“You can’t drink. You are dead,” proclaims a woman as she administers funerary rites to a man’s naked body. The setting is Roy Dib’s video installation Revisiting Hesitation (2018), the latest in a series of three works – it follows the theatrical performance Close to Here (2017), commissioned by the 13th Sharjah Biennial and situated, like Revisiting Hesitation, in a fictional Middle Eastern city, and the installation Here and There (2017) – that address loss, grief and war.
When the washing is completed, various women in their mid-thirties, dressed in yellow and red silks, enter the room to take photos with the body to keep as souvenirs. The manner of their interactions is almost hallucinatory: one woman takes a selfie with the man on her iPhone. Projected onto the floor between two columns of the gallery’s brutalist interior, the video’s heavy chiaroscuro works with the darkness of the space, occasionally interrupted by bright silhouettes and a shimmering light, to help situate the audience within the ritual.
This sense of the real crossing over into the fictional is reinforced by the fact that the photos taken by the women during the ritual hang in an adjacent room in the gallery. One photo in particular, Roueida 36, named after the woman who took the photo, stands out for its disquieting iconography. Clad in a yellow shirt, she is pictured holding the warrior after his washing, with an iPhone placed to his body’s left, a tableau with echoes of Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat (1793). The exaggerated tilt of the man’s head, similar to that of the executed Marat in the bathtub, reinforces the idea of the militant sacrificed for a higher ideological calling.
The video’s power lies in the fact that the man in the video is not, in fact, dead, or at least not literally, or not yet. Instead, an interior monologue delivered as a voiceover reveals that these rituals are in preparation for battle, and that this is a mock funeral being administered preemptively in the event that he falls on the battlefield and his body is not returned. Halfway through the ritual, when a woman refuses him water, the warrior proclaims, “I am not dead yet”. He is playing dead.
The cool female voice, neutral and pragmatic in the voiceover, works in contrast to that of the anxious male protagonist (“You have to get used to the idea that time is no longer important,” she says. “Where you are, time does not exist”). Their dialogue reflects on the inescapability of death and the impact on those left behind; the looping of the video speaks to the endless cycle of conflict that haunts the Middle East and those who suffer the consequences of warfare.
Words by MK Harb
Roy Dib: Revisiting Hesitation at Galerie Tanit, Beirut, 17 September – 10 November
From the Winter 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia