In retrospect: Tools to unlocking Walid Raad

Ibrahim Kombarji
Staff Writer

It is a rather interesting exercise to solely look at the latest exhibition of an artist “in retrospect” of his earlier work. How does this new work add up to his oeuvre, or does it not? Can an artist like Walid Raad, permanently hidden under different identities such as “Maha Trabulsi” or “Fadl Fakhouri”, constitute a plurality of oeuvres, readings, and practices? Here follow tools to read one of Raad’s earlier works and as such, permit the visitor to perhaps read his new exhibition “Better Be Watching The Clouds” at the Sfeir Semler Gallery in Beirut “In Retrospect”.

The Atlas Group project initiated by Raad is an imaginary archival center that aims to identify and preserve visual archives, sound, and real or fictional literature that is attributed to historical or fictional characters. It also queries the documentation process itself and the way history is transmitted, processed, and manipulated. It also intends to document the untreated aspects of the war and constitute a counter-memory, questioning the “collective amnesia” that characterizes the postwar period.

Raad gives photographs a special memory function as seen in “Secrets in the Open Sea”. This series of photographic prints produced in 2002 were “found buried under the rubble during the 1992 demolition of Beirut” according to The Atlas Group’s website. In 1996, a false French laboratory examination revealed the existence of underlying black and white portraits, and The Atlas Group were able to identify all the individuals depicted. It revealed that they had all been found dead in the Mediterranean between 1975 and 1991, hence the blue color. The question is not whether the documents used are found or made, real or fictitious, or if they serve as witnesses to events that actually occurred or not, but to demonstrate that our vision of history is fragmented, incomplete, and uncertain.

The historical narrative is and will always remain lacking and changing. It can mislead us and deliver a falsified reflection of reality. The Atlas Group have chosen to present these in the form of blue monochromatic photographs of monumental dimensions – 110 cm by 183 cm –  along with the small black and white photographs on the bottom right of the frame.  Is “Secrets in the Open Sea” a somewhat Pantone palette of blue, or perhaps a computer generated interpretation of Klein’s blue monochromes? Well, behind the seamlessly banal images, Raad drives you to think within a narrative. What are you looking at? How and from where are you gazing?

The power of The Atlas Group, an artwork that produces artwork, is showing you images in an unusual way. He explores the continual slippage that occurs between history and fiction in our memories. Fiction proves to be more useful to search the wounds, update buried traces of persistent conflict, and ultimately make history. The series has been showcased on both The Atlas Group’s archival website and in real-life museums and exhibitions.

The website experience takes you directly to an archival simulation with clean, frigid aesthetics that are coldly appealing. The artwork is accessible under “Type FD” in “The Secret Files”. This archival mise-en-scène is a reflection on truth and the way it is presented to the viewers; it is a construction of truth as a discourse that constructs the event.

One tries to zoom to better see the pixilated miniature, but the images stay blurry. This play with blur and the dominance of a single color hiding the photographs can be related to some of the works of Gerhard Richter such as “Dead” (1988) or “Self-portrait” (1996) that were showcased as part of his “Panorama Retrospective” at the Centre Pompidou. Tom McCarthy explains Richter’s blur snapshot -scenes as a “corruption of an image, an assault upon its clarity”. Raad uses similar techniques of “corruption”. He hints at the limits of conveying history through photography and allegorizes photographic temporality that is subsequently disfigured. Raad and Richter make the scene inaccessible to the viewer and that serves as a representation of memory and its degradation. Richter explained that he blurred to “make everything equal, everything equally important and equally unimportant”.

These “corrupted” artworks will strike the viewers as entirely abstract, but seamlessly contain a narrative. The conventional museum experience works within a whole. The spatial quality, the play on light, and the visitor’s movement have a simultaneous influence on the artwork and the way it is set for interpretation. In the formal qualities of the glass-framed monochromes, lies a hypnotic shimmer generated by the reflections of light, evoking the wave movement, and producing an overwhelming effect against the black and white photographs. The artwork shows juxtaposition between the clear blue surfaces and the original event.

In “Secrets in the Open Sea”, Raad seems to ask, “What is the color of the dead? Is there a way to visualize them?” He abstracts them into the colors of the sea they were killed in. This usage of blue might have different readings and interpretations as the visitor looks at the large odd-shaped panels in his latest exhibition. Raad interrogated here and there the environment in which an artifact is showcased, and the power of light reflection in a museum. Use these tools to unlock the rest of his recent exhibition.

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