Rabih Mroue’s civil war narratives at SALT Galata and Beyoglu

The SALT Galata and SALT Beyoglu art spaces in Istanbul are currently home to the outstanding works of Rabih Mroue — Lebanese actor, theater director, playwright and visual artist.

On display until July 27, the shows present the works Mroue has produced within the last two decades, from the end of the civil war in Lebanon in 1990 until his last work about the Syrian conflict, in 2012. Being both professionally and personally close to storytelling, in his video works, installations and presentations Mroue looks at how people tell their own stories that in the end construct the political and historical narratives of a country. Mroue’s general interest in personal narratives during troubled times takes two different forms, which can also be seen in the division of the exhibition between SALT Galata and Salt Beyoglu.

In SALT Galata, a much more personal level of the collective narrative of the Lebanese Civil War can be identified. Mroue focuses on his own family, the life-changing effect of his grandfather’s books or the tapes his relatives recorded to send to other family members instead of sending letters. With these very personal works that one way or another are connected to the wider experience and feelings before, during and after the civil war in Lebanon, Mroue tells very special stories about the growth process of both individuals and nations.

In SALT Beyoglu, a newer set of works especially focusing on the Syrian Civil War awaits visitors. In the works exhibited here, YouTube videos shot during protests provide a framework for the whole exhibition. In one work, the audience is expected to use a series of flipbooks made from YouTube videos in which there is a confrontation between a gunman and the cameraman. By watching these images through the flipbooks, we witness these situations in a totally mechanical way. The ink on the plates holding the flipbooks leaves a mark on our fingers, making us ready to give our fingerprints. Mroue allows us to witness these horrible acts while putting us in the psychology of the guilty or the accused.

In his 20-minute presentation titled “The pixelated revolution,” Mroue introduces us to the concept of “double-shoot,” which refers to a common situation in the civil war in Syria. Someone using a mobile phone shoots the protests, and his camera encounters a person holding a gun. The lens of the camera meets the barrel of the gun. Both are shooting. The camera shoots the gun that is shooting at him. Going through many videos shot and uploaded during the Syrian Civil War, Mroue explains that these in which the camera user confronts his counterpart with the gun really grabbed his attention. In many of these videos, the cameraman drops, and the viewer is left with a static image of a ceiling or wall. In this double-shoot, the viewer cannot tell whether the cameraman is dead or not. The evidence he shares with the viewer becomes the document of a confrontation between a witness and sniper.

The double-shoot is a common theme shared by a few other works in the exhibition. In another work, Mroue reenacts a double-shoot with 16mm film that has its own physicality, rather than the invisible codes of digital images. In the middle of the exhibition space, visitors face the 16mm film rolling through the projector and watch the image through a small monitor. The film zooms in to the eye of the sniper that brings us to an empty wall, which is shown once the cameraman drops. Mroue has made use of these 16mm images again as a form of flipbook. He has installed photographs of each frame along the wall and asks visitors to walk beside them in 18 seconds. The visitor follows the sniper’s shooting frame by frame and hears the gunshot at the end.

Mroue’s concept of double-shoot is very relevant in today’s protests everywhere in the world. Mobile phones with camera functions are accessible to many and make us witnesses with cameras in almost any situation. These easy-to-carry cameras and the widespread use of social media and video-sharing platforms have catalyzed collective actions not only in Syria but also many other Middle Eastern countries and Turkey. Since last year’s nationwide Gezi Park protests, people have rediscovered the power of the eye witness. Each protestor holding a mobile phone has become an eye in an open circuit television system that ultimately constitutes part of a narrative of collective action changing history. Mroue, of course, also reminds the audience of the other shooter, the one with the gun, pepper spray or water cannon. Overall, the exhibition presents a series of documents, photographs, images, videos and masterfully-executed installations to give visitors a personalized narrative of two civil wars in the last two decades.