Last night in one of MoMA’s basement theaters, the Lebanese theater director, artist, and actor Rabih Mroué presented his show Riding on a Cloud, a performance that, typical of Mroué, puts video, audio, archival material, and live bodies together on stage. The hour-long assemblage of fragments tells a story of Mroué’s brother Yasser, and a head injury he acquired after having been shot by a sniper in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war.
With Yasser on stage, the story weaves in and out of history and fiction, using testimony, storytelling, and conceptual performance devices in a way that has come to characterize the group of Lebanese artists of Mroué’s generation, active since the end of the long Lebanese civil war in 1990. Yasser sat to the left of the stage, in front of a projection of images (documents, family photos, self-shot videos of Yasser made with a handheld camera), and at intervals, worked his way through a stack of CDs of pre-recorded audio, which he interspersed with speech and bursts of singing.
Yasser’s brain, we learn, was damaged in a way that made the concept of representation impossible. Mroué uses this problem to explore the elusive quality of images and footage as memory-triggers, true to his preoccupation with the problem of representation. Images become literal to his perception: a picture of a pen and a pen itself are indistinguishable.
One of the scariest and most moving moments of the performance involved a series of cards with objects drawn onto them, as though in a cognition test designed for a child, that Yasser comes close to being able to name, by using similar words and associations, though without reaching the object’s proper name. A monologue about how he was also unable to go to the theater due to his inability to understand that the actors were representing a story becomes, of course, a commentary on the reality of what we’re watching. Typical of Mroué, a quality of soft inquisitiveness and humor is maintained throughout the performance, by using surreal interjections of poetry and Mroué family anecdotes.
Mroué’s work Blow Ups (2012), which investigates the use of cellular phones in documenting the Syrian revolution is currently on view at MoMA in “Scenes for a New Heritage: Contemporary Art from the Collection.” The images in Blow Ups are blurred zooms of people engaging violence, pixilated and fuzzy as though on a surveillance camera or through the viewfinder of a gun or camera. Even through the blurs and pixilation, the stiff carriage of a person holding a large gun is immediately evident in almost all of the figures.
At the end of the performance Mroué sat on stage with the translator Omar Barrada for a discussion and spoke of the difficulty of being an activist in present-day Lebanon, a place relatively resistant to the ongoing chaos of the Middle East and North Africa. “The notion of the citizen doesn’t exist in Lebanon,” he said. “We are struggling to have a state, which means that to be against it, you have to find it first.”
The performance, which is part of the Elaine Dannheiser Projects Series, will run again tonight, at MoMA.