BEIRUT: I arrive at Tayouneh’s Sunflower Cultural Center flustered, late and slightly sweaty.
Rush-hour traffic, a dilatory bus driver and the pervasive sunshine have transpired to substantially hoist my blood pressure.
George Rabbath is standing in the Sunflower’s entrance. Debonair and unflappable, Rabbath is a professor of human sciences at Saint Joseph University. Until the project was cancelled in late March, he was also the curator of Lebanon’s pavilion at the upcoming Venice Biennale.
“We just started,” he tells me. “Quickly. We’re still waiting for a few more people.”
Relieved to find I haven’t missed proceedings entirely, I plunge down the stairs into Tayyouneh’s underbelly at top speed. Rabbath clatters after me.
It’s Thursday evening and I’m here to see a performance titled “s.t.a.n.c.e,” part of Rabbath’s ongoing project titled “Lebanon as a State of Mind.” This was in fact the theme of Lebanon’s putative pavilion before it was scrapped in late March due to disputes over funding.
Undeterred, Rabbath is plowing ahead with the project without the official national base of a pavilion.
A number of works from local artists will, he says, be exhibited in public spaces around Venice concurrent with the biennale.
“s.t.a.n.c.e.” is one such work. Developed by Rabbath and his associates from an idea by Patricia Barakat, “s.t.a.n.c.e.” has had two outings – May 20 and 26 – and parts have been recorded for screening at Venice.
Information provided prior to the performance left me with only a hazy idea of the concept.
Performers “both professional and from the public will relay each other in recreating the Martyrs Square statue as a living sculpture on the Shams theater stage,” said a publicity email.
“You’ll have to be the Martyrs Square statue,” Rabbath tells me as we reach the bottom of the stairs. “Do you know the position to take?”
Alarmed at the prospect of being on stage myself – and not having the faintest idea what’s going on – I register confusion. Rabbath quickly enacts the wide-armed stance of the colossal lady atop the Martyrs Square plinth, before hustling me into the auditorium.
My eyes unaccustomed to the darkness, I stumble down the aisles toward the stage. I recall a recurring nightmare where I’m standing in front of an audience and I’ve forgotten all my lines.
On stage, a woman sits at the base of a black podium, her arms stretched outward, like a ballerina in first position. Above her stands a man. There is a space at the top of the podium for me.
In the background, a video projection of a patch of sky sends clouds and the occasional bird scurrying across a screen. A pounding heartbeat thunders from the sound system, echoing the physical effects of my bewilderment.
Quietly cursing my decision to accept this assignment, I fumble my way toward a wobbly set of steps leading onto the stage, trying not to lose my footing in the inky gloom. I climb past the pair on the podium and adopt the stance that Rabbath demonstrated, with my back to the audience.
“You should be a little closer,” Rabbath calls from the auditorium. I shuffle sideways toward my fellow performer until Rabbath makes an affirmative noise.
Soon, my mind is a hive of urgent questions. How long do I have to stand here? How will I know when my time is finished? How long will I be able to hold my arms in this immobile position before I start juddering with weariness? What precisely is going on?
After several minutes, I hear the girl at the base of the plinth stand up and leave the stage. My heart leaps – perhaps I can leave too? I stay for a few moments, for politeness’ sake, before navigating myself off the podium and into the auditorium.
Once off the stage, I notice that, besides Rabbath, there is only one other audience member.
“Some more people are on their way,” Rabbath assures me. My fellow performer has been left alone on stage. Rabbath takes pity on him, calling him to join us in the audience.
It transpires that the concept of “s.t.a.n.c.e.” is to have a mutating array of artists and civilians recreating the Martyrs Square statue, like a creative tag-team. One audience member would succeed another in a spontaneous performance. The only problem is that no one has turned up.
After 15 minutes, a group of girls arrive. They take up position on the podium for a spell, before joining us in the audience.
Aside from two artists and Rabbath himself, everyone in the auditorium is a student from Saint Joseph University. Uniformly polite and cheerful, they are taking an experimental psychology course with Rabbath, helping out with “s.t.a.n.c.e.” as part of a class project.
Rabbath tells me that the project is a collaboration with a Belgian artist, Robin Pourbaix, who is laying on a similar performance in his own country with his own Martyrs Square statue – Beirut isn’t the only city, of course, to possess a Martyrs Square.
I’m left with the students while Rabbath takes a phone call. One of them was standing beside me on the podium. I ask him whether Poubaix is enacting his performance at the exact same time.
“We believe so,” he replies.
Did more people turn out for the first outing of “s.t.a.n.c.e.” on May 20? My fellow performer thinks for a minute, before tentatively answering yes.
“Everyone’s at Shakira tonight,” another student chimes.
It’s hard to imagine two performances more different – the hip-centric Latino popstrell on her “Sun Comes Out” world tour versus the intellectual, biennale-bound efforts of “s.t.a.n.c.e.”
Which of the two is a better reflection of Lebanon as a state of mind – the glitz, glamor and the garishness of a Shakira concert or the chaos, confusion and conceptuality of “s.t.a.n.c.e.” – is anyone’s guess.
Keep up with “Lebanon as a State of Mind” at http://thestateofmind.be.