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Issue 151

The Year in Review - Germany

The unsettling installations of Rabih Mroué

BY Ellen Blumenstein in Critic's Guides | 01 NOV 12

Rabih Mroué, from the series ‘Double Shooting’, shown as part of ‘The World’s Not Fair’, Tempelhofer Freiheit, Berlin, 2012

Based on footage of demonstrations and fighting taken by Syrian rebels using their mobile phones and uploaded to YouTube, the ‘Double Shooting’ series (2012) by Rabih Mroué confronts the viewer with the impossibility of imagining one’s own death. These tragic documents – in which those making the respective film are unexpectedly targeted by a sniper, thus apparently recording the moment of their own deaths – have been used by the Lebanese artist in a number of installations and performance-based works. One much-discussed version of the piece was shown at this year’s dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, but I want to focus here on the installation at Tempelhofer Freiheit in Berlin – formerly Tempelhof Airport – as part of ‘The World’s Not Fair’, an event organized by the Hebbel am Ufer theatre and the architecture collective raumlaborberlin in June.

In this setting, Mroué translated one such video into a three-dimensional work by showing 72 stills from 18 seconds of footage – equivalent to four frames per second – on body-sized vertical panels placed at regular intervals along a 45-metre tunnel. In order to view the film accurately, the audience had to pass through this oversized flipbook in exactly 18 seconds, causing many to jog through the tunnel to get the timing right, and leaving most feeling somewhat uncomfortable at having to run past a line of images with such serious content.

Outside the tunnel, 72 information panels provided instructions for activists on how best to film themselves and others as safely as possible. While the pragmatic tone of the texts – garnered from Facebook and Syrian activist websites, and interspersed with rules from the Dogme 95 filmmaking manifesto – initially felt somewhat comforting, this effect was soon offset by the sobering realization that the panels were giving advice crucial to the survival of people who risk their lives every day.
Mroué’s installations have often been called ‘re-enactments’, but I think this is to misinterpret the structure of this work. By staging a confrontation between the audience and the YouTube footage, the artist is not trying to re-create the experience of what it must have felt like to film one’s own death. Even those holding the camera didn’t feel this. As Mroué explained in the lecture/performance he gave as part of The Pixelated Revolution (2012), the action – since it is conveyed via a small screen – already appears, even to the person holding the camera-phone, as a fiction. The person filming, too, is only a viewer, because a bullet never breaks out of a moving image to hit the audience.

The distancing effect that Mroué achieves by breaking down, blowing up and putting these images on display obviously brings no one nearer to the actual experience. Neither the ‘truth’ about these events in Syria nor their meaning can be read from these stills. Instead, ‘Double Shooting’ is about the strange, acquired behaviour of art-loving city-dwellers when they view a work of art. In other words, it’s about us. While sprinting through the tunnel, we don’t relive the last moments of a victim running irrevocably into the arms of a killer. Rather, we become a projectile tracing a predefined path at a calculated speed: a human machine. Whereas a slow, measured pace would be more appropriate when faced with such shocking pictures, we shoot ourselves through the action, blind to de­tail, towards the sniper. The process of running releases an energy that disables controlled thought and puts us at the mercy of the images. As well as directly penetrating the eye, the images impress themselves on our entire body.

The structure of Mroué’s work recalls the phenomenological concept of seeing and thinking in relation to art, as elaborated by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, which he described in Eye and Mind (1961) as an experience of being that demands a certain measure of passivity, and that becomes possible in the relation of sight and motion in a three-dimensional encounter with the art work. Art, he claims, opens the subject to the world. However, whereas Merleau-Ponty leaves the looking to the viewer, Mroué forces the viewer right into the present moment. ‘Double Shooting’ generates an emotion that reflected looking could never achieve: the viewer becomes unsettled and seemingly compact, impenetrably all-powerful reality suddenly cracks open.

Curator and writer based in Berlin, Germany. She founded the event and discussion platform Salon Populaire and is the designated chief curator of KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin.