Thursday 21 October 2010

Traces of the future

Walid Raad: Miraculous Beginnings, Whitechapel Gallery, London

The abrupt end of the Lebanese ‘civil wars’ in 1990 was accompanied by a general sense of relief and an equal sense of dissatisfaction. Peace, when it came at last, was delivered by external agents through a complicated process of geo-political manoeuvring and horse-trading involving the US, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Although the ageing members of the Lebanese parliament, in office for two decades, had officially signed the accord that ended ‘the war’, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that they had no actual say in the terms of the agreement. The civil wars had ended with a question mark.

This aberration in historical punctuation provided the subject matter for many Lebanese artists and intellectuals after the war. Not so much in an attempt to answer any of the open-ended questions posed by the inexplicable end of the war, but as a supply of historical artefacts that provided a rich narrative source. Against the backdrop of the collapse of the grand narratives that dominated world history for decades, Lebanese art turned its attention to a much finer grain of narrative: the thousands of untold stories that formed the substance of the Lebanese wars.

Miraculous Beginnings is the first survey of the past twenty year’s work of one of the pioneers of this ‘genre’, Walid Raad. Raad, Associate Professor of Art at the Cooper Union in New York, is best known for his fifteen-year project The Atlas Group, which he carried out between 1989 and 2004. The Whitechapel Gallery exhibition combines The Atlas Group with Raad’s ongoing project titled Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Arab World. As such it records Raad’s exploration of Beirut’s current situation and the wider questions about art in the Middle East.

Walid Raad, ‘Civilizationally, we do not dig holes to bury ourselves’ (1958-59/2003) Courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London © The artist

Raad’s work is at its most powerful when experienced in one of his fascinating lectures, but this by no means diminishes the significance of the work on display at the Whitechapel. The lectures are delivered by a slightly anxious historian, in fact an autonomous persona cultivated over the years by Raad. The presence of the obsessive historian could be felt at the exhibition however: the scribbled notes at the margins of the paper, the meticulous indexing, and the recurrence of history-writing paraphernalia. Raad’s extensive archive of images and documents from the civil wars is obsessively pored over by the historian who reappears in different guises.

A decade or so ago, I sat at what seemed to be a rather tedious urban planning conference as one speaker after the other talked about post-war reconstruction in this or that city. Then Raad, whose work was hardly known at the time in Lebanon, took to the platform and presented his amazing findings: a series of monochrome blue photographs, the negatives for which were found under the rubble of war-ravaged Beirut. When developed, they revealed the images of anonymous men and women found dead in the Mediterranean. Unbelievably, his other findings were no less startling, as I am sure you will discover at the exhibition.

Walid Raad, ‘My neck is thinner than a hair: Engines (plate 1_2_85N)’ (2001/2003) Courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London © The artist

To say that Raad’s work occurs in the space between truth and fiction is a cliché that doesn’t give the work the merit it deserves. A far better way of describing it is that it explores the space between the latent and manifest aspects of Lebanese culture and history. With the end of the Atlas Group project, Raad seemed to have shifted his gaze from the past to the present. His panoramic portraits of vacant lots caught Beirut as it prepared to reinvent itself once again. This however was no tabula rasa, as the ghosts of the war-scarred buildings remind us.

Perhaps the unyielding nature of the city led Raad to abandon his speculation about the present situation of Beirut. In the final section of the exhibition, the historian turns oracle. Miraculously, this is facilitated by him developing telepathic powers to communicate with artists from the future. At this juncture however, it seems that the work takes an introspective turn. The absent tabula rasa reappears within the large frames, and suddenly we are invited to divine the traces of the future with Raad. Questions about the nature of art and the nature of Raad’s work come to the fore, albeit in a very subtle manner.

Raad seems to be concerned by the context in which his work is circulated. One the one hand, he seems to question the European audience that insisted his work be culturally representative. On the other, he seems to question the emerging art market in the Arabian Gulf states that demanded the work be seductive. In either case, self-revelation becomes less controlled and gradually slips from the artist’s control. Raad’s response seems to be driven by the need to resist such acts of cooption. I will leave you to judge whether he was successful, but I personally miss the anxious historian. His quirkiness had always offered a relief from the burden of representation.

Walid Raad, ‘Appendix XVIII: Plate 96.1_Untitled or a History of a Fair’ (2010) Courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London © The artist


14 October 2010 - 2 January 2011
Whitechapel Gallery
Galleries 1, 8 & 9


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