Chatting with Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué on the phone a couple weeks ago, I was surprised to discover that his work Looking for a Missing Employee, which comes to PS 122′s COIL Festival this month (Jan. 6-9; tickets $25/$20), was an older piece, from 2003.
“It’s a very old piece,” Mroue admitted, “but I just presented this piece [during its opening run, in Beirut] only two nights. In a way, I was asked not to do it again.”
“By whom?” I asked.
“By the family of the missing employee, actually,” he told me. “They asked me kindly, actually, not to present this piece unless I come back to them to let them see what I’m doing in it. And I felt it would be a kind of censorship, and this is why I decided I don’t want to go negotiate with them and I preferred not to show it in Lebanon anymore.”
Mroué is one of the most internationally known artists working in Beirut today. With work that ranges from theater to performance art to visual art, he’s developed a reputation for exploring the challenges facing the complex multicultural–and civil war-scarred–society of Lebanon. His theater has toured internationally (though this is his first US tour, taking him to Pittsburg, Minneapolis, and Seattle as well as Vancouver’s PuSH Festival), his art has shown in important institutions throughout Europe (this year, he’s at Documenta 13), and he’s even produced a film with the ne plus ultra of French actresses, Catherine Deneuve, Je Veux Voir (2008). A second piece, The Pixelated Revolution, is also being presented for one night only on January 9.
The product of a secular family committed to religious tolerance and pluralism in an often balkanized country, Mroué ‘s life was marked by the conflict that’s been a hallmark of Lebanon for decades: a civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990; incursions and partial occupations by Israel during and following that time; and occupation and meddling control by Syria that continues in one way or another to this day. Mroué ‘s grandfather, in fact, was assassinated for his writings.
In Looking for a Missing Employee, performed by the artist himself, Mroué used the story of an actual missing employee–a worker who disappeared in the early Aughts, whose story he followed through the newspapers–as a lens through which to explore a more nefarious and complex part of Lebanon’s history: the some 17,000 persons who disappeared and remain unaccounted for during the civil war.
“The idea came by totally chance, by accident,” he told me over the phone. “I was collecting photos and news about missing people, that has nothing to do with the war. Just people who are missing for no reason. And there was this employee [who disappeared] and I cut out his news brief and the second day, there was another news story, and the third day another news story, and so forth. And suddenly his case became a big scandal in the whole country and I found myself following it and collecting all the articles and news about this missing employee.”
“And then I found that I had a really big archive about him, and I decided to do something out of his story, out of his case. And that’s how it came about,” Mroué explained. “But what was actually interesting to me about the missing person was–it’s really something that I didn’t realize at the beginning but only later–I thought that I was maybe really surprised how one can go missing, or how one can disappear, in a country such as Lebanon. Because Lebanon is known as a very closed society, like, it’s said that everyone knows everybody else. And for me it’s interesting for me to think that still, in this country, one can slip through cracks, still one can vanish. For me it was a kind of sign in a positive way.”
The experience of the war has had a huge impact on Mroué ‘s work, and on his approach to creating theater. Like many experimentalists, his approach was driven by a need to communicate something beyond what he could through a standard, more traditional theater vocabulary.
“There’s a difficulty today, for me, let’s say, to see theater and do theater, in the way I used to study it,” he told me. Labelling his approach to theater as “oblique,” or obscured and indirect, explained it in terms of a failure to realize his ambitions through a more traditional exploration.
“Especially what I was trying to do, creating or researching for body language,” he said, “a body which is imprinted by civil war. Because I was actually trying to find physical theater, visual theater where the body of the actor is the main role within it.”
“After some years I found myself at an impasse,” he continued. “And I didn’t reach anything with this research, and I found that every time I represent this body onstage, I find it’s [less], it doesn’t reach the experience that my body had during the civil war. So this is how I started to think about, how can I represent this body in theater? I started to put this question in my theater works, and I started actually to talk about this body, and not to show it anymore. And in other words maybe what I’m suggesting is that this body is represented by its absence. In this manner–this is my suggestion–maybe we have to look to theater in an oblique way, not in a direct way.”
Beyond simply a desire to present Looking for a Missing Employee again, Mroue acknowledged that partly, his choice to make this his first US presentation was born out of a desire to present a piece in English for English-speaking audiences. Much of his other work is performed in Arabic. Asked if he anticipated challenges for American audiences, potentially unfamiliar with Lebanon’s history, in approaching the show, Mroué only acknowledged that some local detail may seem unfamiliar, but added that this was true of every non-Lebanese audience, not just Americans. Otherwise, he was adamant that it would not be an issue due to his approach.
“I’m not afraid that the audience will not understand. For me, I’m sure the audience will understand,” he said. “I deal with the audience in an equal way, in the sense that they know as much as I know. I’m not doing theater to teach them, and they’re not coming to the theater to learn anything from me. I’m there to put some ideas, some questions, to share with the audience.”