BY SARAH BERMAN, VANCOUVER SUN
What do you do when a man from Beirut’s ministry of finance disappears with a suitcase full of cash? Lebanese visual artist and performer Rabih Mroué decided to follow the paper trail—the newspaper trail, that is.
“I play the role of a detective who looks for a missing employee, but with a special trajectory,” explains Mroué, reached by phone from a performance festival in Minneapolis. “I only follow the newspapers. I don’t go to other sources.”
In his PuSh Festival performance Looking for A Missing Employee, Mroué follows the true story of a man who disappears from a low-level post in the Lebanese government, never to be seen again. With wit and visual sensibility, he brings to light issues and events that are often considered taboo in the Middle East’s political climate.
“It started with a very tiny report,” says Mroué of the clippings he’s kept since 1996. “At first I followed this case by accident. Then I just followed day by day and kept all the news and articles.”
Mroué’s collection blossomed into a complex network of speculation, propaganda, half-truths and false reports published in Lebanon’s daily press. It was a confusing puzzle, he says, particularly because none of the pieces fit together.
“I had collected these for six years without knowing what to do with this material,” Mroué says. Finally in 2003, the theatre director, actor, writer and artist developed the case into a solo performance, and will bring his show to the Roundhouse theatre on Thursday.
While the subject matter is quite heavy, Mroué is able to make light of the absurdity caused by bureaucracy and government censorship.
“For me it’s always important to give the audience this distance to allow them to think, not only feel,” Mroué says of his tongue-in-cheek approach. “It’s a strategy to deal with a very hard and horrible story.”
Mroué says his aim is not to blame the Lebanese government. “I play the role of a detective, but I am not really looking for who is guilty or innocent,” he says. “We all know there’s corruption in the Middle East and everywhere in the world, but what interests me is how this information filters through our daily life and through the media.”
Mroué also chooses to sit among the crowd while projections of his face and the contents of his desk inhabit the traditional stage area.
“I decided to sit with the audience and to project my images on the stage—a live transmission,” he says.
This isn’t the first time Mroué has toyed with the edifice of live performance. His previous work has explored Lebanon’s street posters, his own grand-father’s political assassination and the video testimony of suicide bombers through a similar multimedia lens. In 2010, he won the Spalding Gray Award for his groundbreaking art and performances.
Such controversial work brings out curiosity and discourse, particularly among Western viewers. “After the performance, there is always this desire to meet with me and to discuss,” Mroué says of his recent shows in New York.
“I’ve had meetings with audience members, and it was quite interesting conversation—and I insist on this word ‘conversation’ because it’s not always questions,” he says. “They also give opinions, remarks, and add some ideas.”
To show his commitment to lively discussion, Mroué is appearing for a meet-and-greet event at the grunt gallery on Saturday. As well, local artist Vanessa Kwan will be leading a post-show “talkback” on Friday.
Mroué will also be showcasing a free work-in-progress about the use of mobile phone technology in Syria’s revolution. Called The Pixelated Revolution, the lecture performance at the Contemporary Art Gallery will take an inside look at digital videos created by protesters.
“It is in a way very sensitive, because the event is still going on today,” he says. It may be a story without an ending, but to Mroué, that’s exactly why the revolution needs to be shared.
Originally published January 26, 2012. Photo by Houssam Mchaiemch.