“Between Two Battles”: Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué at Kunsthalle Mainz

Rabih Mroué explores the “white noise” of civil war paranoia in “Between Two Battles” at Kunsthalle Mainz.

Art Radar takes a look at the works in the current solo exhibition of Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué, open until 27 February 2017 at Kunsthalle Mainz in Germany.

Installation view room 2: Rabih Mroué: The Fall of a Hair, 2012 Rabih Mroué: The Fall of a Hair: The Pixelated Revolution, 2012; Rabih Mroué: The Fall of a Hair: Blow up, 2012; Rabih Mroué: The Fall of a Hair: Eye vs. Eye, 2012. Photo: Norbert Miguletz. Image courtesy Kunsthalle Mainz.

Installation view of room 2 of “Between Two Battles” at Kunsthalle Mainz, 2016. Rabih Mroué, ‘The Fall of a Hair’, 2012 (video of performance). Photo credit: Norbert Miguletz. Image courtesy Kunsthalle Mainz.

“Between Two Battles” is the second large solo exhibition of Rabih Mroué’s work to be shown in Germany in 2016, following Hamburg’s Sfeir-Semler gallery’s “I was fortunate not to have seen what the others had witnessed”, which showed recent works by Mroué engaging with the Syrian conflict alongside older works.

Kunsthalle Mainz offers Rabih Mroué‘s repertoire a larger exhibition space (over three exhibition halls have been dedicated to the artist) with a smaller selection of works that focus rather on the artist’s engagement and research of his Lebanon context. This is perhaps reflected by the curator’s decision to name the exhibition after Mroué’s 2013 work, which explores how the continuous strain of the unresolved and heavily mediatised conflict influences and forms people’s relationship to technology and media.

Installation view room 3: Rabih Mroué: Grandfather, Father and Son, 2010; Between Two Battles, 2013; The Crocodile Who Ate The Sun, 1982, 2015. Photo credit: Norbert Miguletz. Image courtesy Kunsthalle Mainz.

Installation view room 3: Rabih Mroué: Grandfather, Father and Son, 2010; Between Two Battles, 2013; The Crocodile Who Ate The Sun, 1982, 2015. Photo credit: Norbert Miguletz. Image courtesy Kunsthalle Mainz.

“Between Two Battles”

The titular work Between Two Battles is a work that blends personal or familial experiences with a political mapping of the mediatised civil war. It departs from an anecdotal description of the artist’s aunt who used to record white noise and play it back in an attempt to decipher possible messages (so-called “TV snow” would appear after the end of transmission of TV programming). Rabih Mroué takes up this technical phenomenon and the paranormal or conspiratorial myths associated with it to weave a story of psychological pressure, weather phenomena and the political situation.

In Between Two Battles the artist explains:

For a long time my aunt on my mother‘s side have recorded TV snow, because she thought they contained subliminal messages from the enemies of Lebanon. She tried very hard to decode these messages but she has always failed. With time, she has become addicted to TV snow and she forgot that they were messages from the enemy. She silently record and archive TV snow. Maybe because she loves snow and in Beirut it never snows. Or maybe because she wanted to become a dancer and she found in synthesis reports her own choreographic scores.

Rabih Mroué, 'Black Box XIV', 2006-2016. Collage on paper. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg/Beirut.

Rabih Mroué, ‘Black Box XIV’, 2006-2016. Collage on paper. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg/Beirut.

Rabih Mroué, 'Black Box XIV', 2006-2016. Collage on paper. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg/Beirut.

Rabih Mroué, ‘Black Box XIV’, 2006-2016. Collage on paper. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg/Beirut.

Rabih Mroué: exploring psychological, political and archival trauma of war

The phrase “Between Two Battles” then hints at a supposed break between conflicts and yet it also brings to mind a stream of continuous violent encounters, characteristic of civil war where the defining principle is strike and counter strike. Rabih Mroué is all too familiar with conflict and ceasefire. Born in Lebanon in 1967, he lived through – and was highly aware of – the country’s unresolved civil war. He experienced his own family members being threatened and even injured. These existential experiences have shaped his thinking and art up to the present day, with his works exploring political developments in Lebanon and the Middle East. Images of war and terror, personal experiences and their effect on the individual all remain recurrent themes.

Installation view tower level II: Rabih Mroué: 'Mediterranean Sea', 2011. Photo credit: Norbert Miguletz. Image courtesy Kunsthalle Mainz.

Installation view tower level II: Rabih Mroué: ‘Mediterranean Sea’, 2011. Photo credit: Norbert Miguletz. Image courtesy Kunsthalle Mainz.

The resulting works are anything but documentary-like in style. He takes the facts he has gathered and develops complex tales, interweaving fictitious elements with real-life events and personal experiences. Shocking news reports, violent acts, grim pictures are paired with people’s descriptions, which in some cases are the stuff of legend, although related in a sober tone. In this manner, he contrasts the solemnity of factual reports and images from the press, radio, television or internet with his own stories and interpretations of events, spoken in his own language. Inordinately distrustful of the way incidents are represented in the media, he questions the true content of such accounts, tracing how a country’s history is rewritten through scattered images and reports. At the same time, he actively weaves together personal stories and the present day.

