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Reconstructing Fragments: Rabih Mroué on Riding on a Cloud

By Cis Bierinckx

In Rabih Mroué’s Riding on a Cloud, everything seems to constantly shift. What at first appears to be a biography of his brother, Yasser—who survived a sniper’s bullet in Beirut in 1987—expands to first tell a family story then a more universal tale. Yasser’s role moves through three “registers”—“the character, the real person, and the one who is watching both.” And, as with many of Mroué’s works, the entire narrative slides seamlessly back and forth between fact and fiction.

The work is presented in fragments, told by Yasser and through prerecorded video, images, and text. “Because it’s a story made up of fragments, and it’s a nonlinear story, each spectator decodes the puzzle in the way that he or she would like to do,” says Mroué.

In a recent conversation with Belgian curator (and former Walker Film/Video curator) Cis Bierinckx, Mroué discusses the relationship of Riding on a Cloud to previous works—including The Pixelated Revolution, a Walker commission—as well as to notions of fact, fiction, absence, biography, and language.

Cis Bierinckx

Let’s start by talking about “double shooting,” a term you’ve used in relation to some of your video works—the idea of shooting, with a gun, and shooting a film. Can you explain this?

Rabih Mroué

Yes. I first addressed “double shooting” in The Pixilated Revolution, which I presented at Walker Art Center in 2011. It’s a work that was inspired by smartphone videos from protestors at the beginning of the revolution in Syria. They were filming, and in their camera they saw one of the snipers aiming at them, a thug of the regime, and this person watched them back. This eye contact, you can see it because the killer who has the gun in his hand is looking directly into the lens. So, when we watch these videos, it actually appears as if there is eye contact with us as spectators.

Bierinckx

You presented The Pixelated Revolution together with Looking for a Missing Employee at the Walker, right?

Mroué

Right.

Bierinckx

Talking about missing people, the absence of people is also a recurring issue in your work. In 33 RPM, for instance, there is no person on stage. There are only machines. This absence of people, what does it mean in the frame of your work?

Mroué

Absence has been a major topic in my work for many years, maybe because I do theater and theater is about absence. For example, when someone’s playing Hamlet, then the real Hamlet is absent and the actor is trying to replace him. So, there is always this absence—the real persona of the actor putting himself forward as Hamlet when Hamlet is absent. There’s also a very strong history—the modern history of Lebanon—in which 17,000 people, almost, disappeared during the civil war [1975–1990]. Even today nobody knows where they are. Nobody knows if there are corpses or not, so they are just disappeared, and we live with this denial of these 17,000 persons.

So for me, everything is about absence. I think absence is very strong, because it has this promise that something is coming, or coming back. The absence is not dead. The absence is someone or something that is liable to appear—something in a state of latency. (My friends Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, both artists I’ve collaborated with, wrote about latency recently in an inspiring text. Indeed, it is a topic that a lot of Lebanese writers and artists have considered—obviously, because of the violent history in Lebanon.) Latency can occur at any moment and unexpectedly surprise you, but maybe it will never show up at all. But the interesting thing with absence is that the absentee is in this state, the state of being here, but we cannot see it. It’s in a state of in-between-ness, between dead and alive. When a person is in this state, we never know when he or she will appear. We cannot declare death because if we do then the absent is no longer absent because he or she is dead. Or, if we declare the thing that we lost is lost and we replace it with a new one and we forget about the last one, we metaphorically kill the idea of waiting for something to come back.

Bierinckx

I was just talking with Sanja Mitrovich—I don’t know if you know her work, but she is from Belgrade—about this piece she’s making about staying or leaving. She left when the conflict started there, and she is still in conflict. I know there is always this discussion in intellectual circles: if you really want to do something you should stay, even if your country is in conflict. What’s your opinion about this kind of staying and leaving? Because I know you still spend a lot of time in both countries, in Germany and in Lebanon.

Mroué

For more than two years now, I’ve lived in Berlin, but this isn’t the result of—

Bierinckx

Fleeing.

