ISTANBUL: The white wall alongside the exhibition hall entrance is emblazoned with a list of words in Turkish. Above it, a few more words are stencilled.
Translated, the title of the installation is “Al-Shaab Yurid” (The people demand), the refrain that has echoed through news coverage of the anti-regime protests of the “Arab Spring” since they commenced in Tunis and Cairo in 2010-11.
The columns of 90-odd verbs below the title express what it is the people are demanding. The first few are what you might expect – “to change,” “to overthrow.” Soon the words reflect more mundane sentiments, assembled as if by free association – “to sit” “to s--t” “to tire” “to fire,” to “sleep,” “f--k,” “destroy,” “develop,” “vomit” and so forth.
Undated here, “The People are Demanding” was devised for Rabih Mroué’s 2011 solo show at London’s Rivington Place gallery, an exhibition originally entitled “I, the Undersigned,” after another of his works.
Restaged here at Istanbul’s SALT Beyoglu, the work’s text provides a screen upon which is projected Mroué’s five-minute video work “With Soul, With Blood” (2003-6), which also takes its title from a chant common to mass gatherings in the Arab world.
The indistinct black-and-white footage documents a mass demonstration while the artist’s voice converses with itself about which one of the smudged faces crowded within the frame is his own. Though all the faces look alike here, he says he’ll recognize his because it’s different.
When a coffin born aloft by mourners – the reason for the gathering – enters the frame, Mroué notes that the person within the box, at least, is different from everyone else. “Really?” he says. “I’m not so sure.”
There is some craft in juxtaposing Mroué’s two works in this fashion. Nearly all the pieces on display in SALT Beyoglu have been fashioned since 2011 – many of them commissioned and produced by Documenta (13), Kassel’s twice-a-decade contemporary art extravaganza – and so reflect upon the crisis in Syria.
References to pro-regime snipers, gas attacks and the like are so rife here that the innocent viewer might conclude that the artist’s work is tied, perhaps subservient, to partisan matters. For those gazing closely enough, “With Soul, With Blood” unhinges these assumptions.
Conceived well before the onset of the Arab Spring – indeed before the assassinations in 2005 and Israel’s month-long 2006 bombing campaign that crippled Lebanon’s already dysfunctional politics – the older work ponders the place of the individual (and loss of individuality) in mass politics, one of the key motifs of Mroué’s performance and visual art.
The Lebanese artist’s eponymous exhibition is a sprawling thing, situated in two galleries of the Turkish non-profit outfit – SALT Galata and SALT Beyoglu. The Beyoglu space is situated on Istiklal Street – the teeming, pedestrian-dominated thoroughfare festooned with the detritus of high and popular culture that leads to Taksim Square and Gezi Park.
Organizers explain that they decided to install Mroué’s politically inflected works at SALT Beyoglu because it reflects the adjacent culture of protest. While addressing many of the same thematic concerns, the pieces at the Galata gallery – the installation “Grandfather, Father and Son,” 2010, for instance – are more intimate.
Entering the exhibition clockwise, the first piece after “Al-Shaab Yurid”/ “With Soul, With Blood” is “Penalty” (2013, a 2.5-minute video installation that combines heavily pixilated smears of movement with a first-person narrative penned by writer Bilal Khbeiz.
The wit of the work is evident in the title, which generally alludes to punishment for a legal infraction but is most commonly heard in the context of a football match.
The text and projected images might relate the impressions of a football as it undergoes a free kick. Since footballs rarely betray evidence of higher intelligence, however, it may gradually dawn upon onlookers that what’s being described and seen are actually the final moments of someone being jostled into a hasty beheading. Indeed, some macabre research has suggested that, until the brain exhausts a severed head’s small reserves of oxygen, consciousness does briefly linger.
Mroué has derived inspiration from videos that Syrian activists have posted online. He’s been particularly moved by those documenting the movement of pro-regime tanks and snipers – which inadvertently record the media activists’ apparent deaths. The balance of the works at SALT Beyoglu derives from this research.
The matter of these videos – whether they should be thought of in her same terms as film and whether the activists can properly be said to have been killed – is the subject of Mroué’s performance piece “The Pixelated Revolution” (2012). This “non-academic lecture” became part of the Documenta-commissioned series “The Fall of a Hair,” four elements of which are on show here in various media.
A recording of Mroué’s talk is staged here as a 22-minute video loop. The installation “Double Shooting” places individual frames from the same video at increments along an isolated gallery corridor (it being the first piece viewers encounter if they enter the show counter-clockwise).
The staging of “Double Shooting” seeks to recreate the sense of eerie isolation that comes from encountering a sniper, accentuated by the rifle report triggered by a motion sensor located three-quarters of the way through.
The strongest works in the Beyoglu show are those that range furthest from the source medium, however.
“After Midnight” (2013) is a four-minute video housed in a portrait-shaped light box. A series of shots of a weathered concrete wall fades onto residues of posters whose content has been completely effaced. The voiceover unfolds like the testimonial of the survivor of a gas attack, until the narrator suggests that he was killed. The survivors will have to wait to have their faces emblazoned on “In Memoriam” posters.
The piece that most successfully breeches the divide between onlooker and projection screen is “Thicker than Water” (2012). It consists of a stomach-height table upon which are arranged an orderly row of seven flipbooks – an old-fashioned child’s picture book, each page of which is one frame of a brief film, that used to divert kids for whom moving images were a rarity.
The source of each flipbook is a YouTube video depicting the final seconds of an activist, downed by the pro-regime gunman he or she was filming. Alongside every booklet is a lone button that, when pressed, replays the audio portion of the YouTube clip.
The installation table is smeared with blue fingerprints. At the back of each flipbook is an inkpad. Anyone caressing the activists’ deaths emerges from the encounter with blue ink all over their hands, and anything else they chance to touch. The stuff proves quite difficult to wash off.
“Rabih Mroué” is up at SALT Beyoglu and SALT Galata until July 27. For more information, see www.saltonline.org/en.