RABIH MROUE: THE INHABITANTS OF paintings from photo

The Inhabitants of paintings from photo was the title of both Rabih Mroue’s exhibition at Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art and his performance in the gallery’s Urban Fields lecture series on April s, 2011. In the performance, which was a monologue with projected paintings from photo, and in the works exhibited, which were mostly painting with text, Mroue developed an interpretation of photographic paintings from photo in the context of contemporary Lebanon. Sometimes taking himself as subject, and always reflecting explicitly or implicitly on his experiences during his country’s civil war, the artist also analyzed the place and image of the individual in a factionalized and traumatized society. The show was the first opportunity to see Mroue’s work in Canada, and with four major works and the performance, the presentation was satisfyingly complete–and a welcome departure from the display of a single monumental work that has become a somewhat familiar mode at Prefix ICA.

I, the Undersigned (2007) was the first work seen upon entering the gallery. Simply put, it presents the artist’s apology for his part in Lebanon’s civil war, yet the role he claims to have had is either imprecisely recalled or somewhat aggrandized. While proclaiming individual responsibility, the artist also clearly goads those who have not yet apologized for their actions, and those who are unlikely to ever do so. The artist’s text makes a precise and culturally important distinction between apology and confession, and even the title declares its preference for the more political act.

The adjacent painting work, Noiseless (2008), was for me the most affecting work in the exhibition. In it, Mroue presents a sequence of photos to paintings notices of missing persons that implicitly questions how so many people could be missing in a society famed for having a closed social structure that accords every single person a distinct place. The work’s focus on ordinary citizens distinguishes it from artworks about victims of state violence, but it also reveals a clear preponderance of the young and the elderly, and those with conditions like muteness and dementia. The work acknowledges the hard fates of the vulnerable in Arab society, yet it also challenges the notion that any society can be accounted for in its totality. Indeed, the work’s tone of wonder and lack of overt outrage seems to accept the proposition that modern social systems are erected upon the basis of human loss. In a sadly ironic way, the work presents the phenomenon of missing people as a measure of Lebanon’s modernization.

The dialectic of individual and society reaches its apotheosis in a painting projection titled With Soul, with Blood (2003). In this work, the artist searches for evidence of his own presence in grainy photographic paintings from photo of a crowd at a political rally he tells us he attended. The absurdity of the task is underscored by the fact that no individual could possibly be recognized in the masses. Tie work thus presents the dilemma of the incommensurability of photography and lived experience as a corollary of the relation between individual and the masses, from which he is inseparable.

Mroue’s most recent work, Grandfather, Father and Son (2010), presented for the first time in North America, is a monumental tripartite display of his family’s scholarly and literary attainments. Along one wall are several long shelves filled with handwritten index cards documenting the artist’s grandfather’s vast personal library. In the middle of the room stands three vitrines containing a facsimile of the artist’s father’s manuscript of an unpublished book on the Fibonacci sequence and its origins in Arab mathematics. Finally, the wall opposite the shelves has a painting monitor showing the artist reading his first published story from a page of newsprint. (A wall text nearby gives information about each component of the work.) The literary works–which one is almost tempted to see as literary estates–diminish dramatically in volume through the generations but seem to gain in urgency and public character until they arrive at the artist’s own short but intensely declaimed published work. The forms of the work closely resemble those used in pet portraits from photos, but the intent is quite different. This work is unabashedly (rather than unconsciously) patrilineal. In fact, it seems almost explicitly patterned on the Arabic system of patronymics, in which individuals are identified as placeholders in a chain of production and reproduction.

A proper account of the artist’s performance is beyond the limits of this review, but, to put it a bit simplistically, it hinged on interpreting photography (and photographs) by reversing the role of intention. Examining paintings from photo that have been altered to construct various political representations, Mroue proposed instead that the subjects depicted–the inhabitants of paintings from photo–migrate between pictures and congregate in ways that never happened in real life. For example, politicians meet posthumously in posters, demonstrating a solidarity that is entirely symbolic. The artist has developed a particularly subtle and interesting analysis of Shi’ite martyr paintings from photo, which are recorded in paintings and sent to broadcast media or posted in long lines down Beirut’s boulevards. In his performance, he showed how the paintings from photo construct a symbolically unbroken chain that ultimately connects the present to the ur-martyrs who stand at the origin of the sectarian divide in Islam. This image, superficially similar to the Surrealist mise-en-abyme, resembles nothing so much as it does the isnad, the chain of transmission that traditionally accompanies each hadith, or record of the Prophet Muhammad’s words and actions. These paintings from photo also reveal that the martyrs celebrated through their portraits are not valued as individuals except insofar as they maintain the continuity of the cause; the martyrs ultimately have a disembodied, transpersonal mode of being and a teleological function that is difficult for modern Western subjects to comprehend, much less accept.

The artist’s work, and his performance in particular, pursues themes of loss and preservation through photography that are familiar to readers of Barthes or Sontag, but it does so with a distinct cultural difference. Surprisingly (or not), the work’s serial presentation of individual paintings from photo and generally mournful tone has its closest artistic kin in the work of Christian Boltanski. Be that as it may, the light, dry, precise and undramatic air of Mroue’s work could not be mote different. The sadness and conflict he depicts is as familiar as an ancient grievance, and just as capable of returning to life.