Mroué

Yes. It’s not like we have an urgency state in Lebanon or a war that made me leave the country. I left because I got a fellowship at Freie University, and I stayed here, although I still visit Beirut. But coming back to the artist you mentioned, Sanja: I think art needs motivation. Artists need motivation. They need material. But when it’s time to produce artworks, I think we need peacetime. I think to produce during wartime, it’s not impossible, but it’s so difficult. I experienced this during the war. During war there’s a kind of urgency state where you look for the basics of life, and then art becomes a luxury. Other things become luxuries, too, like reading, for example. Like contemplating. Like writing. Whatever. Because you need to live. You need to run to find your food, water, fuel, gas. In war, there are very difficult conditions to live, and people fight in order to survive. So, in this sense, the war and the warlords are stealing this time from us, this time that makes us human beings. And by “human beings,” I mean having the time where we’re able to rest, to think, to write, to contemplate, to be different and distinguished from animals in our total definition.

Bierinckx

A lot of your works premiere in Europe; like, your new piece, Ode to Joy, premiered in Munich before traveling to Lebanon. How different is it for you to perform it for a Munich audience or for a Beirut audience?

Mroué

It’s not the first time the opening was not in Beirut. For example, Riding on a Cloud, the opening was in Rotterdam in 2013. And with How Nancy Wished that Everything Was an April Fool’s Joke, the opening was in Tokyo. Who’s Afraid of Representation: the opening was in Berlin, and I think there are other works that I did the opening outside my country. Then I went to my city, Beirut.

I work with the Lebanese Association, Ashkal Alwan, which has always organized and supported my works and tried to find venues to present the works. Because for many years, Lina [Majdelanie, a frequent collaborator] and I have refused to go to the Censorship Department to get an authorization to present our works. By law in Lebanon artists have to apply for this authorization. We show them the text. They censor the text, then before the opening they come and they watch the premier, and then thy also censor the visuals of the piece. This is only for cinema and for theater. So, many years ago, I decided not to go through the censorship department anymore in order to free myself from this kind of censorship, and to concentrate on auto-censorship, which we think is much more dangerous to look at it. It’s easy to say that, “Oh, I’m censored in my country.” Nobody says, “Oh, I’m censored by myself.”

Bierinckx

You mentioned the performance that’s going to be presented at the Walker Art Center, Riding on a Cloud, which has been successful all over the world and has seen beautiful reviews. How hard was it for you to make this work? Because it’s about somebody who’s very close to you, your brother Yasser, who was shot in the head by a sniper at age 17. How hard was it to decide to make this piece with him?

Mroué

For many years I wanted to do something where I could engage Yasser within this work. I didn’t want to force this project. “Because he is my brother, or is part of my family, he needs the work. Then I try to get him the work in my project even if he’s not good.” I don’t work like this. So, I waited a long time until I found the moment to do this performance about him, and I asked him if he would like that I do a performance about him—and with him—and he was so enthusiastic about it.

Thanks to Frie Leysen [the Belgian curator and festival director], who supported this project, I was able to achieve it. It wasn’t easy for me because of the sensitivity of the topic, because it’s someone very close to me. I know Yasser very well. He knows me very well. It was a big responsibility on me, especially since I don’t want to present him as a victim, to make people be sympathetic and have pity on him. So, this was strongly conscious about avoiding these things.

Initially what interested me in this performance was his relation to language, because words are things that also distinguish us from animals. So, it’s something very important he lost. Then he started to relearn it again, and he became a poet, which was the ultimate thing, in that he started to construct abstract ideas and pictures metaphorical things, which I think is very beautiful. So, I wanted to talk about his relation to language.

When I asked him to work with me, he gave me all the documents, all the objects that he has, all the pictures that he has. When I looked at them, it was as if I’m holding a whole life in my hands. This was really a big responsibility, and I was a bit afraid—not a bit afraid, actually, a lot afraid—of this responsibility. Then I decided, “Okay, I will not use anything from this material. I will do something else.” I think I took maybe two or three percent from the documents that he gave me, from the objects, and the rest we worked to create. We tried to find them.

Bierinckx

So, you created a reality that wasn’t a reality? [For more on Mroué’s approach to fact, fiction, and documentary, read Walker curator Philip Bither’s 2012 interview with the artist.]

Mroué

Exactly.

Bierinckx

What’s also interesting is the presence of Yasser as an actor. He is the subject, and at the same time he is the actor of the subject.

Mroué

Exactly.

Bierinckx

This is beautiful. The steps in the performance, I think, are very good because it starts first with things about memory, but then it becomes a very personal story. And then it becomes a family story. And, in the end, it’s also a collective story.

