Culture

A playwright’s voice in the gallery

BEIRUT: Visitors entering Galerie Sfeir-Semler are greeted by a work from Rabih Mroué’s “Map” series. It’s among 14 handmade collages in his show “Diary of a Leap Year,” one of three to have been printed in large scale and hung as stand-alone works. Compiled from print media in the decade following the 2006 War, these collages assemble smoke columns and smashed buildings, the newly homeless and ranks of unaffected onlookers – the very stuff of photojournalism.

Carefully placed amid many of these vistas are incongruous elements – small boats bearing life-jacketed passengers, a cargo ship, the nose of a wrecked airliner. These means of escape are all becalmed within the shattered concrete in which they’re embedded.

For “Diary of a Leap Year,” Sfeir-Semler has been divided between light and dark and scattered with video and still images.

Most of the collage works, along with object-centered installations and televised video, are shown in brightly lit galleries, while spotlights and audio-visual projections illuminate the others.

Several works reflect Mroué’s efforts to sublimate art from the dysfunctional politics of this country and the wider region.

Wartime destruction and displacement are taken up in the collages, both the “Map” and the “Black Box” series – in which 11 small collages are enclosed within light boxes, magnified and accompanied by a musical score or found sound.

This theme has also inspired the piece that names this exhibition, and the publication that accompanies it.

“Leap Year’s Diary,” 2006-2016, comprises 366 handmade collages. Here, the work’s 300-odd framed images festoon the southern wall of one gallery, from ceiling to floor, clustered as chaotically as a ruined neighborhood or tower block.

Where the “Map” and “Black Box” series have the figurative density of conventional collage, each of the “Diary” collages is refined down to an element or two. In “Diary of a Leap Year,” the book version of this piece, each month is marked by a text cut-out from the Arabic press.

Mroué says “Leap Year” was inspired by the act of returning to your house after a catastrophe to pick up the pieces. “This wall is the same,” he says, gesturing to the installation. “It’s what you can pick up from the rubble and give them life again ... It’s called ‘Leap Year’ just so I could put an end to it. Otherwise I could go on forever.”

Rabih Mroué has a restless sort of imagination and his formal experiments have been more varied than those of his Lebanese contemporaries. Over the past two decades or so, he’s established himself as one of the region’s most challenging performing artists. With his longtime collaborator Lina Majdalanie (Saneh), he’s crafted theater works that mingle stories from the region’s blood-stained recent history with media theory, philosophy and performance practice.

It’s a hybrid theater, whose actors share the stage with screens – never a simple aesthetic flourish but an abiding and mutable artifact of the electronic mediation of contemporary narrative. When the playwright’s work migrated from the stage, it did so via performance-based photo and video installations. Narrative-driven electronic art remains a mainstay of his practice and this exhibition.

Mroué’s also collaborated in nonnarrative forms. Over the years he’s composed and provided musical accompaniment for Lebanese vocalist Rima Khcheich. More recently, he worked with Germany’s Dance On Ensemble to choreograph the work “Water between three hands,” whose Beirut premiere overlapped with the opening of “Leap Year.”

Contemporary dance lovers found things to admire in this piece’s movement, but it is a highly narrative work, with individual dancers ventriloquizing anecdotes that would fit comfortably in a Mroué theater play.

A few pieces in this show rework other works exhibited in the sprawling eponymous exhibition mounted in 2014 at Istanbul’s SALT Galata and SALT Beyoglu (now shuttered).

A number of these works reflect the artist’s preoccupation with the media afterimages of Syria’s ongoing civil war.

The 2012 work “Blow Ups” includes seven inkjet prints recreating mobile phone images Syrian activists have taken of pro-regime snipers. Accompanying the prints is a video scrutinizing the dynamic of an activist “shooting” the image of a sniper just as the sniper takes aim and fires upon the activist.

