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Over the weekend, acclaimed and provocative Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué launched his first North American tour, giving the United States premiere of Looking for a Missing Employee at the Baryshnikov Arts Center as part of Performance Space 122‘s annual COIL festival. Looking for a Missing Employee was originally produced for the 2003 Home Works Forum in Beirut, and is an investigation into the disappearance of the government employee Raafat Suleiman, and the political factors that shadowed his grisly end.
The performance opens with Mroué entering from back stage and turning on a projector. This is the only time the artist is physically on stage. He then relocates to the last row of the theater among the audience, one camera focusing on his face and projecting him magnified above an empty chair at a desk in the center of the stage, another trained on a table where his hands flip through notebooks containing newspaper clippings he collected on the missing employee. From this beginning, a sense of distance between the audience and the artist is set. We are looking into the eyes of a video and he, in turn, cannot see our faces.
As Mroué states, he’s not setting out to find “the truth or untruth,” “the criminals or victims.” Instead, he says:
“Between the truth and the lie there is a hair, and I’m trying to cut this hair.”
Contradictions in news and government sources are tallied on a whiteboard that is projected on a third screen, a graph showing the wildly fluctuating amounts of money that claim to have gone missing with the employee, and the adjectives and titles attached to his name are listed (he is alternately a “Thief” and a “Dedicated Husband”).
As Mroué says at the beginning, Lebanon is a small country, a country where no one should be able to disappear. However, “there will always be holes a person can disappear into,” and thousands of people went missing during the civil war in Lebanon, and continue to go missing in times of precarious peace.
Mroué obsessively collected newspaper clippings of the disappeared in one of his notebooks, and in doing so came across the story of Raafat Suleiman, an employee of the Ministry of Finance who disappeared on September 25, 1996. The subsequent notebooks on Suleiman are narrated and translated by Mroué in Looking for a Missing Employee, kept captivating as much by his charm (there was more laughing in the audience than spinal chills) as the unsettling subject matter. But the comic elements are sugar pills for the reality of the employee’s brutal fate, making the painful story a prolonged, easy swallow, so we don’t know what we’ve really absorbed until after the performance, when the details haunt: the body of the murdered employee cut up and dissolved in acid, the corruption of the government even after the president declares a “war on corruption,” the fact that even in a small place where “everyone knows everyone,” you can vanish.
The artist began his performance art in 1990, the year that Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended, working since then with a small, but dedicated, group of Beirut artists who have used the country’s recent political history as a catalyst. His politically kindled work has faced censorship from the Lebanese government, and his 2007 piece about the civil war, How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool’s Joke, was banned by the Lebanese Interior Ministry. The play is narrated from the perspective of four fighters in four different militias from the 15-year civil war.
In 2008, he confronted the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War in Je Veux Voir, a film that co-starred French actress Catherine Deneuve, and he continues work out of Beirut as an actor, visual artist, director and writer, using his unique form of documentary theater to examine elements of the volatile political and economic climate of Lebanon.
Looking for a Missing Employee ends with the artist himself disappearing, his video image continuing to watch us from the stage. Even under the surveillance of an audience, in a small theater, someone can vanish. We are left only with a copy of the real person, and although Mroué says to never trust a photocopy, our projected amateur detective is our only source. We are not unlike the Lebanese people under their own government: the subjective editing of the news sources is all we have.
Mroué performed Looking for a Missing Employee January 6 to 8 at the COIL festival, and he will be taking the performance to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (January 12-14), On the Boards in Seattle (January 19-21), the PuSH International Performing Arts Festival in Vancouver (January 26-28) and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh (February 2).
PS122’s COIL festival continues with performances through January.