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Walid Raad at the Whitechapel

November 25, 2010

Anne Blood explores Walid Raad’s approach to contemporary world history in his current retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery

How do you tell history? Is it through the collection of objects in a museum? Or through the journals and letters in an archive? At school we learn that it is best to base our telling of history on primary sources – on the photographs and the memories of those who were there. Yet in gathering and piecing together these memories into a story, one always finds that the history is incomplete. Dates and facts from letters and journals don’t align and we are forced to remember that all of the pieces we have gathered are each only a single point of view, framed and preserved to include only select facts, hiding more than they reveal.

This act of ‘telling history’ and gathering information – as well as its inevitable fallibility – is a continual theme found in Walid Raad’s work. One of the most important artists from the Middle East, Raad says his work in some ways was ‘made possible’ by the civil wars in Lebanon. The Atlas Group (1989–2004) is Walid Raad’s longest running project to date and the focal point of his first retrospective exhibition currently on view at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Rooted in his experiences as a teenager in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil Wars (1975–90), The Atlas Group is an ‘archive’ located in New York and Beirut (much of the archive is also accessible online http://www.theatlasgroup.org/) that is made up of artworks which Raad has presented as documents and which are often attributed to fictional as well as historical figures. As a whole, Raad’s project forms a complex narrative and visual history of modern Lebanon.

The retrospective at the Whitechapel begins with photography and videotapes by The Atlas Group, each of which is prefaced by a lengthy wall text that ‘captions’ the images that follow. The story behind each image is essential to Raad’s project. Rather than seeing photographs as impartial documents, Raad says that ‘a photograph can generate all sorts of facts: some military; other cultural; and yet others aesthetic’. Works such as Let’s be honest, the weather helped (1998/2006; pictured) supposedly documents Raad’s activities as a child in Beirut in the late 1970s when he used to collect bullets and shrapnel after a night or day of shelling. In the statement that accompanies this work, Raad explains that he kept detailed notes of where he found every bullet, photographing each site and then covering each of the bullet holes in the building with dots that correspond to the bullet’s diameter and the hues found of the bullet’s tip. The resulting images are curiously comical or even childish, as each black-and-white photograph is covered in an array of multi-coloured dots of various sizes. This play on childhood innocence, documentation and the trauma of war are all part of what makes Raad’s work so fascinating.

The exhibition continues upstairs with Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut) (1987– present; pictured above), presented here for the first time. Unlike many of the works from the The Atlas Group the photographs shown here reveal a lighter, more human side of Beirut. Here desolate, abandoned buildings are captured with the technical perfection reminiscent of the Bechers’ famous images of industrial sites in Germany, endowing each site with a sense of monumental grandeur, while a series of portraits display a role call of causal, confident citizens.

The exhibition then ends with Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World (2008 – present), which looks at the boom in contemporary art in the Middle East and how this affects artists working in the region. This most recent project explores the role of art fairs, biennials and institutions in the promotion and rise of contemporary art in the Middle East, a phenomenon to which Raad is undeniably linked both as artist and as a bystander. The question of where one can or should position oneself in relation to this work and its self-referential critique is further problematised by simply displaying Scratching within a museum setting. Thought-provoking and complex, Raad’s retrospective is must see and is well worth a wander to the Whitechapel.

Walid Raad: Miraculous Beginnings runs until 2nd January 2011 at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.

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