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In his first comprehensive American survey, held at MoMA, New York, Walid Raad’s immensely convincing role of artist as impostor confronts, head on, challenging issues of truth, historicity, and colonialism. Raad was born in 1967 and raised in Lebanon during the civil war of 1975 to 1990. This exhibition includes his two extensive projects, The Atlas Group (1989–2004), and Scratching on the Things I Could Disavow (2007–ongoing), which embrace and deny events, documents, notebooks, videos and archival material from the war, through the artist’s process of blending fact and fiction, truth and illusion, history and imagination.
Before one enters the third floor special exhibition space that presents objects from The Atlas Group, one encounters images and text from Scratching on the Things I Could Disavow: Les Louvres, which serves as a precursor to Raad’s methodology. It is about artifacts ostensibly shipped from the Islamic collection at the Louvre in Paris to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. From the detailed photographs and subject matter, it is made evident that the objects that arrived in the packages to Abu Dhabi did not resemble their original appearance in Paris. Due to the weather in the desert, two relics in the same crate ‘had traded skins with each other’, making them unrecognisable. Their origins were only apparent in the laboratory under intense scrutiny.
Similarly, in Raad’s fictitious Atlas collective, comprising material gathered from various sources, nothing is what it appears to be. Although the project is informed by the deadly fifteen-year combat that involved the Sunnis, Shias, Maronite Christians, and armed forces from Palestine, Israel, Syria, America, and France—the dubious information forces us to reappraise our perception of historical material. From the get go, Raad’s seamless complicity of fact and fiction problematises any sense of an ability to present history and truth in their entirety. Notebooks referred to as My neck is thinner than a hair, Engines (1996–2001), kept by the fake Dr. Fadl Fakhouri—deemed as the ‘the most reliable historian of Lebanon’—contain images of cars used for car bombs, with notes in Arabic about ‘date, place, time of explosion, number of casualties, perimeter of destruction, and engine make’. In a series of photographs attributed to Raad’s personal archive of 1998 titled, Let’s be honest the weather helped, history and imagination tell such a compelling tale that we are left to question the actual veracity of historical material. These are images that Raad professedly took as a child, of bullet ridden buildings, which he then filled with colorful dots referencing different kinds of ammunition, only to discover ten years later that bullets received by various countries supporting both sides of the war were also colour coded.
The artist’s tactic of deliberately eluding the truth through his fictionalised accounts and tongue-in-cheek titles, also raises important questions about the subjectivity of history. A sequence of photographs of hand grenades called I might die before I get a rifle (1989), credited to Hannah Mrad, who was apparently dismissed by the Lebanese Communist Party for being unable to memorise ‘thousands of explosive devices’, humorously gives potency to the idea that history is comprised of highly individualised accounts. This question becomes more significant through Raad’s inkjet prints. In Oh God he said, talking to a tree, (2004–08), miniature images of plumes of smoke, which were gleaned from explosions, appear in the middle of a sequence of seemingly blank sheets, and are only visible on close examination. From all these works alluding to specific incidents and subjective narratives, perhaps one can infer that history, often willfully extracted and reduced like the tiny clouds in the prints, is inevitably open to multiple skewed interpretations.
Additionally, Raad examines subtle nuances about the colonial representation of Lebanon. In the photographs from We are a fair people. We never speak well of one another (1994), aerial pictures of the Lebanese landscape, that used to be referred to as the Switzerland of the Middle East for its panoramic vistas before the civil war, are strewn with ruins. Paper cutouts of dead bodies impair lush scenery. The photographer, who is supposedly haunted by these images, suggests the difficulty of erasing colonial stereotypes of Lebanon as a fallen, fetid territory. Similarly, Dr. Fadl Fakhouri’s photographs, Civilizationally we do not dig holes to bury ourselves (1958–59/2003), capturing his lack of interest in his surroundings during his travels to Paris and Rome, broach the subject of recounting a Lebanese history uncompromised by colonial historicism.
The notion of identity, and the recent spate of exhibitions and biennials focused on art from the Middle East, led to Raad’s project Scratching on the Things I Could Disavow (2007), about the artistic history of the region. Here too spuriously engaging tales of telepathic communications with artists from ancient times, and a display of monochromatic paintings, probe the long-term effects of war, death, trauma and displacement. In Appendix XVIII: Plates 22–257 (2008–14), one of the artists, who painted with shades of red for many years, loses complete sensation of the colour. Her mind ‘deployed defensive measures’, as had the other concocted characters from The Atlas Group, whose selective archival materials and memories presented only certain aspects of history. Strain and shock had addled her brain. History and truth for yet another one of Raad’s fictional personalities is manifested sparingly, through her invented world of ‘colors, lines, shapes, and forms…(that) sensing the forthcoming danger…hide, take refuge, hibernate, camouflage and/or are dissimulated’.
The Atlas Group/Walid Raad, Let's be honest, the weather helped Saudi Arabia, 1998/2006. Pigmented inkjet print, 46.8 x 72.4cm. Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2007. © 2015 Walid Raad.
The Atlas Group/Walid Raad, Civilizationally, we do not dig holes to bury ourselves Plate 922, 1958-59/2003. Pigmented inkjet print, 25.4 x 20.3cm. Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. © 2015 Walid Raad.
Walid Raad, Scratching on things I could disavow: Walkthrough, 2015. Part of Walid Raad, The Museum of Modern Art, 12 October 2015 - 31 January 2016. © 2015 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph Julieta Cervantes.