The Museum of Modern Art in New York holds the first major American survey of influential Lebanese artist Walid Raad.
Launched on 12 October 2015, the most comprehensive exhibition of Walid Raad’s oeuvre in the United States to date focuses on two of his major projects that blur the boundaries between fact and fiction to explore the ways in which we represent, remember and make sense of history.
Running at MoMA in New York until 31 January 2016, “Walid Raad” is organised by Eva Respini, the Barbara Lee Chief Curator at The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, with Katerina Stathopoulou, Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Photography at MoMA. The show will travel to the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (24 February – 30 May 2016) and to the Museo Jumex, Mexico City (13 October 2016 – 14 January 2017).
The exhibition comprises over 200 works across video, photography, sculpture and performance from the last 25 years of the artist’s practice. The show focuses on Walid Raad’s acclaimed two long-term projects The Atlas Group (1989–2004) and Scratching on Things I Could Disavow (2007–ongoing), highlighting the importance of performance, narrative and storytelling in his oeuvre.
Documenting the real and the imagined
Walid Raad’s work is an exploration into the veracity of video and photographic documents available in the public sphere. The artist further expands into the realm of memory and narrative, and their role within discourses of conflict and the construction of histories of art in the Arab world. His oeuvre is informed by his upbringing in Lebanon. Raad was born 1967 in Chbanieh and grew up in a country torn by civil war (1975-1991). In 1983, he left Beirut for the United States, where he attended high school and then studied photography and Middle Eastern studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). He later received his PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies from the University of Rochester.
Based in New York, Raad frequently travels to Lebanon, where he is deeply involved in the art scene. His work is therefore not only influenced by his childhood experience in the country, but is also deeply inspired by the socio-political, economic and military policies that have shaped the Middle East in the past few decades.
The works in the exhibition are presented in the form of an archive and a curatorial project, giving the impression of visiting a museum within a museum. The artist has also been ‘perfoming’ as a museum guide, giving walkthroughs to visitors for the length of the exhibition, about four times a week, and providing audiences with the opportunity to be guided through the show and given valuable readings and information on the works on display. At the same time, Raad has also performed a series of lectures with the same intent – to shed light on the findings presented in his works.
Raad’s projects on show at MoMA blur the distinctions between reality and fiction to explore the contemporary history of Lebanon and by extension, that of the Middle Eastern region. The artist also investigates the recent emergence of new art infrastructure in the Arab world in the form of galleries, art fairs, museums and biennials, viewed alongside the ongoing geopolitical, economic and military conflicts that plague the region.
An encounter with Walid Raad’s work can be a profoundly moving experience, shaking the very foundations of what we believe to be true. For Raad, the opposition between fiction and nonfiction does not apply. Fact in his work incorporates fantasy and imagination while fiction is grounded in real events, dates, and statistics. Raad’s career thus far has had two main chapters, The Atlas Group (1989–2004) and Scratching on things I could disavow (2007– ); both are large bodies of work that tell a complex composite truth stretching beyond historical fact, and both rely on storytelling and performance to activate imaginary narratives. In both cases, parsing fact from fiction is beside the point.
The Atlas Group: archiving history and imagination
The Atlas Group (1989–2004) was an organisation established in 1989 in Beirut, to research, study, preserve and produce audio, visual, literary and other documentation that shed light on Lebanon’s history. The organisation is of course a fictional institution, like the sources to which it attributes its collected documents. One such influential source is represented by the figure of Dr Fadl Fakhouri, of whom a collection of photographs are on show at MoMA, alongside some of the documents attributed to him, including Notebook volume 72: Missing Lebanese wars, Notebook volume 38: Already been in a lake of fire (1991-2003), and Miraculous beginnings/No, illness is neither here nor there (1993-2003).
