Walid Raad @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibition including more than 200 photographs, sculptural objects, installations, and videos, displayed in the large second floor atrium and in the third floor special exhibitions galleries (and hallway). The exhibit was organized by Eva Respini (who has now moved on to the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston), with Katerina Stathopoulou.

Details of the works on view, including their processes and dates, are below:

Third floor special exhibits galleries and hallway

  • 1 set of 15 pigmented inkjet prints, 1958-1959/2003
  • 1 set of 12 pigmented inkjet prints, 1982/2006
  • 1 set of 12 pigmented inkjet prints, 1989/1998
  • 1 set of 9 pigmented inkjet prints, 1991/2003
  • 1 set of 6 pigmented inkjet prints, 1993/2002
  • 1 two-channel video (color, silent), 1:50, 1993/2003
  • 1 set of 5 pigmented inkjet prints, 1994/2004
  • 1 set of 8 pigmented inkjet prints, 1994/2013
  • 1 set of 24 pigmented inkjet prints, 1996-2001
  • 1 video (color, silent), 7:40, 1997/2002
  • 1 set of 10 pigmented inkjet prints, 1998/2006
  • 1 set of 12 pigmented inkjet prints, 2000/2015
  • 1 video (sound, color), 16:17, 2001
  • 1 set of 16 pigmented inkjet prints, 2004/2008
  • 1 set of 7 pigmented inkjet prints, 2012, 2013, 9 3-D printed plaster composite objects with paint, 2014-2015, 1 set of 7 pigmented inkjet prints, 2014, 3 vinyl wallpapers, 2014

Second floor atrium

  • 1 architectural model made from Plexiglas, high density foam, LCD panels, 4 iPads, digital photos, plastic, steel, MDF, with electrical supply and audio, 2008
  • 1 set of 51 pigmented inkjet prints, 2008-2012
  • 1 single channel HD video (color, silent), 14:36, 2010
  • 1 installation of pigmented inkjet prints, vinyl, spray paint, 2010
  • 1 installation of paper cutouts on wall with two channel video, 2012
  • 1 installation, wood, 2015
  • 1 set of 4 pigmented inkjet prints, 2012

A catalog of the exhibition has been published by the museum (here) and is available in the bookshop for $55. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: While walking through the galleries of this excellent retrospective of the work of Walid Raad, I was timidly approached by a teenage school girl. I’m often holding a notebook in my hands, and so perhaps I looked like someone who might know something. Her face was full of despair as she explained that she had been tasked with writing a paper about the Raad exhibit, and it was clear from her sad countenance that as she looked at the images and read the wall labels, she had fallen deep into the abyss of confusion Raad has deliberately dug for his audience. She really had no idea what was fact and what was fiction, and was just starting to realize just how richly complicated Raad’s work is. We gamely commiserated about how the general public must find this show entirely mystifying, but to be honest, I couldn’t offer her much in the way of help – our usual sense of photographic or archival reality is so playfully undermined again and again on these walls that it’s hard to find your footing, even if you are aware of the inversions taking place.

This retrospective is physically and conceptually divided into two halves, with Raad’s older projects exploring the history of Lebanon (particularly the civil war between 1975 and 1991) under the guise of The Atlas Group in one set of distant galleries, and his newer work delving into the art world on view in the museum’s central atrium. The result is an exhibit that feels like two distinct chapters (especially when the viewer has to walk the distance between the two parts), where a common mindset and artistic approach are applied (with divergent success) to different groups of subject matter.

Raad’s Atlas Group projects repeatedly test our inherent trust of archival materials and historical artifacts. His grid of tiny splotches of color entitled Oh God, he said, talking to a tree is a prime example. From afar, these photographs are illegible, but with your nose right to the frame, it becomes clear that each blob is an isolated fragment of imagery capturing billows of smoke and fire, some pixelated as if taken from screen grabs, almost like soft watercolors. But the wall label opens up a surprisingly unlikely backstory – these prints were “donated to the archive” by one Nahia Hassan, a senior topographer in the Lebanese Army whose job it was to track missile attacks. In her spare time, she painted small watercolors of the explosions she was tallying, which she then sent to officers and enlisted soldiers as thank-you gifts for their service. Many recipients found her images insensitive and turned them down, and the images on view here are purportedly the rejected ones. So what we have here is a fantastic story attached to a series of photographs, the plausibility of the tale just near enough to possible to make us think twice about what we are seeing. As cropped digital images of plumes of smoke, they are formally interesting but ultimately forgettable; as oddly beautiful recreations of devastation made by an Army administrator (even if they are fakes/fictions), they have a deeper and more unsettling resonance. And it is this kind of clever, not entirely impossible push and pull that makes nearly all of the Atlas Group projects thrum with something dissonant.

