In 1987, toward the end of the Lebanese civil war, Yasser Mroué, the youngest brother of the Lebanese playwright, artist, and actor Rabih Mroué, was shot by a sniper as he crossed a street in Beirut. The bullet pierced his skull, and shattered pieces lodged themselves in his brain, causing partial paralysis and aphasia. “Before this performance, I had never heard of the word aphasia,” Yasser wryly admits in the show that Rabih has conceived based on Yasser’s injury. It’s titled “Riding on a Cloud,” and was staged earlier this week at MOMA. Yasser, playing himself, then provides a definition of aphasia: the loss of the ability to understand or express speech, caused by brain damage. It is this aphasia that the forty-eight-year-old Mroué mines in his new work. “I am not interested in the incident itself,” he told me when I met him the day before the première, referring to his brother’s shooting. “I’m interested in Yasser’s relation to language, because, for me, language is the ultimate form of representation.”
The performance was the inaugural show in the museum’s revamped Projects 101 series. Mroué was not an obvious choice, despite belonging to a group of Lebanese artists who have been gaining international attention in the past few years. (Others include Akram Zaatari, whose videos were shown as part of MOMA’s Projects 100 program in 2013, and the artists, filmmakers, and life partners Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige who contributed to the current Venice Biennale). Known as the postwar generation, these men and women came of age during Lebanon’s infamously brutal civil war (1975-1990), and their works excavate and analyze that war’s psychological and visual residue. They share the belief that the war came to an abrupt end without a lasting resolution to the issues that led to the long years of fighting, and that Lebanon’s “peace” is highly precarious. (More recent events, such as the July, 2006, war between Israel and Hezbollah and the brief period of sectarian battles in Beirut in 2008, have borne out their skepticism.) The thorny issues of memory and representation are a common theme, with the conclusion often being that memory—perhaps especially in Lebanon, where there were so many competing ideologies and narratives—is an untrustworthy, manipulative beast, and that accurate representation is an elusive aspiration.
Over the years, I have followed the work of this group, whose experience in and obsession with the war I happen to share. Ironically, I have seen their works and met many of them not in Lebanon but in New York, where their projects often travel. Mroué was the one I knew the least—both as an artist and as a person. I was much more familiar with him as an actor—he has appeared in a few Lebanese films, including 2008’s “I Want to See,” in which he plays a driver escorting the real Catherine Deneuve to bear witness to the destruction of Lebanese villages during the 2006 war. In such instances, he was the vehicle for expression, rather than the author. I had read and heard a great deal about his performances, but had never attended one.
His latest performance piece, “Riding on a Cloud”—whose name is derived from a poem that Yasser wrote—“plays on three different registers,” Rabih told me. “Character and actor are the same person, character and actor are not the same, and the actor is leaving his role—he is not any more actor, and is watching the character playing itself. So it’s between these three, which is shifting all the time, trying to blur the borders between fiction and reality.”
Rabih enjoys the confusion these situations create for the audience, but he also wants spectators to accept them as reality, without trying to find out what is true and what is not. “This is something related to our life and to our history in Lebanon, and to all the versions we are fighting for, and the different ideologies,” he said. “If you accept every version as a reality without accusing it of being fabricated or a lie—if you just accept that there are many versions—then we can start to listen to each other and build a dialogue. Which we miss in Lebanon and this is why we are still going into wars.”
Almost all of Mroué’s performances have centered on Lebanon, and especially the civil war. They include “How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool’s Joke,” featuring four fighters from different militias who serve as unreliable narrators of the war; “I, the Undersigned,” in which Mroué makes a formal apology for his role in the sectarian fighting and urges other Lebanese to do the same; and “The Inhabitants of Images,” about his membership in the Communist Party during those years. His works have been staged worldwide.
Though inspired by events from Lebanon’s explosive period, “Riding on a Cloud,” like many of Mroué’s earlier performances—which usually take the form of a kind of lecture—ends up being a reflection on a number of issues. In this case, it’s our relationship with words and images and the fine line between the real and the fictive, the actual and the simulated. (In addition to the performances, Mroué’s ink-jet prints “The Fall of a Hair: Blow Ups,” about the use of mobile phones to record, among other things, the violence in Syria, is currently on view as part of the show “Scenes for a New Heritage: Contemporary Art from the Collection,” at MOMA.)
“Riding on a Cloud” is also about familial relationship, the affecting story of a man’s struggle with his handicap. Wearing an orange sports zip-up and faded jeans, and with a thin microphone near his face, Yasser sits at a table stacked with DVD cases and cassette tapes. With his left hand (the right one rests on his right thigh), he methodically plays one tape and DVD after another. Next to him a screen accompanies his words and actions, illustrating the disjointed, non-linear narrative as it meanders through Yasser’s life. He begins with the admission, in Arabic, that, “in theater, everything belongs to fiction,” and questions the difference between “he” and “I,” which, in this case, are one and the same, with Yasser representing both himself and an actor. “We agreed that I have to differentiate between what is fiction and what is real,” he says at one point. In his real life, Yasser has struggled to do so. For a while, he could not recognize an object or a person—not even himself—in a photograph. His doctor told him that he “had a problem with representations,” he says, explaining that while he could make out a pen or a knife if it was placed in front of him, he was unable to identify the items in images.
In one endearing bit, Yasser shares his kindergarten report card. The teachers note that young Yasser is “slow at memorizing” and that, while he is “rather focussed,” he is also “very stubborn.” “I was getting ready to start university” he then says, “when I suddenly found myself having to repeat kindergarten.” It’s a coy reference to the outcome of the sniper attack, which, we later learn, took place on the same day that his grandfather, a Communist leader, was assassinated. (A true story, as it were.) As revealed in printed dialogue that appears onscreen—ingeniously injecting the script into the performance—the idea to create a work based on Yasser’s condition was the result of Yasser’s desire to collaborate with his brother. “Can you tell your story on a stage?” Rabih asks Yasser. “Of course I can,” his brother responds. “But my story is not worth telling … it is not interesting enough.” Mroué, of course, knew otherwise.