Sati had performed three versions of the testimony before settling on the “best,” the one that he wanted shown on TV. Even in death, it would appear, there are variants on the right, or perhaps the most believable, performance. Mroué’s piece intermingles his own readings (one prerecorded and projected onto a screen, the other live) of Sati’s speech with the original 1985 tape. Sifting through these temporal and performative layers, the audience is left to surmise which version is most credible.
And in turn, the performance was subject to further layering, giving rise to a subsequent piece—a video work titled On Three Posters, 2004. Here, the artist recalls how, in 2002, he decided to stop staging the piece outside his home country. Post-9/11, Sati’s martyrdom—which Sati, like other Lebanese factionalists, would have seen not as an act of jihad but as a military-political operation—was too frequently subsumed within the often frankly xenophobic Western debate about religious fundamentalism. As he recounts this chronicle of mistranslation, Mroué wonders whether in fact the martyr’s televised statements could be seen as Lebanon’s first video art and whether that explains the compulsion on the part of artists of his generation to reexamine such documents.
As the dual (On) Three Posters suggest, the interconnections of live and video performances in Mroué’s work are complex. In his US debut, tentatively titled “Letter to New York” and taking place this month at New York’s P.S. 122 under the umbrella of Performa 09, he will present four videos—I, the Undersigned, 2007, an autonomous section of a longer work called Make Me Stop Smoking, 2006; On Three Posters; and two additional works, With Soul, with Blood, 2003, and Side A/Side B, 2002—along with a fifth, still in development as of this writing, that the artist calls a “letter” to the audience. Some who know his work may find it curious that Mroué is not performing live. And yet an intimate letter—a text that marks its author’s absence and distance in the author’s own voice and that initiates a ricocheting interplay of past, present, and future—seems, in its inherent paradoxes and reflexivity, to be, for Mroué, a perfect form of introduction.

Rabih Mroué, Performance poster for Who’s Afraid of Representation?, 2005. Photo: Samar Maakaron.

IN LEBANON, almost anyone who is killed, anyone who dies an unnatural death, is called a martyr. And there are posters of them everywhere. Normally, it’s taboo to talk about them—all these weird political street posters with pictures of dead people—because it’s taboo to discuss anything having to do with martyrs. They are heroes; they’re half saints. And what I began to think, when I was developing The Inhabitants of Images, is that these posters are like a new form of icon. So the piece is an attempt to deconstruct and talk about these images in a very human way, to deal with them as sacred objects but also to desacralize them. I discuss one poster that shows Gamal Abdel Nasser with Rafik Hariri. Of course it’s a photomontage. But in the performance, I take the image at face value: Here are these two political leaders meeting for the first time in the afterlife. I discuss other street posters, too—Lebanese Communist Party posters, for example. These images become a pretext, opening up on many issues—not only politics but also the meaning of political iconography and the relationships of power and images.

The Inhabitants of Images is a live piece, so it won’t be performed at P.S. 122. But it’s a good example of how the political situation in Lebanon functions in my work—it’s central, but not determinative of the work’s meaning. Many of the local political details will be lost on the audience in New York, but my goal isn’t to teach people about Beirut or the civil war. And the dynamic works both ways: They don’t know Beirut, I don’t know New York. To me, that’s interesting and challenging: How can I talk to an audience I don’t know, in a city I haven’t visited yet? So this is what I want to reflect on in the letter that I’ll be preparing to frame the New York program. The letter is in the very early stages, but I know that I want it to be an artwork in itself and that I want it to address this very specific audience—the people who come to see my videos at P.S. 122.

