“Rabih?” A woman’s voice echoes around Iniva’s light-filled main gallery. “Rabih!” she calls again, anxiously.
The woman is Catherine Deneuve, seen walking through bombed-out and derelict urban streets; or it could be Catherine Deneuve acting a role, the role of a Western woman lost somewhere in the Middle East. The short clip, part of an installation titled Je Veux Voir (2010)(from the 2008 film written and directed by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, and featuring, among others, the artist Rabih Mroué, as himself) makes it impossible to tell. In navigating the history of the Lebanese Civil War and its aftermath, Mroué’s work operates in the space where fiction breaches reality, and where political realities are driven by conflicting collective narratives, investigating how individual recollection and identity can exist in a context where the violence of the recent past cannot easily be acknowledged in the present.
Work by Mroué – who is a theatre director and playwright as well as artist – has barely been seen in the UK. This, his first solo show here, reworks a presentation made at BAK, Utrecht, in2010. I, the Undersigned (The People Are Demanding is a last-minute change, to bear witness to the popular uprisings now sweeping the Middle East) points to the fragile, performative nature of self narration, in which the act of ‘undersigning’ is the traditional guarantee of a text’s biographical authenticity. But Mroué’s critical project turns on how recollection, remembering and narrating are elusive and untrustworthy; Grandfather, Father and Son (2010) is a three-part installation in which documents from his grandfather’s and father’s papers are presented alongside a video of Mroué reading a short story he once published in a Beirut communist newspaper in 1989. It’s the tale of family nervously waiting out intermittent bombings in one small room of their house, and it evokes the strange mix of humdrum and disaster that is life during war. Alongside sits the manuscript of mathematical treatise by Mroué’s father, and a large card index of his grandfather’s library. Between these are little texts that seem to present contextual biographical details for these elements, but may be as invented as the rest of the installation, or not.
This insistence on narrative and fiction is not some idle postmodernist game, but rather seeks to play out the distinction between the stories of individuals and the stories of history, when political reality completely invades the experience of the individual. There is no sense here of an ‘everyday’ life of soap opera-style biography, distanced from the world ‘out there’; the narrative subject of Mroué’s work cannot escape events, and because these events come to mark the common experience of many, even personal biography becomes archetypal – fictional yet representative. Meanwhile, Mroué’s interest in staging such realities critically for his audience leads him to the strategy of building narratives within narratives: the video Three Posters (2004) is an explanatory monologue by Mroué, for Western audiences, of the development of an earlier video performance, which itself confuses the audience’s expectation of the video’s status as historical document (of a suicide bomber’s last video, and thus in the past) or as actor’s live performance.
The complexities of Mroué’s devices play out the tortuous difficulty of negotiating the personal present through the political past in contemporary Lebanon. Yet the late correction to the show – The People Are Demanding – points, hopefully, to the fact that when the political suddenly changes, the ‘I’ has to make way for a possibly new ‘we’, no longer shaped by the past, but ready to shape the future.
Rabih Mroué: I, the Undersigned – The People Are Demanding at Iniva, London
23 March – 14 May
First published in ArtReview issue 51, May 2011 www.artreviewdigital.com