Part of the reason that this conceptual upending is so effective is that war and conflict are inherently confusing (and our detailed knowledge of Lebanese history as Americans is spotty at best), so when Raad twists alleged historical authenticities, his distortions aren’t immediately identifiable or even entirely unbelievable. He shows us long taxonomies of engines, purportedly blown far from their original locations by car bombs, the backs of the images filled with seemingly real photojournalistic stamps and scribbles. He shows us notebook pages apparently detailing specific makes and models of cars used in car bombs, with exhaustive statistics related to casualties, distances, and other metrics. And he offers us snapshots of grenades, bullets, and IEDs supposedly taken by a Lebanese Army ammunitions expert who couldn’t remember the names of the thousands of explosive devices she (or was it he given the fingers?) was assigned to use. In each case, the story is both almost fact and likely fiction; we want to trust in the truth of these visual stories, but Raad pulls the rug out from under us every time, leaving us still believing a bit, but also warily disoriented.

Several of the Atlas Group works go further into the realm of the surreal, to the point where the insertions and interventions are obvious but still haunting. Bucolic landscape photos are infested with tiny floating dead bodies like ghosts, botanical specimens have the heads of political and military figures nestled into their petals, bullet-ridden architecture is covered with Baldessari-like swarms of color-coded dots supposedly tracking ammunition manufacturers, and abstract plates of uniform blue purportedly hide images of men and women who were found dead or drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Even when Raad pushes past the limits of credibility and into the realm of sly farce, the works generally retain their sense of incisive power, like fables or allegorical lessons to be considered and remembered.

In recent years, Raad has pointed his unique brand of historically-aware archive-driven subversion at a new target – the world of contemporary art, particularly as it manifests itself in the new museums in the Arab world. But while his Atlas Group projects were rooted in investigative sense of trying to come to grips with history, these newer works fall into the realm of airless institutional critique, and to give his ideas more punch, his invented backstories have wandered farther into flights of fancy and science fiction. Colors, lines and shapes have gone “hiding”, artist’s names are sent back from the future using telepathy (and are misspelled along the way), reflections are missing from paintings (and are reinserted), and future museum galleries are flattened into an impenetrable wall. The best of these alternate realities can be found in the entry hallway to the third floor galleries, where ancient objects on loan to the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi are seemingly affected by the heat, becoming intermingled composites that are shown as mixed imagery and 3D-printed hybrids that cast shadows in two illusionistic directions at the same time (one painted on the wall and one actual, for those trying to puzzle these things out).

With all of this fantastic weirdness floating around, it feels hard to re-engage a version of reality in Raad’s wall-filling conspiracy-laden expose of the Middle East arm of the Artist Pension Trust. As the centerpiece of the atrium installation, it dives into a frenzy of data mining, connecting Internet comments, legal contracts, lists, shell companies, and Muslim leaders into an ever-shifting mass of entangled relationships. But throughout his retrospective, Raad has taught us to be suspicious of what we’re shown, so is this massive investigation a winking sham as well? It is impossible to know.

Raad is at his best when he is probing the baffling shape shifting mysteries of history, deconstructing the medium and the message at the same time, and doing so with creative flair. While plenty of contemporary photographers are exploring the edges of visual/optical uncertainty, Raad is down many levels deeper, twisting the knobs of conceptual doubt, skepticism, and hesitancy, and it is this treacherousness of ideas that gives his projects their very unique vitality. But I pity my new schoolgirl friend and her term paper – she could hardly have been tasked with a more slippery and shifty subject to try to untangle.

Collector’s POV: Walid Raad is represented by Paula Cooper Gallery in New York (here) and Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut/Hamburg (here). Raad’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices on those few lots ranging from roughly $4000 to $40000.

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