Lebanese performance artist Rabih Mroue and the definition of history

February 2009 -

A large empty screen against the back wall. There is a table with a pile of papers and a lamp. The Lebanese performance artist Rabih Mroue sits on a chair, reading out loud. The title of the piece is Make me stop smoking, but, as he himself explains, it could just as well have been called The old man who is still thinking of his mother and of the way he had licked her ear by mistake or Cry me cats and dogs. He selected it from a list of titles he had for future work. A random selection. Or perhaps not: "A title does not have to correspond with the content", says Mroue. "The meaning materialises the moment the title is given."


Rabih Mroue

This comment is the beginning of a long series of reflections on definitions, history, collective memories and collective amnesia. In his presentation with light images, Mroue offers a look into his 'personal archives' filled with clippings, photographs and documents that he had hoped to use someday in one of his performances. A variegated collection of ideas, plans and images that are apparently totally unrelated.

A rejected subsidy application, a video of a building collapsing in Beirut, Lebanese newspaper photos of missing persons. It is not the content that ties the material together, but the underlying questions triggered by the objects on display. How can a general history be distilled from the chaos of events? How can a single image of the world be derived from the enormous variety of people, places and ages? On what facts is that history actually based? And how much has been forgotten?

What Mroue wants is clear: to question and spread doubt about how we define facts, documents and history. Parts of the archives point directly to the Lebanese civil war, but the performer makes no clear statement about politics or war. Or maybe he does by saying: "There is not one memory. There is not one experience. There is not one war."

Mroue: "I could make everyone cry by doing a performance on the civil war, but I do not want my performance to be emotional. I want distance, room to reflect. I would rather have the audience thinking about the war rather than crying about it." The last image from his personal archives is a gritty, old video message by Wafaa, a pretty young woman who cheerfully says her goodbyes before she leaves to die as a martyr. Someday, Mroue says, he will make a film based on this fragment. Not about Wafaa's political motivation or her horrible deed. But about the thing that is strangely the most striking about this bizarre video: her smile. The most beautiful smile Mroue has ever seen.

January 17, 2009 Rabih Mroue performed in Amsterdam, as part of  Mightysociety.