BEIRUT: One of the eccentricities of Lebanese cultural production is that some of the country’s finest artists exhibit their work outside Lebanon more frequently than they do within. The reasons are as varied as they are self-evident.
Among the factors “pushing” successful artists to exhibit overseas is the country’s small number of serious galleries and, to date, a want of contemporary art museum spaces. Exacerbating this is the state’s hostility to arts funding and, looming nearby, Lebanon’s endemic political instability and security issues.
Equally significant are the factors drawing artists and their work overseas – the network of international art platforms, fairs, biennials, galleries, residencies and the like that provide a natural ecosystem for accomplished contemporary artists. Talent that technically resides in Beirut can spend much of a year overseas.
This cosmopolitan lopsidedness means that these artists have a highly segmented public whose readings of their works can be quite far removed from one another.
German researcher Monique Bellan recalls being in Beirut a few years ago to watch a staging of Rabih Mroué and Lina Saneh’s 2005 work “Who’s Afraid of Representation.”
The play relates two parallel stories. Mroué enacts a Lebanese civil servant who one day “went postal” and murdered several of his colleagues. Saneh relates the history of international performance art, focusing on practices that demand artists damage or otherwise compromise their bodies.
“I remember ... the uncomfortable laughter you could hear,” Bellan says, “the embarrassment you could feel, because of the sexuality in the performances Saneh describes.
“When I saw [the play] in Germany, this was not an issue at all, but ... when Mroué performed ‘Three Posters’ (2000) [which addresses the self-conscious visual aesthetic of martyrdom videos among Lebanon’s secular militants], the German audience thought a figure in the poster hanging behind the actor was a Hezbollah fighter. Actually it was a photo of his grandfather, a Communist intellectual.
“This is something that European journalists are interested in, to open up a discussion of politics and to reduce [the artists] to that.”
Bellan is the author of the 2013 book “Dismember Remember: Das Anatomische Theater von Lina Saneh und Rabih Mroué” (the anatomical theater of Lina Saneh and Rabih Mroué).
The Orient Institute Beirut, where the author conducts her research, hosted the Beirut launch of the book earlier this week.
She notes that Saneh and Mroué’s works have enough critical traction in Europe that other troupes are now disseminating them. One of these is “Biokhraphia” (2002), which stages a television interview between an actor named Lina Saneh and herself, via a tape recording of Saneh’s voice.
“The [new] staging of ‘Biokhraphia’ looks less like performances and more like contemporary theatre,” Bellan says.
“Instead of one actor and a tape recorder, it has two actors – the characters and a male alter-ego – in dialogue. It had very little to do with the original, but it was good. Saneh’s sense of humor was still present. ... ‘Biokhraphia’ has also been staged as a radio play.”
Multi-disciplinary artists with distinct solo careers, Mroué and Saneh are best known for their collaborations. These theatre pieces have a strong visual art component, reflecting a thematic interest in electronic mediation, both as a performance tool and a pervasive metaphor for the contemporary human condition.
They are recognized in international art circles to be among Lebanon’s so-called ’90s generation, a small cluster of artists to have emerged in the wake of the country’s most recent civil war. Though respected locally, their works are only periodically performed inside the country, and have encountered state censorship and banning.
Bellan’s study examines the collaborations and solo works emerging from the two artists between 2002 and 2007.
These include “Biokhraphia,” and “Who’s Afraid of Representation?” as well as Mroué’s four-person performance piece, “How Nancy Wished that Everything was an April Fool’s Joke” (2007) and Saneh’s lecture-like performance “Appendix” (2007). Bellan also discusses Saneh’s 2006 video work “I had a Dream, Mom,” comprised of the artist’s conversation with her mother, nominally about dreams.
“Dismember Remember” is written in German, so the task of assessing it critically must be left to German-speakers. That said, Bellan’s approach is thorough.
The three-part work opens with a discussion of Middle East theatre practices since the 19th century, focusing on the Lebanese scene and various developments in Beirut’s contemporary art since the end of the Civil War.
This is a useful gesture, since Saneh and Mroué are generally discussed in terms of their ’90s generation colleagues, most of whom tend toward visual art rather than performance.
Other chapters are devoted to a close reading of the works and to placing them within a broader discursive framework – the critical thought of various francophone philosophers, for instance.
Bellan sees her book’s principal contribution as being to introduce a German-speaking readership to the unique and powerful practice of two contemporary artists.
“Not much has been written about Lina and Rabih’s work that exceeds three or four pages in a book or a magazine,” she notes. “Most of the time it’s written from a Western perspective. ... I try to connect it to the local context.”
The author says she first encountered Saneh and Mroué’s work in 2002 and was particularly attracted to the multiple layers of meaning she found in it.
“Their work at that time was very different from what I was seeing in Lebanon and even in Europe,” Bellan says. “It was really special ... because its Lebanese content was placed within an aesthetic framework, which speaks very much the language of Western art. I found this tension very interesting.
“‘Appendix’ [in which Mroué discusses a character named Lina who wants to be cremated – a practice that is against Lebanese law – while Saneh sits, immobile, alongside] spoke to me very much,” Bellan continues.
“These works opened up all these dimensions ... into something universal, questions that are not limited to Lebanon or any other locality but which concern us as human beings, anywhere.”
As the reference to “anatomical theater” suggests, Bellan’s book is particularly interested in in Mroué and Saneh’s use of the body – and particularly the success with which they stage the relationship between body, image and language/voice.
Bellan attributes this interest in the body to Saneh’s work, though she acknowledges the difficulties in distinguishing the artists’ individual contributions to a collaborative work like “Biokhraphia.”
Perhaps the book’s most lasting contribution lies in her tentative effort to delineate Saneh’s voice in her collaborations with Mroué.
“Saneh is at the center of all her performances, whereas Mroué always incorporates others. I would say this is the main distinction between them ... The fictive Lina and the real Lina are in a state of amalgamation. It’s hard to say which is which, because she integrates elements – like her phobia of cockroaches.
“It’s hard to know where she ends and the image begins, which is true of all of us.”
Monique Bellan’s “Dismember Remember. Das Anatomische Theater von Lina Saneh und Rabih Mroué,” 2013, is published, in German, by Reichert-Verlag.