Mroué

Because it’s a story made up of fragments, and it’s a nonlinear story, each spectator decodes the puzzle in the way that he or she would like to do. So, it’s constructed in a way that these fragments can be reconstructed in different ways and could be filled with whatever you want—stories from your personal life as a spectator—to fill in these gaps between fragments. So in the end, it’s not a biography of Yasser. It’s not a biography of his family or, my family, at all. It doesn’t tell a story of a life of someone. It takes fragments and tries to build up some questions, some ideas around these fragments.

Bierinckx

On stage, do you see Yasser as actor, or do you see him as your brother?

Mroué

I see him, strangely enough, as both a mixture of Yasser as my brother and Yasser as an actor. He’s not a professional actor; he just started doing this with this piece. I can see how he has this presence, and it always makes me surprised, like, “Wow. He is good actor. He is a good performer. He’s doing it very well.” And at the same time, I can see also how he distances himself from the personage that he’s talking about, even this personage that it’s him—based on him. So, it’s a very complex relation between the actor and the character onstage, because at some point, Yasser moves outside of the role and becomes a spectator who looks on himself, acting—through the videos and through other things. So, he is also not only an actor, not only the real persona on stage, but also he is one member from the audience. He is also a spectator. So I built this on these three components: the character, the real person, and the one who is watching both, and these three are the same person who’s shifting from one register to another in the same work.

Bierinckx

I don’t want to reveal too much; but in the closing scene, which is very special, there is also the idea that you need Yasser and Yasser needs you to make it all happen.

Mroué

Yeah, this is the fictional one [laughs], not the real one. I have often been asked if this piece could be done by another actor other than Yasser, and I always say, “Yes, it could be, for sure.” It’s a theater piece, after all. It’s not a documentary. And, of course, another actor can play the same role. The same would be true for me when I appear at the last minute in the piece. It could be someone else replacing me. This is actually what now we doing, because now they are touring without me, and there is someone who is replacing me at the last scene, and it didn’t change anything. Luckily, I will be playing this role at Walker Art Center, when I will be there. Nobody will replace me.

Bierinckx

Just to close, an overall question. It’s just a stupid question: Does art have the possibility to change things in a traumatized society?

Mroué

It depends how you do it. For me, how I understand art, art cannot heal any person or people or group. On the contrary, art is like a tool to make things more complex. It’s trying to understand, but at the same time by seeking understanding you bring up more things. It’s exactly like when you ask a question and then you try to answer this question. You answer this question with three questions, and when you try to answer these three questions, then you will end up with 15 questions, and so on. For me, art is a platform to share ideas and questions with other people, other individuals; and it’s like an ongoing voyage that has no aim. So, it’s not the aim to reach an ending point, whether this ending point is to heal the people from a trauma or to make a revolution or to change the system. Actually, it has no aim. It’s just the pleasure of thinking, of being a human being. It’s thinking and being a human being. It’s this celebration of the human.


Rabih Mroué is an artist, actor, and director who lives in Berlin and whose work merges visual art, performance, and theater. Blending reality and fiction in his work, Mroué uses found documents, video footage, photographs, and objects to compromise the authority of archival evidence. His work focuses on the history of Lebanon and surrounding regions. Winner of the 2010 Spalding Gray Award, he was a 2013–2014 fellow at the International Research Center: Interweaving Performance Cultures, Freie Universität Berlin. He was commissioned by the Walker Art Center to create The Pixelated Revolution in 2011.

 

Cis Bierinckx is an independent art curator based in Düsseldorf. Former head of the Walker Art Center’s Film/Video Department, he has curated film/video, performing arts, music, and visual arts programs for several cutting-edge international arts organizations, festivals, and theaters.

Rabih Mroué

Photo: Thomas Lieberenz

A Syrian protester captures cellphone footage of a sniper just before he shoots: screen capture from The Pixelated Revolution

Rabih Mroué, Looking for a Missing Employee

Photo courtesy the artist

Yasser Mroué as a young man

Photo: Joe Namy

Yasser Mroué in Riding on a Cloud, which takes its name from a poem Yasser wrote

Photo: Joe Namy

Yasser and Rabih Mroué

Photo: Mathilde Delahaye

Yasser Mroué on stage and onscreen in Riding on a Cloud

Photo: Joe Namy