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

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