Installation view reading room: Rabih Mroué: Face A / Face B, 2002. Photo credit: Norbert Miguletz. Image courtesy Kunsthalle Mainz.

Installation view reading room: Rabih Mroué: Face A / Face B, 2002. Photo credit: Norbert Miguletz. Image courtesy Kunsthalle Mainz.

His memorial reconstructions are exhausting exorcisms of emotionally laden personal histories made political. The work Grandfather, Father and Son (2010) brings together materials from the library of Mroué’s grandfather, a religious scholar turned Communist author, who was assassinated in 1987. The artist painstakingly reconstructed the library using detailed index cards, arranged in the same manner of the books in the original library. These were presented alongside artefacts, such as a premonition-rich short story by the artist, newspapers clippings and an unpublished mathematical treatise. Grandfather, Father and Son, as well as acting as a personal archive, seeks strategies for contextualising intellectual development in the context of post-communist societies in a West Asian context.

Installation view of Rabih Mroué, 'Leap year's Diary', 2006-2016. Newspaper cutouts on paper. Image courtesy Kunsthalle Mainz.

Installation view of Rabih Mroué, ‘Leap year’s Diary’, 2006-2016. Newspaper cutouts on paper. Image courtesy Kunsthalle Mainz.

Installation view of Rabih Mroué, 'Leap year's Diary', 2006-2016. Newspaper cutouts on paper. Image courtesy Kunsthalle Mainz

Installation view of Rabih Mroué, ‘Leap year’s Diary’, 2006-2016. Newspaper cutouts on paper. Image courtesy Kunsthalle Mainz.

Rabih Mroué, 'Leap year's Diary', 2006-2016. Newspaper cutouts on paper. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg/Beirut.

Rabih Mroué, ‘Leap year’s Diary’, 2006-2016. Newspaper cutouts on paper. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg/Beirut.

The Crocodile who Ate the Sun (1982/2015) departs from the artist’s memory of the summer of 1982, when a 15-year-old Mroué witnessed Israel drop hundreds of thousands of threatening leaflets over Beirut. Thirty years later, Mroué created facsimiles of the leaflets, gave them to his friends to hold and examine, and then photographed the papers after they had been handled. Torn, taped, crumpled or even folded into a paper airplane, the photographed papers become mementos of trauma and physical manifestations of memories. In a statement describing the process behind the work, Mroué stated:

I was 15 years old when the first Israeli leaflet fell from the sky and reached my hand. In July 1982, the Israeli Air Forces dropped hundred thousands of leaflets into the besieged Beirut. It was the first time did I got a written threat, but I was too young to realize that. After 30 years, I did replicas of the same leaflet. And for a while, I started to show them to some of my friends. It was magical how thesis replicas evoked Their memories from did period;how each one of them started to tell me about that summer in Beirut 1982nd. While they talked, most of them held the leaflets between their hands and unconsciously played with the papers treating them carelessly. They most often ended up by damaging the leaflet. When they’ve finished telling their stories, They would realize what they have done to the leaflets. They would apologize with a little smile and leave, keeping the leaflets at the table with their new condition.

Detail of video still of Rabih Mroué, 'On Three Posters' 2004. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut.

Detail of video still of Rabih Mroué, ‘On Three Posters’ 2004. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut.

On Three Posters, memory and archiving

The exhibition shows recent works such as The Crocodile Who Ate The Sun (1982/2015) as well as earlier works, namely the 2008 video responsible for Mroué’s rise to prominence on the international scene, entitled On Three Posters. Made in 2004, the work originated from a multimedia performance called Three Posters, conceived and staged by Mroué and the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, and first performed in Beirut in 2000. The performance centred on an unedited tape made by Jamal al-Sati, a fighter for Lebanon’s National Resistance Front. This shows three ‘takes’ of his martyr testimony rather than the approved version that was aired on Lebanese television. The three ‘takes’ allowed Mroué and Khoury to question the status of suicide videos and martyr posters, and to examine the ideological circumstances surrounding their production and place within the visual culture and political history of Lebanon.

Installation view old tower: Rabih Mroué: On Three Posters, 2008. Photo credit: Norbert Miguletz. Image courtesy Kunsthalle Mainz.

Installation view old tower: Rabih Mroué: On Three Posters, 2008. Photo credit: Norbert Miguletz. Image courtesy Kunsthalle Mainz.

This project considers how the video On Three Posters advances the intellectual and creative production of the earlier performance. It explores the significance of the work in relation to the image politics of the Lebanese Left during the nation’s protracted conflicts and the ways in which contemporary artists in Lebanon have addressed the individual and collective traumas of the past and their reverberations in the present. The same could be said of the exhibition “Between Two Battles”. As Omar Kholeif states in a 2011 review of another solo exhibition of the artist’s work at London’s INIVA,

Mroué oscillates between different modes of address, but at the heart of everything he aims to find a means to forget.

Rebecca Close

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Related Topics: Lebanese artists, installation, video, photography, sculpture, museum shows

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