Friday, May 8, 2020

Chalk Outlines: Rabih Mroué

Rabih Mroué, Chalk Outlines, 2020 (Still)
Overview:  During the period of Lockdown, Rabih Mroué has created a short video, "Chalk Outlines," which we understand to be a meditation on the Covid-19 crisis

The film consists of eight sequences of rapidly flashing images of chalked bodies, each in a different position. Each sequence settles on a different frozen body image, held for several seconds, accompanied by a title. The eighth sequence concludes with a frozen shot of a large image of multiple bodies, perhaps evocative of a mass grave, without accompanying text.

An initial series of chalked bodies in prone positions flashes on the screen, the effect being of rotation in a clockwise direction.  A single body, apparently face down, is held for several seconds, with the title,

"Calm and in peace, here I am sleeping without a dream."

After a second sequence of rapidly glimpsed rotating body images, the screen settles on a different outlined body, this one evidently female, face up, accompanied by the title

"You forget       my story
Your remember  history"

A third sequence of rotating bodies, is followed by the frozen image of a body face down, with the title,

"Another day is gone
Another day begins
I am still
in the same shit"

A fourth sequence of rapid rotating bodies is followed by a frozen shot of a body (of indeterminate gender), possibly in trousers, facing up, with the title,

"Where shall I hide my hope"

 The fifth sequence settles on  a less distinct and less dimensional image than the other ones, filled in with chalk, with the title:


“I can't go back to where I come from"

A sixth sequence of rotating bodies settles on the outline of a head and perhaps arms  emerging out of (or sinking into) a hazy, chalked white field, above the title,

 "Again I was defeated..."

A seventh sequence of rotating flashing bodies, is followed by a frozen image of a child's body, face down, in profile, with the title,

"I thought all lives matter"

An eighth sequence of rotating, flashing bodies ends for a moment in a blank, dark screen, followed by a frozen image that fills the screen,  composed of  at least twenty chalked bodies in various positions, perhaps versions of all the bodies we have seen in the film.  This large composite  image is not accompanied by a title. The screen fades to black, followed by the credits.

There is no  spoken narration to the film, only the music of a flute, played by the artist, to a score composed by Matab.

Pamela Allara: Lebanese-born artist Rabih Mroue’s recent video “Chalk Outlines,” is one of the most unsettling responses I have seen to the global coronavirus pandemic, even though it is an indirect one. The video begins with a chalk drawing of bodies that are strewn over one another in a pile that suggests mass murder or atrocity. Although there is no direct reference to illness, it does immediately bring the pandemic to mind, by seeming to visualize the numerical body counts we read daily in the papers. For example, this week’s New York Times reported: “On Thursday the United States surpassed 75,000 fatalities from the coronavirus pandemic…more total deaths than the first 10 years of the Aids epidemic.” The statistics are startling, but nonetheless abstract. They fail to speak to the suffering that accompanied the deaths; they do not truly move us.

According to the Sfeir-Semier gallery website, the drawings are derived from news photographs Mroué collected over the course of eight years of people who were either killed in wars or were trying to escape wars. The fact that they are in outline is likely a direct reference to the outlines made by police of victims of crime scenes. Both the reference to war and to crime reminds us that violent death is unnatural, and in societal terms, unacceptable. Moreover, the rapidly-repeated images of individual bodies that follow make evident such unnatural deaths surround us, despite our habitual efforts to ignore it. Even now, when death caused by global illness is inescapable, it also seems distant, a newspaper statistic rather than a tragic loss. And so, it is significant that Mroué pauses the relentless parade of bodies in seven instances long enough to allow the victims to seemingly voice their last words (through subtitles). The quotes function as eulogies: “calm and in peace, here I am sleeping without a dream;” “where shall I hide my hope?;” and (under the body of a dead child), “I thought all lives matter.” Are the bodies speaking, or are they spoken for? These final thoughts or words are somehow independent of the bodies above them, operating on a different plane.

The victims here have died as the result of war, not of coronavirus, but it is interesting that U.S. officials, including the President, have referred to confronting the pandemic in terms of fighting a war. Although the analogy is faulty, there has been speculation that the language used to discuss the pandemic,  the Trumpian rhetoric about the ‘The Chinese Virus,” has certainly aggravated tensions between the U.S. and China. Anxiety and fear are in fact universal at present. According to Helen Davidson in The Guardian (May 8, 2020): “United Nations chief António Guterres has said the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a ‘tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering’, and appealed for an all-out effort ‘to end hate speech globally’.” Mroué’s bodies thus represent victims of violence both past and future, those who must wake up every day not knowing if they will still be alive at day’s end. For the last 30 seconds of the 2-minute video, the initial still image returns. As we contemplate the stacked bodies, the haunting flute lament by the composer Matab opens access to mourning. In this way, Mroué honors the uncounted, anonymous dead, and the chalk outlines are, so to speak, filled in.

Salah Hassan (Michigan State University):  The video definitely speaks to the presence of death all around us in this pandemic period,  and is a  powerful critique of the remarkable disregard for the subjective experience of death/murder, especially as it has been experienced by those residing in the Middle East. The figures in the drawings evoke the victimized in life—the wretched of the earth, those whose lives are given no value--and also in death, at best a statistic and at worse dumped into an unmarked grave. The chalk drawings in a counter-intuitive manner somehow personalize the figures, who become more than outlines on paper, more than the ghost of the deceased at a police scene. The individualized representations—curled and contorted limbs, a body tangled into itself—are painful  evocations, reminders of the person's physical presence in the world. The drawings in this way refocus attention on person as a victim of injustice and are evidence of the crimes against the human, a testimony, a protest, a form of resistance to the silence that enshrouds these unexplained violent deaths.

