“Miraculous Beginnings,” the title of Lebanese artist Walid Raad’s current solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery, East London, takes a Biblical tack while alluding to his country’s troublesome first years of existence, following its founding in 1926 and independence in 1942. The exhibition looks at the nature of collective memory in a young country that has never known a sustained time of peace. Organized as a timeline, the exhibition presents some of Raad’s work over the last 20 years, with a focus on projects completed through the Atlas Group, an imaginary thinktank he founded in 1989 to produce art that looked like research, focusing on the Lebanese civil wars (1975–1990/91), and the constant menace and normalization of violence.
WalidRaad, Let’s be honest, the weather helped (plate 011_Egypt) 1988/2006–7
Living and working between Beirut and the United States, Raad fabricates elaborate documentation: photographs, notes, and scrupulous research. Borrowing a journalistic and historically objective format, he mimics something he has in fact seen first hand, and he discusses the multi-layered task of creating in the context of a war. “The Atlas Group (1989–2004) considers the possibilities and limits of writing the history of the wars in Lebanon. It is as much about the writing of this history as it is about the history of the wars. Moreover, The Atlas Group (1989–2004) posited a distinction between lived and experienced events: certain situations may have been lived, but they have yet to be experienced,” says the artist.
My Neck is Thinner Than a Hair: Engines (2001–2003), created through Atlas Group, brings together in a grid 100 images of the aftermath of car bombings, that collected from amateur and professional reporters. With the strict constraints of a mugshot, the images underscore the organization of visualized violence. There, he traces a time-honored paradox of photography: the power to reveal and shock, and to inure.
“In my works, I proceed from and try to keep alive in their full complexity all sorts of facts: historical, social, political, critical, economic, technical, and aesthetic. I treat them as existing on a continuum. In my artworks, I relate to an ‘aesthetic fact’ in the same way that I would to a historical fact.” Raad commented, adding that, “In some works, it so happens that the ‘aesthetic facts’ and the social facts mix into a potent cocktail from which emerges a particular form, line, shape or color.”
With Let’s Be Honest, the Weather Helped (1998/2006), Raad creates a brutal, radical juxtaposition of reportage and fine art. Five photographs of bombs and bombed surfaces are overlaid with pop-art like colored dots, resembling children’s stickers, a playfulness contrasting and thus negating the violence, and adding them into notebooks along notes, drawings. The works take a skeptical approach to representation, contrasting the small impression-like dots with the geological trauma they are meant to depict. Raad subsequently found out that the munitions industry references bombs by colors not dissimilar to the ones used in the pieces.
“When viewing or making an artwork, I tend to be drawn primarily to how an artwork makes me think, experience and feel ‘aesthetic facts.’ It is in this sense that I regard my artworks as created first and foremost by an artist,” says Raad. Sweet Talks: Commissions (Beirut) (1987–), shown for the first time here, comprises a series of photo assignments Raad gave to himself to track changes of the streets of Beirut throughout the years. In a retro, Technicolor landscape, he creates everyday scenes of a city taken under a war, using the idiom of the 1950s postcards as a stand-in for the seductive power of images.