This idea of being in New York in absentia relates to something that has always fascinated me, which is the body in theater, the body that is sometimes an absence as well as a presence. At the outset, in the 1990s, I was trying to represent the body imprinted by the civil war. I wanted to question how we could create a theatrical body language, a physical theater about this specific body. But the result was always inadequate, less than what I experienced or what the people in Lebanon experienced. Later, I realized that this was in part because our bodies during the civil war were in fact passive. We were in shelters. Even for the fighters, it was the same—they were behind the barricades. It was not a battle between bodies. I started to think about this—about a kind of tension that exists not between me and someone who is here with me, but between me and the outside. That’s how I came to what I do now in theater. On the stage itself in my performances there is no tension, no physical effort. But the audience might be unsure or confused: Is what he’s saying true or not? So the tension is between me and the audience. At a certain point, I and the actors who worked with me started to use our real names onstage. Our performances became a mixture of fiction and reality: biography, not biography; true, not true. I started to question why I was making theater and how we were representing things onstage, and I started to use language instead of gesture or movement to explore these ideas. I don’t show the body in my performances—I’m sitting behind a table—but I talk about it. So this notion of absence-presence runs throughout my work.

There’s no strict schematic organizing the pre-existing videos I’m showing in New York, but they resonate with all these concerns in different ways. Side A/Side B, for instance, is a kind of partially fabricated autobiography, inspired by an audio recording of myself as a child that I found when I was an adult. I was shocked to hear my voice because I had this strange accent—a southern Lebanese accent, which is the accent of villagers, rural people. I don’t have that accent anymore, and I didn’t remember that I’d ever had it; I’ve always considered myself an urban person. It made me want to find a picture of myself at that age, but I couldn’t locate one. The images in the video are taken from all these family albums I looked through—photographs I’m not in.

You can see the importance of the archive and its mutability here, and that gets amplified in a political register in I, the Undersigned, which is an autonomous section of a longer work, Make Me Stop Smoking. Make Me Stop Smoking is all related to the post-civil-war years in Lebanon and especially to the debate about what we should remember and what we should forget, and who gets to decide that. And of course, this parallels the questions every archive is an answer to: What should we keep, and what should we throw out? At the end of the civil war, nobody who was responsible offered any apologies. It was as if culpability had been forgotten or thrown out. When finally one politician apologized, his apology was suppressed: It was publicized in a few short articles in foreign newspapers, and that was it. So I took his statement, and I reworked it or reappropriated it. I perform it in first person, as if it were my own apology to the Lebanese people and the world. With Soul, with Blood is similar in that it’s a kind of confessional, too—this time dealing with the factionalism in Lebanon, with all the religious groups that have openly declared their hatred of one another, so that even in times of peace there is always the threat of war. In it, I take on the personae of some of the members of these different groups, speaking in first person. The real issue here is how group identity occludes individualism, which is something that a lot of artists, writers, and scholars in the region are concerned about. For an artist, this issue is obviously crucial. The idea for one of my lecture-performances, Who’s Afraid of Representation?, 2005, which I performed with Lina Saneh, was prompted by my reading about a lot of very violent or physical performance art. I wondered why we don’t have this genre of art in Lebanon or in the region. I thought maybe we don’t because we are still living in a communitarian, religious society, which is holding at bay the notion of citizenship—citizens who are equal individuals under the law. So if you make work like that of Orlan, Marina Abramović, or Gina Pane then you are considered either mad or disloyal—you are trafficking with the enemy, the West.

And when the audience is Western, there are other pitfalls. The video On Three Posters emerged from my performance Three Posters, which I decided to stop staging outside Lebanon because it was so misunderstood. That obviously connects to some of the challenges of showing my work in New York. You have to find a balance: I try my best to be clear and not to be misunderstood, but at the same time, you have to keep things open to different interpretations. It’s not a controlled or closed discourse. That’s very important, even though I know very well that the fate of my work is, in the end, to be appropriated. Think about Chris Burden or other artists who are against institutional authority yet have been institutionalized. But you can always reappropriate, or re-reappropriate. You can turn things back on power, or you can take something and open it up to questions that have been suppressed. Something like that is going on, for instance, with the martyr imagery I use in The Inhabitants of Images and On Three Posters and, I hope, with all my work. I see, I analyze, I reflect, then I talk. I talk, and I doubt.

Rabih Mroué