BEIRUT: Walid Raad’s second-ever solo exhibition in Beirut covers a wild range of incongruous subjects and disparate art forms.
Grouped into six different clusters of work, the show moves from an elaborate assassination plot to an improbable retirement fund, from high stakes finance to medical imaging technology, and from slowly dissolving film fragments to cutouts of miniaturized parquet museum floors and photographs that do little more than reflect back the gallery’s white walls and fluorescent lights.
Read the notably literary wall texts or listen to the highly performative audio guide, and one discovers everything from an artist on the verge of a nervous breakdown, crashing an exhibition opening in the not-too-distant future, to the strange case of lines, colors and shapes that run, hide, take refuge and camouflage themselves in the secondary sources of a region’s variously developed art scenes.
Dig around in the details, and one comes across a wealth of references to risk assessment, asset management, face recognition software, Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, Mossad agents and Hamas operatives in Dubai, aging autocrats and dead dictators and an attempt to patent the date Sept. 11 2001, just hours after the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York.
Four years have passed since Raad staged his last exhibition at the Sfeir-Semler Gallery. That show, titled “A History of Modern and Contemporary Arab Art: Part I_Chapter 1: Beirut (1992-2005),” came relatively late in the artist’s career but doubled as the debut of his second major project to date. The first project, known as “The Atlas Group,” was always going to be a tough act to follow. Named for a fictional foundation – and perhaps for a fantasy of collective effort and a dream of building institutions to last – the project made Raad a heavyweight conceptualist and a contemporary artist of note in the early 2000s.
The works generated under The Atlas Group’s name both emulated and explored the strange media forms of a conflict-addled age, such as hostage videos, surveillance footage and the dry, clinical photography used to document the evidence of crimes. Raad raised numerous questions about how histories are written, how images are used and how people – populations, communities or simply circles of friends – deal with the physical and psychological wreckage of disasters such as Lebanon’s seemingly endless cycle of civil wars and related strife.
For a long time, he was critically acclaimed outside of Lebanon but remained virtually unknown to all but a few co-conspirators in Beirut. The Atlas Group proposed an irresistible marriage of brutal political content – car bombs and kidnappings – and a deft, delicate handling of formalist concerns.
Eventually, local audiences began paying attention. Raad’s work had strong intellectual references, such as Sigmund Freud’s writings on hysteria and trauma and Jalal Toufic’s theory about culture in the aftermath of a catastrophe, but it also had the verve and style of film noir and detective fiction, featuring gambling historians and dashing photographs of a man posed before the world’s great monuments.
It was perhaps inevitable, then, that Raad’s second major project, “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow” – which has subsumed all of the work featured in “A History,” the 2008 show at Sfeir-Semler – was something of a let down. Dedicated to piecing together a history of art in the Arab world as seen through material such as gallery letterheads, exhibition catalogues, doctoral dissertations and brochures for mega-sized real estate development projects like Saadiyat, it was written off as apolitical, uninteresting and prone to market-friendly gestures – meaning there were many framable plates but not so many peerless performances.
That first exhibition at Sfeir-Semler was indeed a little sparse and a little rocky. It’s rewarding, then, to encounter the robustness of Raad’s second installment in what is sure to be a long and ongoing series – The Atlas Group, after all, went on for 15 years. The new show, which opened at Sfeir-Semler a few weeks ago and runs through March, proves how much richer and deeper, and also how much more playful and theatrical, the work has become since it was first aired in 2008.
The showstopper is a monumental multimedia mural, called “Translator’s Introduction: Pension Arts in Dubai” (2011). As the story goes, Raad was approached some years ago to join what sounded like a far-sighted retirement fund tailored specifically to the needs of artists, which tend to go unmet to the point of cliche. Curious about the proposal, Raad started asking around about the company and hit upon a web of intrigue that not only pulled in some of the brightest artists and curators in the region, but also hinted at deep involvement from the army and the high-tech industry in Israel.
Embedded in the piece are copies of newspaper clippings, a promotional video for a high-tech camera, caricatures, lists, missing links, connected dots, drawings of rulers and sheikhs and curators and a thousand lines of inquiry drawn in blinking lights. All of which poses two as-yet unanswered questions: Who is the translator and what is he or she introducing here?
Raad’s tendency to name all of the works in “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow” for the architecture of books (such as indexes, appendices, prefaces) has slowly given way to titles more closely related to theater. That might hint at the most important difference between this presentation of the project and the one in 2008.
Along the entire left side of the gallery is a maze of cutout moldings from museum galleries along with an enormous screen that gradually fades from views of one empty room to another. The space is darkened, which makes it feel simultaneously like a stage set and the high-art equivalent of a carnival fun house The work before was dry. Here, it pulls off a palpable sense of drama.
That said, the most remarkable thing about where the project has ended up may lie in what Raad is asking for, largely by inference, in the script of the audio guide, which is also the text of a related performance that the artist has done as both a walkthrough and a seated lecture. In describing his research into the Artists Pension Trust, Saadiyat Island or the history of modern art in Lebanon, Raad effectively outlines a series of ethical guidelines related to transparency and accountability in the field.
With mock wonder, the text imagines how the art world might function better, and, in doing so, makes a strong case for why art matters far beyond the confines of this and other closed communities. That argument is nothing if not political, and the manner in which it is expressed speaks to both the anxiety and the hope that sense can be made of meaningless violence, that corruption can be rooted out of even the most ruthless of business interests, and that riddles, in the end, can be solved.
Walid Raad’s “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow” remains on view at the Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Karantina through March 23. For more information, please visit www.sfeir-semler.com or call 01-566-550