Rabih Mroué: I, the Undersigned

A co-authored text accompanying the exhibition I, the Undersigned, by Lebanese theater director, playwright, actor, and visual artist Rabih Mroué.

BAK is very proud to present I, the Undersigned, the first solo exhibition by Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué. Active as a theater director, playwright, actor, and visual artist, Mroué belongs to the artistic generation that matured after the (formal) end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, and whose work has been deeply influenced by the ongoing conflicts in the country and the Middle East region, as well as surrounding political and cultural issues such as identity construction, historical narration, exclusion, and remembrance. Mroué’s practice is as much representative of, as it is divergent from, these complex circumstances.

Coming from a theater background, Mroué has explored different genealogies of the realm of performance, referring both to a tradition of critical theater in line with Brechtian methods and to performance art connected to the developments in western contemporary art over the last half century. His practice escapes disciplinary frameworks by mixing methods and cultural cannons, by complicating the distinctions between fiction and reality, and by blending past “facts” with speculation about the current moment.

Mroué’s work can be seen as a constant exploration of the artist’s responsibility and position both in artistic frameworks limited by traditional conventions and in political circumstances that are based on principles of exclusion. Some of the main questions accompanying his practice can be formulated as follows: How to express truth through fiction? Can artistic subjectivity create a communal, meaningful, and ethically grounded exchange with a public, in a society where individuals are divided by their religious and political outlooks? How can one establish dialogue in a traumatized society, aware of this reality but not falling into the trap of disconsolate mourning, as the politics of memory is often seen in contexts that have experienced historical trauma? Mroué’s stance is unambiguous: “I’m working with these issues in order to forget, not to remember.” His “forgetting,” however, cannot be regarded as irresponsible dis-identification with ones’ own history. Rather it is an active process of coming to terms with, and a refusal of, the implacability of the consequences of war and a rejection of a permanent state of exception.

Four existing works and two new productions realized for this exhibition offer insights into Mroué’s approach to dealing with history and memory. Often based on found documents such as newspaper clippings, video footage, and photographs that the artist has accumulated over the years in his own personal archive—comprising, in his own words, memory that exhausts him—Mroué’s works are in fact occasions to constructively “erase” the weight of such histories by sharing them publicly. In Noiseless, 2008, the artist inserts his own image into newspaper clippings of missing persons announcements, by which these notices regain personal gravity and are brought into another regime of visibility. Old House, 2003, is a short video showing a slow motion, play-and-rewind loop of the destruction of a house in Lebanon, oscillating between the irreversibility of destruction and the possibility of renewal. In On Three Posters. Reflections on a video-performance by Rabih Mroué, 2004, the artist analyzes the different “takes” that one of the first suicide attackers in Lebanon—a secular warrior fighting against the 1985 Israeli occupation in the south of the country—rehearses while recording his final video confession. I, the Undersigned, 2007, contains the artist’s striking apology for his part in the Lebanese Civil War. One monitor shows the artist’s face, lips unmoving, while on another we read a series of statements in which Mroué apologizes with self-liberating detail for situations in which he considers himself to have (unwittingly) contributed to maintaining the conflict. In view of legal standards for evaluating responsibilities during wartime, however, these instances of Mroué implicating himself appear completely benign, yet challenging vis-ŕ-vis conventional definitions of personal responsibility.

The new work Grandfather, Father and Son, 2010, points to a number of episodes in Mroué’s family, both indicative of key moments in the wider history of the country and exemplary with regard to subjective attempts at resisting the determinism of that history. The work brings together materials from the library that belonged to Mroué’s grandfather, a religious scholar turned Communist and author of a major work on dialectics in Islam, who was assassinated when starting to work on its third volume; manuscript pages of the never-published mathematical treatise written by his father during 1982, the year of the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and of the full escalation of the civil war; and a reference- and premonition-rich short story by Rabih Mroué himself, the only one he has ever written, published towards the end of the war in 1989 and now recorded on video. The accumulation of cultural artifacts recorded in this work is neither a patrimonial view of the spiritual losses brought about by war, nor is it an autobiographical portrait of a westernized intellectual family in Lebanon, but rather an analysis of the position of knowledge, the power of individual resilience in exceptional, history-making situations, and the entanglements of the individual and the societal in the buildup of historical narratives.

Je Veux Voir [I want to see], 2010, another work made especially for this exhibition, is based on Mroué’s experience of co-starring with famous French actress Catherine Deneuve in a feature film (written and directed by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige in 2008), the title of which Mroué appropriated for the installation at BAK. The film is a fictionalized account of a partially true story, wherein Deneuve (playing herself), while visiting Beirut during a film festival, undertakes a trip to see the aftermath of the 2007 Israeli attack on the South of Lebanon, accompanied by Mroué (also playing himself) in the first visit back to his native village since the attack. The installation that Mroué produced for BAK consists of a large panoramic image of his destroyed family village printed on a freestanding billboard, with a video on each side. One shows a short sequence from the film when Deneuve looks for Mroué and shouts his name, while briefly separated in the ghostly village. The other shows mysterious code numbers inscribed on the destroyed walls of the village, invoking the unknown and uncanny militarized order hidden behind the chaos.

Art, according to Mroué, is where one can question things and rattle entrenched norms and stereotypes. Thus if citations—or perhaps “relics” rather—of a specific political situation condensed in the archived documents in Mroué’s work are used to actively “forget,” it is in fact a process of clearing the way for speculation of what could bethat he seems to have in mind. To offer insight into one such work parallel with the exhibition, on the following pages of this newsletter is an excerpt of Mroué’s lecture-performance The Inhabitants of Images (2009). In it, a poster with an image of an (otherwise impossible) meeting between former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri (1944–2005) and former Egyptian president Gamal Nasser (1918–1970) sets off a flow of musings and speculation touching upon the fabrication of political mythologies and the manipulation of images. In the text Mroué playfully and with not inconsiderable wit discreetly puts forward instruments of critique for engaging with this image, and sketches fragments of counter-narratives, bits and pieces that remain to be assembled in an uncertain future—an approach true to his belief that what art most needs to do is to prompt people to think things otherwise.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank Rabih Mroué for his engaged and inspiring work.

Cosmin Costinas and Maria Hlavajova