Walid Raad’s exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston offers an arresting visual narrative on two distinct yet related subjects—Lebanon’s Civil War from 1975 to 1991, and the burgeoning contemporary art scene in Arab countries.
Raad tells the first story through “The Atlas Group,” a fictional foundation through which he employs actual archival material, including photographs and documents, to address the 16-year civil war. It’s a stark, often sepia-tinged grouping, ingenuously arranged so that one need not know the history or even the Middle East in general to engage with it.
Raad’s autobiography—the artist was born in Beirut in 1967 and lived through the civil war as a young teenager—also permeates the material he collects. Though much of his visual art is fact-based, he notes that facts come in different categories. In the very helpful audio guide that accompanies the show, the artist explains that: “Some facts tend to be historical. Some facts are emotional. And some facts are aesthetic. An artwork is an interesting instance in which one may be able to maintain all these facts in their continuum and their complexity.”
Material for The Atlas Group exhibit is accompanied by captivating wall art that conveys evocative phrases. Two examples include images and documents displayed under the title “Let’s be honest, the weather helped.” On the audio recording, Raad asserts that the impact of bullets is as unpredictable as the weather. Weather, he says, “permits us to naturalize a historical condition.” A prime example is a description of 9/11, in which the weather is “the entryway” to talking about the violence of a day that began with a clear, blue sky. If we lead with the weather, posits the artist, “then we can easily talk about the historical, political and ideological causes that lead to 9/11.”
“I Might Die Before I Get a Rifle” is the most overtly autobiographical section of The Atlas Group collection. Raad’s memoir is embedded in photographs that once belonged to a former militia-man training to be a fictional munitions expert. After bullets were discharged and bombs detonated, the militia person’s training included closely studying them as technical devices. The photographs are blown up into detailed collages of colors, forms and shapes. From this perspective they lose their power as the killing mechanisms that they are. Raad recalls that as a teenager he was deeply affected by the sound of shells outside his window, and that he could distinguish between incoming and outgoing mortar rounds. “Swooping F16 planes,” he says in the audio, “are as scary as they are exciting. I was strangely thrilled by an incoming shell.”
“Scratching On Things I Could Disavow,” the second exhibit, takes Raad’s work into the world of contemporary Arab art. The exhibit is fluid, encompassing a variety of media that include photographs, video installations, sculpture and his trademark wall labels.
But at the heart of the exhibit, which Raad started in 2007 and is still adding to, is a dynamic one-man show that functions as an artist’s walkthrough and that he periodically performs in the exhibition space. Raad begins by telling his audience that no matter how many times he has performed his show, he is still nervous. That’s the first of many facts that the audience might question throughout his 55-minute performance. He paces in front of a wall covered with an elaborate diagram. The diagram, a piece of visual art, and in effect a silent performer, aids Raad in telling a convoluted story about an invitation he received to join a retirement pension fund for artists. A summary of the story won’t do justice to Raad’s intense storytelling, during which he is alternately nervous, hyper and earnest. It all comes to a crescendo as he recounts meeting an Israeli businessman, Moti, the brainchild behind the pension fund.
Deeper into his story, Raad provocatively flirts with stereotypes that brush up against anti-Semitic canards. But he stops short of crossing the line into virulent prejudice. For example, Raad is concerned that he is a Lebanese artist about to invest in a project with Israel’s military intelligence. Given that Israel and Lebanon are officially at war, “that could be asking for trouble,” he says solemnly. Raad makes that unequivocal point when he confronts Moti and the latter tells him, “Please don’t tell me you’re one of those naïve, left-wing, head-in-the-sand pontificators who actually think that the cultural, technological, financial and military sectors are not and have not always been intimately linked.”
Throughout the performance, which veers from the seemingly real to the blatantly absurd, the audience is compelled to ponder the larger question of what is fact and what is fiction in Raad’s alternating worlds. What is knowable within the context of the overarching Arab-Israeli conflict? Is art really art when it’s branded for the ultra-wealthy in Abu Dhabi? These are discomfiting, and perhaps unanswerable, questions, but Walid Raad asks them over and over through his art and his one-man show.
Walid Raad’s work is on exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston through May 30. Find more information on his walkthrough performances here.