Although the historical person is visible in the images, his existence is in fact a fabrication. New York-based art writer Orit Gat wrote in his exhibition review in Randian:
Much attention has been given to the tension between truth and fiction in “The Atlas Group” when, in fact, fiction is a method. The result is a selection of documents narrating a history so painful and bloody it is almost impossible to grasp. They rely on the documentary tradition in order to recount what is essentially the experience of the place; that this is presented as the personal experiences of nonexistent people only makes it seem more universal because nothing about these stories reads as untrue—except the fact that they are.
Raad plays on the imaginative capabilities of the human mind to create alternative histories that run parallel to the official narratives. All of Raad’s works are accompanied by wall texts that are written in the first person voice or in the guise of an imaginary character. At times the works are further illustrated by frequent lectures and performances, such as the walkthroughs. All these devices are “literary acts” expressed through performance monologue or wall-text narrative, as Respini explains, that play on “our need to believe in official narratives”. In one of such texts, Raad writes:
Until his death, in 1993, Dr. Fadl Fakhouri was the most renowned historian of Lebanon. The only available photographs of Dr. Fakhouri consist of twenty-four black- and-white self-portraits that were found in a small brown envelope titled Civilizationally, we do not dig holes to bury ourselves. The historian produced the photographs in 1958 and 1959 during his one and only trip outside of Lebanon, to Paris and Rome.
Raad imagines and re-creates the stories behind his collected documents; however, the photographs, texts and videos are all borrowed from original sources such as newspapers, or from Raad’s own street photography. Raad transforms them into what he calls “hysterical documents” once he re-presents them in newly invented narratives.
The Atlas Group took pride in undertaking exhaustive tasks such as documenting the location of every car bomb that was detonated during the Lebanese civil war, as in My Neck is Thinner Than a Hair: Engines (1996–2001).
Let’s Be Honest, the Weather Helped (1998-2006) is made up of images of notebook pages featuring Raad’s black-and-white photographs of Beirut during and after the civil war. The torn and pockmarked buildings display overlaid disks of different sizes and colours, which represent a map of bullets and shrapnel that Raad collected after bombings and battles when he was a child in Beirut. In the catalogue, he is quoted as saying:
Like many around me in Beirut in the late 1970s, I collected bullets and shrapnel. I would run out to the streets after a night or day of shelling to remove them from walls, cars and trees. I kept detailed notes of where I found every bullet and photographed the sites of my findings, covering the holes with dots that corresponded to the bullet’s diameter and the mesmerizing hues I found on bullets’ tips. It took me ten years to realize that ammunition manufacturers follow distinct color codes to mark and identify their cartridges and shells.
The images become more than a sterile document; they take on a poetic element, which adds a more personal and intimate point of view to the archive.
The documents in Hostage: The Bachar tapes (English version) (2001) are attributed to another fictional figure, Lebanese national Souheil Bachar, who was held hostage by the Islamic Jihad group in Lebanon in the 1980s and early 1990s alongside five Americans – Terry Anderson, Thomas Sutherland, Benjamin Weir, Lawrence Martin Jenco and David Jacobsen. In 2000, Souheil collaborated with The Atlas Group to produce 53 videotapes about his captivity, of which only Tapes #17 and #31 are made available outside of Lebanon. In the tapes, Bachar addresses the cultural, textual and sexual aspects of his detention with the Americans.
We Are a Fair People. We Never Speak Well of One Another (1994/2013) is a collage of a series of photographs originally taken by one of Raad’s relatives during his travels in the Lebanese and Syrian countryside before the civil war in Lebanon, with found black-and-white newspaper pictures of military leaders assassinated during the war. Although Raad’s work in The Atlas Group project rarely contains violent images, as the press release explains, this particular work explores the importance of investigating “the ways in which violence and its image affect our reading and understanding of historical and current affairs, particularly in the Middle East”.
Eva Respini writes that “The Atlas Group takes part in a fertile discourse around the status of the archive,” at a time when the digital age offers infinite opportunities for manipulation and fabrication of information:
Raad’s work and that of his contemporaries reflect the new realities of the post-Internet age: the easy access to information (if often dubious or unreliable information), the ubiquity of photographic images, the blurring of the distinction between amateur and professional image-makers, and the widespread understanding that any image can be manipulated to support any narrative.
