Walid Raad’s exhibition at MOMA is unsettling, subversive and highly sophisticated. Toying with audience expectations, the Lebanese visual artist who was born in 1967 and lives in New York City, uses the wretched history of his war-torn country as his subject of choice. Steer clear of this impressive show however if you are expecting, like often for the Middle East, raw photojournalism, first-hand accounts from victims and reportage, complacent political correctness or an overall exoticizing of the war experience in the Levant.
Raad is far too shrewd to settle for the glib pitfalls of art with an agenda, artworks as political avatars who seek to activate straightforward outrage. He grapples with his subject obliquely, filtering his vision through a deadpan sense of humor. His art is an alteration of the real, rather than its conveyance at face value, mimesis subsumed rather than merely bestowed to an audience.
Like Alice through the rabbit hole, the viewer soon realizes she has stepped into an idiosyncratic reality, where things fall short of traditional ways. Take for instance the first multi-media montages on display: These are photographic enlargements of scaffolding with fragments of sculpted objects, interspersed with Raad’s cryptic drawings (white pages with a few sibylline words) whose goal is to point at an elusive meaning ever failing to materialize. The caption-which we take as curator’s explanations- tell the story of “Islamic” (sic) objects shipped from the Abu Dhabi museum on Saadiyat Island to the Louvre in Paris. We learn they underwent a peculiar transformation upon transportation –“it looks like they were discolored or revealed an older paint when they got there”-, and zany explanations involving art experts from both the French and the Arab side and the theories they proposed follow, much to our bewilderment.
Raad is a master at instilling doubt in the mind of the viewer as to the veracity of his narrative, relentlessly piling on clues to further mystify us, while citing the work of “the Atlas Group”, an organization handling data about the Middle East. Moving deeper into this unconventional exhibition, we realize the Atlas Group functions as what is known in literature as “a reality effect”-an object considered true in reality whose mention warrants the authenticity of the narrative. It becomes clearer however that the Atlas Group is a falsification concocted by Raad, as are the captions (allegedly the museum’s, but actually Raad’s fabrications) supporting each art piece throughout the exhibit.
Though ubiquitous in the rest of the exhibit, the subject of the war is touched upon tangentially, as if to deflate its emotional charge. Take for instance a series on photographs of car engines-all of which remained intact after car bombings. Or another display of six enlarged photographs of bombing devices, which Raad succeeds in making esthetically alluring despite their sinister properties. Or yet another series of photographs of the bombardment of Beyrouth by Israeli planes, black and white prints with unlikely splashes of pink, turquoise, and powder blue in their midst, eerily reminiscent of Monet or Turner, as though the mud of war suddenly turned into gold. Raad does not spare either his irony or dark sense of humor: In that same series too, Israeli soldiers are seen relaxing next to war tanks, in a quasi bucolic, even idyllic scene. In another montage, figures from the Lebanese political scene are grafted into a horticultural display of plants, rare species of sorts with their erudite Latin names.
Many may find irritating, even offensive Raad’s use of parody on a subject as serious as the war, or his deliberate mystification of the viewer. To what effect is he confounding us?
The first montage discussed above may be for instance a critique of the carelessness and neglect often witnessed in public institutions in the Arab world-Waad was banned from entering the United Arab Emirates for criticizing work conditions at Saadiyat Island’s Abu Dhabi museum-, and his work, as the MOMA website proposes in somewhat imprecise fashion, may be “dedicated to exploring the veracity of photographs and video documents in the public realm, the role of memory within discourses of conflict, and the construction of histories of art in the Arab world.”
Because simplistic explanations are to Art as pointless as biographical keys are to literature, Raad’s puzzles thwart reductive narratives of victors and victims. His inventiveness brings to mind the verve and vitality of Jorge Luis Borges whose literary hoaxes famously disoriented the reader.
Another conspicuous influence is the German writer W.G. Sebald also concerned with the memory of disaster, and how to tackle it through labyrinthine fabrications. In his novel Austerlitz, his often monotonous, even anonymous prose speaks about the Kindertransport of Jewish children to England during World War II with detached coolness, but to higher effect than prim sentimentality, logorrhea or pathos. Tellingly, Sebald inserted drawings within his writing as a means of creating a prose distanced from emotions, almost technical.
Raad’s back and forth between text and picture serves a similar purpose. And his playfulness and fictions are supreme barricades against his country’s calamitous history. For understatement and ellipsis are often our quintessential defenses against tragedy.