A fine line between memory and myth: Walid Raad with Bernard Khoury at the Sfeir Semler Gallery

Katharine Gordon
Contributing Writer

Getting lost in the work of Walid Raad happens to the best of us. Is it fiction or reality? Did the documented events really happen? And who are these figure involved? If you’re asking yourself these questions, keep asking. It’s part of the point.

When the Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Karantina opened in 2005, Walid Raad was one of the first Lebanese artists they chose to exhibit. According to gallery director Rana Nasser Eddin, Raad’s work strays away from more traditional mediums, presenting a “unique voice” to engage with Lebanese history. His last show at the gallery in 2012 left its mark as its organizers now sought to revisit his work and record its progress. Nasser Eddin reminded us that Raad is not addressing one audience in particular, “in the end he’s really addressing Middle Eastern issues.” Thus, his works find a certain pertinence in Beirut.

In his current solo show at Sfeir-Semler, Raad presents work that epitomizes his critical views on Lebanese and Middle Eastern history and politics. The show, “Better Be Watching the Clouds”, includes his fifteen-year long project, “The Atlas Group” (1989-2004), which examines the Lebanese wars from the mid-20th century until the present. Raad’s exploration into this past results in the creation of imaginary figures and institutions which he files into fictional archives of documents, events, and key actors.

The exhibition delves into, undermines, and toys with Middle Eastern issues, particularly in relation to the art world. With a tinge of sarcasm and dark humor, Raad exposes issues of the region through specific logical chronologies and conceptual frameworks that are of his own construction. More specifically, it speaks to a post-Lebanese Civil War mentality, and it addresses a certain trauma that arose from those events. Nasser Eddin stressed the relation between such trauma and artistic movements. “Those different traumatic shifts really affected the course of art history and art production,” she explained.

Raad captures this intention in his work “Better Be Watching the Clouds”, a striking series of modified images in which he has pasted the faces of various political and military leaders onto encyclopedic images of wildflowers. These flowers were used as code names during times of conflict, and thus the viewer is faced with the unsettling proposition that a corrupt political field is as natural as that of wildflowers.

In “Sweet Talk: Beirut (Commissions)”, another series of photographs, Raad compiles images of  the people, the buildings, the monuments, and the gardens of Beirut into collages which evoke the fabric of the city itself.

However, it is in the largest project in the gallery that we see the real juxtaposition of the imaginary and the real that characterizes Raad’s work.

“Scratching on Things I Could Disavow” has three components: “Preface to the ninth edition: On Marwan Kassab Bachi”, “Letters to the reader”, and “Les Louvres”. The project was launched in 2007 in response to the architectural boom of museums, galleries, and other art spaces in Abu Dhabi, Beirut, and Doha, among other cities. It examines the problems that arise when these spaces are faced with classifying and displaying “Arab art.”

All three deal with the ramifications of physically moving artworks, but they do so in a way that grants those objects personality. In “Letters to the reader” the artworks lose their shadows and consequently some fundamental part of themselves. In “Preface to the ninth edition: On Marwan Kassab Bachi”, the artworks are displayed on the backs of other works, attempting to hide but being exposed as Raad’s turns the canvases.

“Les Louvres”, is perhaps the most visually jarring. Transported from the Paris Louvre to the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, the works “decide” to exchange faces. They become meshed together. The outcome is a forest of cardboard structures on which these smaller assemblages are placed.

Forced out of their context, the objects morph and become something rather haunting yet still beautiful in their own right. In conjunction with this, one must not fail to see the video piece that Raad has done to accompany this work. Scenes of conservation workshops and photographs of politicians are juxtaposed with Raad’s “subtitles” which cleverly critique the financial and political motivations behind the work. You may laugh, but pay close attention. His humor thinly masks very real problems.

Amongst these works is a collaboration between Raad and Bernard Khoury, a Lebanese architect. “Preface” (2016-2026) presents their submission to the the Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon (APEAL) for the design of the Beirut Museum of Art (BeMA).

The model is a representation of the kind of “scorched earth” situation that mimics that of the Lebanese art scene after the civil war. Its spaces are transitionary and open. They are designed as spaces that anticipate the coming of new artists, ideas, and projects. This speaks to the kind of potentiality that features in many of Raad’s work. His fictional histories and figures have the potential to be quite real, yet they serve only to make the failings of reality apparent.

The exhibition opened on Thursday, August 31, and it will be on display until December 30, 2017.

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