This scenario – a now-dead journalist or activist documenting his murder by a gunman – is hardly new but the entry of mobile telephones and social media into the equation has given it new immediacy. Mroué’s video swathes the exchange of witnessing and death in a dispassionately aesthetic language, as if to heighten its brutality.

Not all the work in “Leap Year” is explicitly political. The piece that veers closest to straight-up aestheticism is the three-channel audio-visual installation “Mediterranean Sea,” 2011, installed in the first of the space’s half-lit galleries.

Here the onlooker encounters Mroué’s lifeless body floating facedown in the sea – as projected upon the floor. Upon the gallery wall, a small, moonlike spotlight silhouettes the figure of a cellist, a gesture to the solo cello rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” that incongruously accompanies the drifting corpse.

Another theme of Mroué’s oeuvre is autobiographical, reflecting upon his work as a playwright in Lebanon and his youth growing up in a prominent communist family at a time of despoiled revolution and civil war. The 2010 installation “Grandfather, Father, and Son” documents three generations of Mroué men’s relationship to the written word. Generously supplemented with biographical and explanatory text, the installation recreates facets of the grandfather’s library, the father’s unpublished mathematical treatise and the son’s unpublished short story.

Mroué revisits his father’s passion for mathematics in the mixed-media installation “Duo for Two Missing Persons.” After explaining how mass graves are a feature of post-civil war society, the voice-over recalls asking his father to help him calculate the permutations that would emerge from efforts to reassemble the skeletons of two dismembered individuals. The number is 46, the father said, and versions of his sketch – representing these possibilities visually – adorn the walls flanking the projection.

The artist then asked a professional choreographer how this skeletal recombination might express itself in dance. Her response, that it should be a still dance in continuous movement, inspires Mroué to pull up a sketch depicting the choreography of a baroque-era dance, whose notation, he says, reminds him of dead people.

Ruminating upon this dance of the living and the dead, Mroué evokes the subterranean nightclub B018. Dug into the soil of a neighborhood believed to conceal the remains of an infamous civil war-era massacre, it seems a perfect location for the dead to dance with the living.

It’s not unusual for contemporary visual art to be accompanied by narrative text, a backbone from which the work can hang. Whether augmented by text or not, most of the installations in “Leap Year” work as thoughtful pieces of visual art.

Mroué’s use of text and voice-over is unlike that of his contemporaries simply because of the distinctiveness of his voice. While reading the historical material accompanying “Grandfather, Father, and Son,” it’s hard to not imagine its narrative being spoken in the onstage monologue of a Mroué character.

It’s very difficult indeed to listen to the narrator of “Duo for Two Missing Persons” pull together the work’s disparate anecdotal strands without seeing the artist sitting behind his laptop, delivering one of the fictive lectures he frequently uses to leaven his ideas en route to a major production.

That’s not to say Mroué should just stick to theater, of course. On the contrary, it is his restless desire to experiment with other forms – and to risk failure in the process – that gives his work its unique worth.

A lively sense of humor courses through Mroué’s practice – from the theater works through to his recent experiments with choreography – and there’s also a joke or two in “Leap Year.”

In the five-television mixed-media installation “Between Two Battles,” 2013, televised snow is “explained” by an amusing tale of a fictive aunt who’s recorded the snow emitted by her TV during political crises, in order to have encryption experts decode the subliminal messages she imagines they contain.

The piece seems to depict how Lebanon’s eccentric politics is reflected in its audio-visual media – the snow on show – and its citizens’ neuroses. In the “expert reports” the aunt has commissioned – highly repetitive jargon-laden descriptions of what anyone looking at the television snow will see with their own eyes – it’s easy to read a winking parody of the writing that passes for contemporary art criticism in certain circles.

It may not have been the artist’s intent to lampoon those who “critique” his work, but comedy too is in the eye of the beholder.

“Diary of a Leap Year” is up at Galerie Sfeir-Semler through July 29. For more, see www.sfeir-semler.com.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 19, 2017, on page 16.

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