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Looking for a Missing Employee

13 Jan

Looking for a Missing Employee is the kind of performance that could have easily taken place over coffee and cigarettes in a café on the Beirut Corniche. In the second show of the Out There 2012 at the Walker Art Center, Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué takes the audience on an almost two-hour long meander through the 1996 newspaper records of a missing employee in the Lebanese Ministry of Finance, Rafa’at Suleiman, and in doing so, creates a personable if not particularly personal exploration of the rule of law and the absurdities of of political machinations in Lebanon. It’s a topic that should feel a lot more pressing right now, but, as the piece was originally performed in 2005 and based as it is in newspaper clippings from 15 years ago and trafficking in jokes on translation, Mroué’s performance comes across with a more of a nostalgic irony and warmth than a fire of contemporary politics.

Mroué was the winner of the Spalding Gray Award in 2010, and the stage set up would have been well familiar to the attending local arts patrons, dancers and performance artists. As with Gray, there was a table and chair at center stage, with a small screen behind the set pieces and a large projection screen filling the rest of the stage. However, instead of sitting in front of the audience, Mroué sat in the back of the McGuire auditorium with two video cameras on him, one to project his face onto the small screen and another above his desk to project the the notebooks and clippings onto the right-hand side of the large screen. On the left-hand side of the large screen, collaborator Ghassan Halawani’s drawings charting out the obscure and conflicting rumors and countering official stories, denunciations and retractions involved in the story. This video distancing winds up being not as interesting as it might have been. In the end, we are still watching a live performance (at one point Mroué supposedly lost his place) but the edited frames through which we experience the show are a subtle reminder that as with the content of the newspaper clippings, we may not be getting the full story.

The facts, such as they may be, are these: Rafa’at Suleiman was a minor official in the Lebanese Department of Finance, who disappeared from his office on either the 25th or 26 of September, 1995. His wife, Wafa’, placed an article in the paper demanding that if her husband had been murdered, of “disappeared” by the government, it was her right to know. After that demand, the stories started to flow about a embezzled money, reports of which ranged anywhere from 3.5 billion Lebanese pounds to 43 billion Lebanese pounds and a plot to defraud the government by circulating forged stamps. A series of newspaper reports come out painting Suleiman as everything from a high-flying bon vivant whose motto was “Spend what you have in your pocket today, let tomorrow come what may,”as Mroué translated for us, to quiet, generous man to a scheming thief. The Minister of Finance and the Minister of Refugees are drawn into a spat over the lost money, the Prime Minister demands answers, the family demands answers and the newspapers keep on printing stories about the affair. Eventually, news of Suleiman’s murder surfaces, the body is found and this boondoggle of secular law has a heartbreaking and stomach-turning coda of Islamic law regarding the burial of the body and the lack of prayers for Suleiman in the end.

The performance turns on a phrase that bookended the night; “The point of this performance is not to find the truth or untruth…the difference between the truth and the lie is a hair, I am trying to split that hair.” Dealing with information in much the same way as his Lebanese contemporaries The Atlas Group, nothing in the performance is particularly to be trusted, except for the fundamental point that nothing is particularly to be trusted. Both The Atlas Group and Franz Kafka, whose convoluted bureaucracies and faceless interrogations pervade the Levant, get mentions in the performance, if only through denial. One of the suspects arrested and interrogated was named Joseph K., but despite sharing a name with the protagonist of The Trial, Mroué denied the Kafka connection, while one of the police officers involved in an assassination is named Alia Raad, who Mroué emphatically stated is not related to Walid Raad, founder of The Atlas Group, a joke I think only Walker curator Philip Bither and I laughed at. To split the hair even further, Mroué carried on that vein by saying that Faris Khisham, a reporter on the Suleiman beat, was not related to Rabih Mroué. Why would he say that? Because maybe this things are the same. Maybe they appear different but share the same context, a reporter trying to piece together the full story, a people trying to see the lines between truth and untruth and draw them, or blur them.

Early in Looking for a Missing Employee, Mroué says that the missing person, being both present and not present, that is, both dead and not dead, is fertile ground for exploration. It is also an emotionally powerful, politically resonant and ongoing series of demands. The Mothers of the Disappeared in Buenos Aires made that lack of presence their presence in demanding the return of their sons and daughters. Egyptian author and essayist Alaa El Aswany has made the false presence of democracy the focus of many of his critiques, while still signing off all of his columns with the phrase “Democracy is the answer”. For a truly Kafka-esque look at an everyday death, read his article “Who Is Killing The Poor In Egypt?”, collected in On The State of Egypt. The quiet, searching irony of Looking for a Missing Employee is a warm and human survival skill in the face of violence and absurd machinations, but feels like not quite enough at a time when the world is so far and so fast in motion.

Fortunately, Mroué has come prepared with a new Walker commission, The Pixelated Revolution, which will be presented on Saturday morning at 11AM and deals with the current revolution in Syria. The program notes ask “Are the broken-up and incomplete images sent by the Syrians an extension of their physical experience? Is the mobile phone an extension of their brains, of their body, of their being?” Staring at the computer screen, considering last night’s performance and about to tweet this and post it to facebook, even though I am not in Syria and do not fear that my government will directly kill me, there is enough uncertainty in life that we might as well go ahead and split the hair.

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