Combining fact and fiction, we take a closer look at Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué first solo exhibition in the Arab world
Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué explores a variety of topics through his artworks in A Leap Year
Five bulky old analogue televisions stand atop white plinths in the cavernous front room of Beirut’s Sfeir-Semler Gallery. On their screens, static crackles and fizzes. One is covered with flickering white specks like falling snow, others with jagged lines moving horizontally or vertically across the screen.
A text nearby explains that the footage was recorded by artist Rabih Mroué’s aunt, who believed it to be a code conveying secret messages from “the enemies of Lebanon”. She was so convinced of this, it continues, she hired a professional code-breaker to try to decode the communications – he always failed.
Beneath each TV, a smaller text details the date and time the static was recorded – spanning from 1976 to 2008 – the channel and programme that was interrupted and the reason for the break in connection, including attacks on the TV stations.
Also displayed are the code-breaker’s letters of analysis, describing in detail the type and appearance of the static.
The 2013 installation, entitled Between Two Battles, in many ways encapsulates the spirit of Mroué’s latest solo show. Humorous and quirky, rooted in family history and the history of Lebanon, it is a work that excites the imagination. Is Mroué’s aunt real? Does she really record static? Why would a code-breaker agree to such an eccentric assignment? Do the recordings really date back decades? Why are all the static patterns so different and what if they do have hidden meaning?
It’s hard to believe that A Leap Year is Mroué’s first solo show in the Arab world. A veteran of the Beirut theatre scene with his magical, esoteric performances, Mroué displays many of the same preoccupations in his visual art. By turns moving, funny and mysterious, A Leap Year blurs the lines between fact and fiction, combining elements of personal and regional history with pure fantasy and leaving viewers to wonder what is real and what invented, and whether the distinction matters.
The show takes its name from an enormous wall piece, Leap Year’s Diary, consisting of 366 individually framed collages.
The artist has cut out parts of photos from newspapers, one each day, and stuck them onto blank sheets of cream paper. Tiny figures, shorn of their surroundings, airplanes, cars, tanks and suitcases each tell their own story, coming together to form an overarching narrative of violence, destruction, emigration and repetition.
Unsurprisingly, given his background in theatre, Mroué excels in his films. In the macabre but compelling Duo for Two Missing Persons, he uses a grim description of bodies blown apart in a bombing, and the difficulty of sorting the fragments to create choreography for a dance.
In a poetic voice-over, he wonders if there is a place where the living and the dead can meet, and speculates that the famous Lebanese nightclub B018, built to resemble a tomb, would be the ideal place for the two worlds to collide for a few hours.
The melancholy projection Mediterranean Sea is particularly powerful. On the bare concrete floor of the gallery, blue water ripples and swells, slowly moving beneath the feet of visitors and reflecting bright points of light.
From one side of the large rectangular projection, where the door into the next room is located, something appears in the water. A strange shape moves slowly into the room, as though drifting out from under a pier. The brain takes a moment to process the sight of a white trainer, a floating hand, a leg encased in khaki trousers. Gradually a body appears, floating face down in the water. Reluctant to step on or over it, visitors stand in silence until it retreats and disappears once more.
Silent, poignant and lacking in melodrama, the piece is a particularly powerful reflection on the refugee crisis that has seen thousands drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean in the past few years.
It’s not all so serious. Mroué’s work always retains a humorous edge and he has a masterful grasp of irony. Particularly hilarious is his video work exploring cultural censorship in Lebanon, based on his own experiences trying to get his play cleared for staging by the censors.
The simple film sees a sulky looking woman clad in a red top dutifully noting down the censor’s list of demands and changes. These begin with changes to sexual language and swear words, presumably deemed to crude for the public’s sensitive ears, and gradually extend to all mentions of sect and political affiliations, until most of the sentences are stripped of meaning.
Other highlights include After Midnight, a photography installation featuring rows of colourful, seemingly abstract photographs, each covered with a fine sheet of silk paper that obscures the detail.
When lifted, they reveal sections of wall covered with the traces of torn-down posters, likely images of political martyrs. Beside the 44 photographs, a list of chilling quotes seemingly reference a chemical attack in Syria.
“I looked on as my sight slowly faded, as if it were no longer mine, as if it belonged to someone else,” reads one. “Please excuse us for not being able to offer a personal account, but there are none of us left,” says another. The list finishes with the chilling words: “Those of us that survived will simply be next in line for more in-memoriam posters.”
Blasted, peeling and eroded, the traces of glue and paper on the colourful walls take on new meaning in combination with the quotes, recalling the silent, deadly damage done by corrosive, toxic chemicals. Again, it is not clear whether the quotes are real or imagined. In the context, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Combining works of autobiography, reflections on ongoing regional violence, instability and Lebanon’s turbulent history with moments of brilliant humour, irony and inspiration, A Leap Year is a fascinating show. Mroué’s skilful blend of fact and fiction creates powerful stories that linger in the mind. His approach is particularly interesting in the “post-truth” era, when societies across the world appear increasingly polarised and truth and fiction are ever more difficult to disentangle.
A Leap Year runs until July 29 at Sfeir Semler Gallery. For more go to www.sfeir-semler.com/beirut/current-exhibition.html