Mark Auslander:   In an earlier version of this post, I had speculated the flute and revolving sequences might invoke Sufi imagery, consistent with Rumi's famous analogy between the flute and suffering human heart, playing a melody ultimately composed by the Divine. The artist explains, however that Sufism is not referenced in this work.

I thus discuss, instead,  the seven titles used by Rabih Mouré, accompanying the seven prolonged exposures of a different, single chalked body.  I am reminded of the practice in the United States by #BlackLivesMatter activists of drawing a chalk outline of a body on the street, accompanied by a written phrase, such as "Am I Next?" to emphasize the maker's intimate sense of solidarity with the martyred Dead.  The reference to #BlackLivesMatter would seem especially emphatic in the final, seventh, title, "I thought all lives matter," which accompanies the image of a body lying face down.  American viewers are particular likely to associate this image with the death of Eric Garner,  who stated eleven times, "I can't breathe," as police forced him to lie face down on the sidewalk, as he lay dying.

As I have noted in an essay for the Centre for Imaginative Ethnography, #BLM activists at times take on the voice and subject position of the martyred victims whom they honor, performing "die ins," or chanting the final words of Eric Garner "I can't breathe," sometimes rephrased as "We can't breathe."  In a comparable fashion, the artist may here be taking on the voice or voices of the Dead, in solidarity with them, beginning with the first title, “Calm and in peace, here I am sleeping without a dream,"

The second title,

"You forget        my story
Your remember  history"

seems to engage in a play on words, referencing the female figure shown prone in chalk: "history" may be read as "his story," perhaps implying that masculine narratives of conquest and domination tend to over-write the words and tales of women victims of war or pandemic.
 The third title, “Another day is lost/another day begins,” would seem to reference the beautiful poem by Octavia Paz which the artist copied in his first Covid-19 diary,  discussed in our posting of 4.15.20:

“A day is lost
Doors open and close
The seed of the sun soundlessly opens
A day begins"

The fourth phrase, "Where shall I hide my hope," perhaps evokes the opening of the 121st Psalm, I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from?"  In contrast to the optimism of the psalm, the Dead here seem to be in a space beyond hope or aspiration.

The fifth  phrase, “I can't go back to where I come from" presumably references the xenophobic slur directed against the marginalized the world over" "Go back to where you come from!"  The demand is particularly absurd in the case of refugees and asylum seekers who by definition cannot return to the lands from which they have escaped. The response, "I can't go back," is particularly poignant when spoken, in effect, by a dead victim of war or pandemic, who cannot even return to the land of the living.

The sixth phrase, "Again I was defeated," is enigmatic: what second defeat is being referenced? Perhaps the phrase speaks to the work of memory, alluded to in the second title. Beyond their first physical death, victims of war and pandemic may suffer a second social death, when their names and stories are forgotten. This reading would seem to be consistent with the accompanying image in which the dead's upper body seems to be fading away into the chalked white field, perhaps subsumed by the haze of oblivion.

The seventh phrase, "I thought all lives matter," as suggested above, seems consistent with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, now generalized to the universal condition of all persons everywhere who have suffered and died unjustly, especially in the context of racial and ethnic-based oppression.

Whatever the precise references of these seven written titles, it does seem appropriate that the final conglomerated image of many bodies, which Salah Hassan reads as an unmarked grave, is not accompanied by any text, just before the screen fades to black.  We have entered into territory that may be beyond the capacity of conventional language to represent. A shared moment of silence, in the face of this painful, awe-inspiring tableau, is the most fitting memorial to the Lost.

Susan Platt
Rabih Mroué has been seen before in these pages. As we learn about the thousands of tragic deaths caused by the Corona Virus, the process of death is invisible to not only those of us who are healthy, but those of us who are losing our dearest friends and family. We sometimes see vast rooms filled with coffins, but in no case do we see the actual person who has died. Nor do we often read a description of exactly how they died. It often appears to be from suffocation In other cases from blood clots and a strange overreaction of the immune system. I have seen these scraps of information only once each. This video provides us with visible imagery of death from war over eight years taken from a notebook as a meditation on the  premature ending of human life.

What I see in this work is a deeply felt response to unnecessary death taken from actual newspaper photographs. They represent only a tiny percentage of those who have died in the endless wars in the Middle East. At the same time, they can be a reference point for the absence of any photography of  death by Covid 19 beyond numbers and obituaries. 

The issue is that war and illness- caused death of human beings seems now to be taken casually almost obliviously by leaders. War, Virus, equally causing death, equally the result of globalization, arrogance, greed, and ongoing colonialism. The virus is colonizing our bodies, as humans mainly euro/americans, have colonized the planets and its deep liquids. 

As the US continues on its disfunctional path of focusing on economics rather than health, as the response is fragmented by politics on the extreme right who demand "freedom" to do what they want, as the federal government orders and hands out Personal Protective Gear according to who is a political friend of the President, and priortizes those decisions by a group of inexperienced young business men who are friends of the President's son in law, as many states ignore the few guidelines that have been put out, we can be sure there will be a great deal more death in the US, and we will be continuing to live with the situation for years. 

Rabih Mroué's chalk outlines allows us to pause and think about the meaningless of premature death. 

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