Rabih Mroué: Nothing to Lose
At the grunt gallery until February 8
In Rabih Mroué’s video Shooting Images, a rooftop sniper and a cameraman at a blown-out window focus their sights on each other. For a brief moment, they stare into each other’s eyes, before this paradoxically intimate connection is violently severed. The sniper murders the cameraman—you hear the shot, watch the unfocused tumble of images as the mobile-phone camera falls to the floor—and yet the video survives in the digital afterlife of YouTube. It endures in Mroué’s thought-provoking restaging of events, too.
Mroué, who is exhibiting six video works at the grunt gallery and is artist in residence at this month’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, wears many personas. Based in Beirut and Berlin, he’s an actor, theatre director, playwright, contributing editor, and visual artist. He combines and confounds all these roles in his examination of collective and individual remembrance and forgetting, and of the many ways we compose historical narratives. He also uses performance, video, photography, and text to analyze the media’s role in constructing history.
Born in Lebanon in 1967, Mroué derives much of his subject matter from that country’s brutal, 15-year civil war, which he survived uninjured but not, it seems, unscarred. His art also responds to the present day, to nascent democracies in the Arab world and to Syria’s civil war and its violent impact on all the nations of the region. The uniformed sniper portrayed by an actor in Shooting Images serves the Syrian regime, and the casually dressed person recording his actions must surely represent the assertion of personal freedom and the act of witness. He is artist, journalist, social-media everyman—and the Arab Spring.
In Noiseless, Mroué collects and reconfigures newspaper clippings—personal ads in which families search for information about missing loved ones. Here, he imposes his own photo, his own identity, onto those of the missing, then fades and dissolves his portrait, leaving nothing but layers of heartbroken text by others and his own ruminations on the casualties of war and “the cracks and fissures into which individuals disappear”.
Working with Lebanese historian Elias Khoury, Mroué uses one of his own performance works as a forum for an intense philosophical analysis of, again, the way acts of war are represented in the media. Three Posters dissects and restages the unedited video testament of Jamal Sati, a Lebanese Communist party member, made before his suicide bombing of a Jewish military post in southern Lebanon in 1985. Mroué is interested not only in what he believes to have been the secular origins of his country’s civil war and its hijacking by religious fundamentalists, but also in the relationship of Sati’s video “performance”—his rehearsed political declaration—to his suicide mission. (Not discussed here is the unbridgeable divide between what some regard as an act of terrorism and what others regard as a freedom fighter’s martyrdom.)
Again, it’s not just war, violence, and conflicting ideologies that this artist is deconstructing, it’s also their representation. Works such as Shooting Images use the isolating, breaking up, and reassembling of highly pixelated video images as metaphors for the way media coverage shapes our understanding of historical events. “There has always been complicity between war-making and picture-taking,” Mroué grimly intones here—then, surprisingly, he inserts a note of idealism. “Picture-taking,” he suggests, “can be a weapon against war-making.”