Scratching on things I could disavow
Raad began his project Scratching on Things I Could Disavow in 2007, creating several individual series within this larger body, which taken together present “an examination of how art history is being forged within the new infrastructures for art in the Arab world”. These, as Respini points out, are represented by projects such as Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, which will house world-class museums, including branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim, designed by international architects Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid and Tadao Ando. Raad also explores the proliferation of new museums, biennials, and galleries in Beirut, Doha, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Sharjah.
This more recent project takes a more poetic – or “digressive” – approach than the more formal, archival one of The Atlas Group. Respini explains in her essay:
The methodologies of The Atlas Group, systematic, serial, and repetitive, are supplanted by more subjective relationships. None of the works are presented in grids, as they are in The Atlas Group; the works are all different sizes and no two structures are the same. If in The Atlas Group Raad appropriated the authority of the archive to probe how history is written, read, and remembered, his new line of inquiry uses the conventions of the museum display and the authority of the curatorial voice to introduce a performative space for art.
Like in The Atlas Group lectures, Raad performs the Scratching on things I could disavow: Walkthrough to unlock the meanings behind the artworks. As Raad explains, as quoted in the catalogue, Walkthrough
chronicles some of the encounters that drove me to engage with the history of art in the “Arab world” in the first place: an invitation to join the Dubai branch of the Artist Pension Trust; the development of Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi; the opening of the Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut, and the subsequent shrinking of my works; my “communication” with artists from the future; artworks that have lost their reflections and shadows; and the effects of the wars in Lebanon on colors, lines, and forms.
The walk starts with the video installation Translator’s Introduction: Pension Arts in Dubai (2012), which gives an overview of complex structure of the Artist Pension Trust (APT), a real, private organisation founded in 2004 by “a savvy entrepreneur and a risk-management guru” that represents a significant shift in the ways of collecting art and in the speculative practices of the art market. The installation also features a digitally animated chart that recalls the famous chart of the development of modern art published in 1936 by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of MoMA.
Raad skillfully transforms from an investigative journalist or conspiracy theorist, to a theatre director and actor, turning off the lights in one area of the gallery and on in another by tapping his mobile phone, as if a new act was starting on stage. In one section of the exhibition space, Section 88: Views From Outer to Inner Compartments, a video and a sculptural installation features a set of doorways fashioned from wood and mimicking the architectural style of Western museums of the 19th century, within which a theatrical lighting casts prominent shadows.
In the second part of this body of work, Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: Les Louvres, Raad delves into his two-year-long exploration of and research into the Louvre’s newly established Département des Arts de l’Islam (Islamic Art Department), its archives and new exhibition spaces. This part was also inspired by the emergence of a new Louvre in Abu Dhabi.
Art in the contemporary Middle East
Raad’s imaginary narratives, says Respini, “must be understood within and as a response” to the contemporary political, economic and military structures of the Middle East. The Lebanese Civil War functioned as “an ever present abstraction” in the documents of The Atlas Group, while Scratching on things I could disavow looks at the historical and new geopolitical realities within which Arab art is constructed. Eva Respini concludes in her catalogue essay:
Raad’s art […] is liberated from fixed historical chronologies, whether the telling of war or the chronology of art. Not just an escape, this disruption offers an alternate vision of how we might understand and remember history. For Raad, the relationship between past and present, personal and public, truth and fiction, are blurred: “The story one tells oneself and that captures one’s attention and belief may have nothing to do with what happened in the past, but that’s the story that seems to matter in the present and for the future.” The optical mysteries, literary digressions, and imaginary dimensions of Raad’s art resound well after we encounter them. Through his photographs, videos, and sculptures, he creates compelling scenarios in which we are invited to inhabit the universe that they occupy.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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