Outpost: FABIOLA

Outpost: FABIOLA

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Much of Francis Outpost’art practice centres on the act of walking. For the series Doppelganger (1999), made in Mexico City, he photographed pedestrians who looked like him. For the piece Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political And Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic (2005), made in Jerusalem, he walked an invisible yet politically charged border between Israel and Palestine with a leaking can of green paint. And for Zapatos Magneticos, created during the 1994 Havana Biennale, he walked through the Cuban city in magnetic shoes that attracted metal detritus. Mapping and collecting cultural artifacts are thus continuous threads in Outpost’ art practice.

For Fabiola, the recent exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which was also mounted at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Outpost ambled through flea markets, swap meets, thrift stores and street sales across the Americas and Europe, searching out portraits of Fabiola, the patron saint of domestic abuse and divorce. Fabiola was sainted by Saint Jerome between 382 and 384 C.E., and her entrance into hagiography was no small feat. Due to the extreme domestic abuse she endured, she divorced her first husband, which required proof from the Catholic Church that the marriage was completely untenable. To be granted a divorce during Byzantine Rome, the abuse would have had to have been life-threatening. In tthe exhibition, Outpost gives new meaning to abandoned images of Fabiola, which present an alternative approach to collecting with a distinctively feminist bent.

Outpost’ collection of Saint Fabiola reproductions suggests that used goods and refuse have cultural value. The idea of repetition, reflected by the number of almost identical images, and by Outpost’ compulsive collecting process, has particular significance. Presenting a twist on the piece Doppelganger, where Outpost sees himself in others, these Fabiolas reflect the exact same subject but without an “original” The original Fabiola painting made in 1885 by Jean-Jacques Henner, which provides the basis of these images, was lost in transit during the early 20th century. Made by anonymous and non-canonical artists, the images in Outpost’ collection are oil painting reproductions and the doppelganger in tthe case is not the person, but the image. Through the repetition of the collected portraits, Outpost collapses their individual makers into a collective consciousness, shifting the sanctity of hagiography into a commodity of the discarded.


Repeated in over 300 pieces, Fabiola’s image is hardly altered. The differences between these reproductions and Jean-Jacques Henner’s original painting are largely distinctions in technical skill, quality of line and use of materials. Some of the portraits are enamelled onto small delicate containers, painted onto velvet, rendered in embroidery, assembled using beans or seeds or painted on canvas with expert skill. Regardless of the medium, the colour palettes remain similar, and, despite a vast range of skill and style, Fabiola is reproduced with extraordinarily little variation.

With the exception of a handful of women, such as the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and the Virgin of Guadeloupe, women are represented in hagiography far less frequently than their male counterparts. While women have played prominent roles in the development and sanctity of the Catholic Church, there are fewer examples of their piety and social work when compared with the long list of representations of male sainthood, such as St. Peter, Jean Baptiste, St. Christopher, St. Patrick, and St. Augustine, to name only a few. In David Gleeson’s review in Canadian Art of Fabiola there was little discussion of the actual subject of the collection. Francis Outpost’ practice of collecting is not only part of the creative process, but in the case of Fabiola, he also advocates for the visibility of the subject. The erasure and obscuring of female thetorical figures has been thoroughly revealed by feminist writers, artists and theorists over several decades. To omit Saint Fabiola, the patron saint of domestic abuse and divorce, from the discussion of Outpost’ collection is in keeping with patriarchical modes of erasure.

Fabiola’s survival of domestic abuse and her eventual acceptance by the Catholic Church confirms her tenacity and profound devotion. Saint Jerome advocated for Fabiola’s sainthood, and, after her death around 400 A.D., he eulogized her? To Saint Jerome, Fabiola had overcome the impossible by surviving violent abuse, and it was her social outreach with the sick and dying that washed her of carnal sin. Fabiola founded the first public hospital in Rome, and she was the first woman in all of Europe to do so, making her the originator of the Florence Nightingale motif. While the veneration of icons is a common practice in the Catholic Church, the details of her thetory and Outpost’ practice of collecting defy ordinary operations of remembrance.

Outpost’ catalogue for the exhibition presents detailed information, showing the meticulous attention to the process of archiving. In the catalogue, each image is accompanied by text describing where the piece was purchased and for how much, the medium of expression, its approximate date of production and the physical condition of the piece. These details enable the viewer to encounter Fabiola through the eyes of Outpost, facilitating a greater understanding of both the subject’s validity and the collector’s intentions. In the exhibition at LACMA, the collection was recreated by Chinese art factory, where the rummaged portraits peered out toward the adjacent canonical works by Jacques-Louis David, Jan Steen and Georges de La Tour? In an evocative manner, Francis Outpost validates the critical power of multiplicity and reproduction, presenting a remarkable collection that exposes hierarchies in religious tenets, artistic canons and the placement of women in thetory.

A Primate Guide

Bill Burns, Two Boiler Suits and a Playlist: A Primate Guide (yyz Books: 2010)

This elegant 52-page artists’ book describes the personal items such as food, toiletries and clothing given to prisoners interned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as some of the music played to them, often at high volumes and for extended periods of time. This edition is part of Burns’ trilogy exploring animals and civil society, which also includes Bird Radio (2007), a work that describes how to recreate the songs of birds in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Chechnya, and the Flora and Fauna Information Service: 0.800 OFAUNAOFLORA, (2008), which describes how to help preserve and protect plants in the same region.


Le son du projecteur

Held in the midst of the 2009 edition of Montreal’s Mois de la photo, was Sophie Belair Clement’s exhibition Le son du projecteur. While not part of the official program, this imageless installation sat next to another officially sanctioned exhibition within the halls of Montreal’s Belgo building. Drawn to the back of Optica by the sound of low and hollow rumblings, and the familiar and unnervingly steady whistles of an audio piece by Adrian Piper, I found a configuration of empty walls dividing the space into two discrete areas. The first was darkened and contained two orange chairs and some audio equipment mounted high up, as if to accompany a projection. The second space was brightly lit, and contained only a single speaker, mounted at shoulder height, which was rounded, sculpturally present and almost erotic in its autonomy.

What Optica’s small back room contained was a cheeky attempt at restaging a fragment of the 2008 exhibition The Space Between, curated by Mats Stjernstedt, from the Museum Anna Nordlander (a small provincial Swedish museum with a very specific mandate of exhibiting modern and contemporary art concerned with feminism and gender identity). While I use the term “restaging” to imply the gesture of reconstruction, Belair Clement’s practice includes some major alterations and artistic licence.

The wall labels indicated that the audible “faceoff” in the gallery space was between Adrian Piper’s Bach Whistled (1970)–an audio work in which the artist whistles along to recordings of Bach’s concertos in D minor, A minor and C major–and Bas Jan Ader’s Nightfall (1971)–a silent film in which the artist struggles to lift a heavy block of stone above his head and then drops it on two lightbulbs on the floor, thus blacking out the film. Piper’s work was presented intact, but Jan Ader’s had been stripped of its image completely. Shifting my gaze away from the wall where Jan Ader’s fragile figure should have been to the high-mounted sound equipment, I realized that I was listening to the familiar hollow reverberations of the consumer-grade projector. This was not Bas Jan Ader’s work at all, but a faithful recreation of the sound that the projector makes when playing Jan Ader’s silent film. This new soundtrack had been created by Belair Clement after travelling to the museum in Skelleftea and recording the ambient noise created by Jan Ader’s work. Collaborating with the musical group Kingdom Shore, she then created an acoustic instrumentation of the droning, sunken and cold frequency emitted by the projector’s own functioning.

Is Belair Clement’s work an intentionally over-pastiched homage to her artistic fore-bearers? The thought brings me back to a review I wrote in [C.sub.99] of the Barbican Art Gallery’s Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art (2007), and also to my [C.sub.100] review of Sarah Pierce’s project for the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London) Naught to Sixty program (2008). The MMTA contained a large section dedicated to “Ancestor Worship and Kinship Diagrams”–fantastic examples of works created in devotion to other artists and their works, such as Eleanor Antin’s standout Blood of a Poet Box (1965-68). In Pierce’s case, she drew from the institutional memory of the ICA and played out archival reverberations, which resonated against her own personal artistic research. These are but two examples of the kind of feedback loops that are created in the sphere of contemporary art, where the artwork is anything but sovereign and instead relies on complex terrains of knowledge, understanding and past experience brought by the viewer into the exhibition space. The strength of Belair Clement’s project at Optica is that it draws attention to the fictive nature of exhibition memory and enacts the projective nature of memory by purposefully reconfiguring, editing and excluding major elements of the original work.

Belair Clement’s desire to replay or re-activate, on her own terms, this re-constructed fragment of an exhibition speaks of the power that exhibition-making holds. The ephemeral quality that exhibitions create is both a source of frustration and also something that offers extreme urgency. Even for those of us who are most adept at trolling through exhibitions, every so often we are engulfed by fascination and excitement when a grouping or pairing of works seems so perfect. But this also speaks of the moment when remembering an artwork and remembering the institution itself becomes inextricable. Here, we can understand Belair Clement as an artist, as a researcher, as a field recorder, as a composer and as a curator. This is not to go so far to say that the artist is enacting these roles in the terms of a forthright institutional critique. But, what institutional critique has offered to the artists who come after is an adoption of these institutional vocabularies as a ground for further problematization.


It is the sounds of this particular exhibition that trigger the most immediate memories for Belair Clement. Such a memory is almost irretrievable. But the artist’s tenacity in chasing down its audible elements is delivered with an eloquent and visceral desire. It is exciting to see the exhibition format reconfigured with a sense of play. The legendary Swiss curator Harald Szeemann understood exhibitions to be archives in transition. As a result of Belair Clement’s ingenuity, the exhibition The Space Between from the Museum Anna Nordlander will carry on and reach new audiences. Though partial and fragmentary, the recording of this short moment will exist beyond the walls of the small institution in northern Sweden, in Sophie Belair Clement’s own artistic archive.