Artist interview, Walid Raad: a mediator between worlds
The artist challenges historical narratives in his Islamic-inspired show at the Louvre this month
By Louisa Buck. Features, Issue 242, January 2013
Published online: 15 January 2013
The art of Walid Raad uses the language and procedures of museums and academia—the archive, the slide show, the PowerPoint presentation, the wall-mounted information panel, the documentary photograph—to exude an air of informative authority. In his illustrated lectures and his multimedia installations this month at the Louvre, and, among other places, at the 2002 Whitney Biennial, the 2003 Venice Biennale, Documentas 11 and 13 and London’s Whitechapel Gallery, the 45-year-old artist comes across as a scholarly researcher-historian, examining the recent history of his native Lebanon and, over the past five years, the forging of art history in the context of the new art institutions proliferating in the Arab world.
In his latest project, Raad, who divides his time between Beirut and New York, where he is associate professor of art at the Cooper Union, continues to assume the role of a documenter and assembler of information and artefacts. “Walid Raad: Preface to the First Edition”, his new show in the Louvre’s Salle de la Maquette (19 January-8 April), consists of a video, a sculptural installation and a publication. They each take as their starting point the museum’s new department of Islamic art and its collection of 18,000 objects, some of which are destined to be loaned to the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi.
“These works are part of a larger, ongoing project that proceeds from the acceleration in the building of this new infrastructure for the arts in the Gulf, particularly in Abu Dhabi and Qatar,” Raad says, speaking on the telephone from his studio in New York. “I don’t know that much about Islamic art. All this is very new to me, but some of these objects I see in the display in the Louvre and at the Met—their lines, their forms and their colours—have been very productive for me. I saw the opening for a new kind of concept, a new creative act.”
This new concept manifests itself in Raad’s video, which features 28 Islamic artefacts from the Louvre that have been earmarked for its Jean Nouvel-designed sister museum on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. The video revolves around Raad’s notion that, “when these objects travel overseas, they will change in ways that are more insidious than the curators, conservators or museum directors could have predicted”. It is the story of these altered objects—how they have changed and why—that comprises Raad’s documentary film and the accompanying book, Preface to the Third Edition. “One person will be convinced that the objects themselves have changed and that change will only appear in certain photographs that this person will make,” he says.
These shape-shifting artefacts make up just one among many peculiar narratives that, for more than a decade, have run through Raad’s seemingly sober archival displays. For while the overarching political events and circumstances that shape and inform Raad’s work are very real, the narratives and episodes he recounts in his photographs, videos and wall displays are predominantly his own.
“I use the conventions of display or the modes of address associated with an authoritative curatorial voice not so much to destabilise as to delay a challenge and to open a space to perform another kind of narrative,” he says. “I choose to lean on and play with these modes at the same time.”
Walid Raad was born in Chbanieh in Lebanon in 1967 and raised in predominantly Christian East Beirut. After the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, he fled the country in 1983 for the US, first to study medicine at Boston University before transferring to the Rochester Institute of Technology to study photography. He then went on to the University of Rochester, where he earned a doctorate in visual and cultural studies. Although Raad does not elaborate on his ethnic or religious origins, or take a political position, in his writings, lectures or interviews, his personal experiences of growing up in a war-torn city have fed directly into his work. “You have to become expert in things you never thought you needed,” he says, remembering how, when he arrived in America, “I found myself moving to the other side of the street every time I encountered a white Mercedes-Benz in the corner of my eye… and trying to avoid glass façades.”
Between 1999 and 2004, Raad exhibited his work under the aegis of the anonymous-sounding Atlas Group, which described itself as a team of researchers whose aim was “to research and document the contemporary history of Lebanon, with particular emphasis on the wars of 1975-90”. So convincing was this archive of assembled documents and testimonials—from such characters as Dr Faol Fakhouri, “foremost historian of the Lebanese civil wars”, whose 226 notebooks included cut-out photographs of cars corresponding to the make, model and colour of every vehicle used as a car bomb during the war years; or the hostage Souheil Bachar, whose video account of being held captive by a Lebanese militia was shown at Documenta 11—that despite Raad making no secret of the fact that the Atlas Group was a fictitious foundation, it was hard for many viewers to believe that its output was created by one man.
The fictions of history
In its meticulous archiving and presentation of such bafflingly bizarre material as the footage shot by Operator #17, a Lebanese army intelligence officer who, instead of monitoring Beirut’s seaside Corniche every day, “decided to videotape the sunset instead”, or the little-known “avid gambling” by major historians of the Lebanese wars, who bet not on the horses at Beirut’s race track but on their distance in newspaper photographs from the finishing line, the Atlas Group subversively—and often very wittily—questioned notions of truth, authority and documentation and the veracity of so-called historical accounts. “It is important for us to note that the truth of the documents we research/ collect does not depend for us on their factual accuracy,” declared Raad in an interview in 2002. “One of the questions we find ourselves asking is, ‘how do we approach facts not in their crude facticity but through the complicated mediations by which they acquire their immediacy?’ Traditional history is written as a chronology of events or a biography of participants. We are not saying history should not include this; we are certainly saying history cannot be reduced to this.”
