Lebanese artist Walid Raad (b. 1967), who has in the past used the pseudonym The Atlas Group, mixes mediums and combines facts with fabrication in work that often addresses Lebanon’s civil wars and presents something of a nightmare for the earnest fact-checker. His latest show, “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World/Part I_Volume 1_Chapter 1 (Beirut: 1992-2005),” included sculptures, works on paper and a painting (all but one 2009). According to the press release, the works “proceed from” the growing number of Middle Eastern art institutions, festivals, biennials and the like, though the theme is addressed, at most, indirectly. Many of the pieces are accompanied—or, better, partly constituted—by wall texts that venture into absurd comedy and science fiction, as though, satisfied that his earlier works sufficiently degraded the distinction between truth and fantasy, Raad could now freely engage the latter.
A 9-foot-long model of a gallery, Part I_Chapter 1_Section 139: The Atlas Group (1989-2004), 1989-2004, holds miniature versions of Raad’s past works, complete with a tiny hidden speaker for a video. It evokes a comically unwieldy version of Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise. Wall text asserts that Sfeir-Semler Gallery of Beirut repeatedly invited a reluctant Raad to exhibit, and that when he relented in 2008 he found, on visiting the venue, that his works had shrunk. Folded into the farce are concerns about the mutability of an artwork’s meaning according to its audience and context.
The mixed-medium Index XXVI: Artists is described in wall text as growing from Raad’s study of artists working in Lebanon over the past century. In two long horizontal lines on the white wall, white vinyl letters in English and Arabic spell out a run-in series of names. One might imagine this nearly illegible text to be a comment on Arab artists’ (in)visibility and identity, until one reads on. “In 2002,” continues the text, “artists from the future sent me these names by way of telepathy and/or thought insertion and/or using a future technology.” One name, that of Johnny Tahan, was misspelled in an earlier exhibition of the work, the text relates; beneath the list of artists’ names, a group of inkjet prints reproduces ostensibly archival material relating to Tahan’s career. A viewer corrected the misspelling on the wall in red, the text explains, and it was the color red that those future artists were calling attention to, because in their time, “this color has withdrawn even while extant.” Similarly, the text accompanying Appendix XVIII: Plates explains that in addition to the trauma visited upon people, “the wars of the last three decades . . . affected colors, lines, shapes and forms.” Some were destroyed. Others disguised themselves as “fonts, covers . . . budgets and price lists” and so on in a Borgesian litany. While in the past Raad found absurd humor in the documentation of war, in these recent works he conceives of powerful new metaphors for brutality’s unimaginable effects.
Photo: Walid Raad: Part I_Chapter 1_Section 139: The Atlas Group (1989-2004), 1989-2004, inkjet prints, 4 LCD screens and mixed mediums, 121⁄2 by 1103⁄8 by 41 inches; at Paula Cooper.