Ten years on, Walid Raad is still preoccupied by “complicated mediations” and the “other kinds of narrative” that emanate from them. But now the main focus of his attention has extended beyond the specific situation in Lebanon to the formation of a history of art in today’s Arab world. Although he admits that he will still “attribute a document to the Atlas Group if it shares the logic of violence and trauma that the Atlas Group was operating under”, he has, since 2007, been involved in an ongoing project entitled Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: a History of Art in the Arab World. The Preface to the Third Edition at the Louvre is its latest strand.
This new line of enquiry both draws on and departs from the work of the Atlas Group. It still plays with, and off, fact and fiction but is underpinned more by absence and withdrawal. Physical infrastructures may be springing up to house today’s Arab culture, but, according to this incisive new body of work, the art itself is perhaps more elusive. Whereas Raad describes the Atlas Group’s artefacts as “hysterical documents… based on fantasies erected from the material of collective memories”, in the various manifestations of Scratching, which had its first extensive airing at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna, in 2011, and at Documenta 13 last summer, he shifts his attention from issues of truth and falsehood to more profound and complex explorations around fellow Lebanese author and film-maker Jalal Toufic’s theory of “surpassing disasters”—calamities so great that their impact goes beyond destructive psychological and material outcomes to make the very stuff of culture withdraw and disappear and change form.
“I became sensitive to how a history of violence affects a work in more insidious ways than I ever thought,” Raad says, “and that one of the effects might be manifest in the fact that a work will shrink, or that it will act like the mirror in vampire films, revealing the withdrawal of what we think is still there.”
There is a provocative elusiveness to many of the works within Raad’s Scratching project. Take Index XXV1 ‘Artists’, 2010, a barely visible but official-looking list of Lebanese artists from the past century written in white vinyl letters on a white wall, which, according to Raad, were sent by “artists from the future… by way of telepathy and/or thought insertion and/or using a future technology”. Playful wit is spliced with serious concerns about a culture in long-term trauma and the works it produces, with Raad suggesting that “colours, lines, shapes and forms… deploy defensive measures, hide, take refuge, camouflage and dissimulate”, or, as he suggests in his video at the Louvre, historical artefacts can transform in transit.
Although he emphasises that it is “one consequential but small part of my interest”, another aspect of Raad’s engagement with the Arab world’s emerging new cultural infrastructure has taken a more direct form. As a member of GulfLabor, a group of international artists that also includes Hans Haacke, Sam Durant and Tania Bruguera, Raad has been instrumental in petitioning the director of the Guggenheim, Richard Armstrong, “to protect the rights of workers employed in the construction and maintenance of [the Guggenheim’s] new branch museum in Abu Dhabi”. In March last year, he was one of 130 art-world figures to sign up to a boycott of the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim “over the exploitation of foreign migrant workers building the museum on Saadiyat Island”.
At the time of writing, the Guggenheim boycott still stands, subject to GulfLabor’s scrutiny of a monitoring report by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Raad is diplomatically upbeat, declaring the PwC report to be “frankly surprising” in its transparency. “If the Gulf is interested in building the most progressive, the most fantastic infrastructure for the arts, then it must not just include the most amazing building, the most amazing works, curators and engineers, but also the most amazing and progressive laws on the basis of which these buildings are being built,” he says. “This is an extraordinary opportunity to do something that is unlike anything else—and we want to help them. The Guggenheim had a collection to build and was inviting us to participate, and when that dialogue started I felt, OK, I’m being given a voice here, and is it simply a voice in the sense of ‘which works do I want to sell?’ or is it ‘how do we build a fantastic infrastructure for the arts that is sensitive to the historical, aesthetic, formal, critical and labour issues’? And it seems as if the Guggenheim is interested in this conversation.”
In the final reckoning, Raad is committed to expressing his political, historical and theoretical concerns in a medium that is emphatically visual. “I’m working with line, colour, shape and form,” he says. “Whether it’s a war or this massive infrastructure, you confront an event like this emotionally, aesthetically, historically, conceptually, and you see an opening for a new form, a gesture that must do justice to the complexity of this experience. Physical universes are being built all the time. How do you build one that doesn’t collapse in a few seconds? That’s a challenge.”
Walid Raad: Preface to the First Edition, Louvre, Paris, 19 January-8 April
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