Walid Raad @Paula Cooper

JTF (just the facts): A total of 3 photographic works and 1 video, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in the Large and Small gallery spaces and the entry area. The show includes:

  • 1 set of 14 archival inkjet prints, 1984, each sized 7×9 inches, in editions of 3+2AP
  • 1 set of 8 archival inkjet prints, 2019, each sized roughly 20×29 inches, in editions of 5+2AP
  • 1 set of 11 archival inkjet prints mounted on Sintra, 2018, each sized roughly 35×29 inches, in editions of 5+2AP
  • 1 single channel video, 2019, 3 minutes 51 seconds, in an edition of 5+2AP

(Installation, video still, text caption, and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: Visiting a show of the work of the Lebanese artist Walid Raad is nearly always a trip down a wrong-footed conceptual rabbit hole, where we think we know what is taking place, that is until we don’t. Exploring the cultural nuances and historical resonances of his native Beirut, Raad liberally employs sophisticated strategies of appropriation and recontextualization, using his own imagery and a range of found materials and texts as the basis for artistic projects that describe layers of “composite truth.” The lingering effects and echoes of war and violence simmer throughout his work, their invisible influence forcing us to reevaluate the many potential realities of what we are shown. But we are never quite sure what we can or should believe, particularly with regard to the descriptive texts that accompany the pictures, and so taking his work at face value is a good way to come away perplexed and confounded. It is only when we dig deeper to think about the traps he has set for us that we start to appreciate the intelligence and subtlety in his art.

The centerpiece of this show is an extremely wide video projection. Short clips of crumbling buildings being deliberately imploded have been mirrored into an array and then run back and forth in kaleidoscopic loops, the buildings falling in poofs of dust and smoke only to reverse and reform out of that miasma of demolition. The result is a progression of intricate patterning, that moves forward and then in reverse, the opposing forces of creation and destruction endlessly set against each other. It is a soundlessly mesmerizing spectacle, that turns the transformation into an abstraction.

But then the wall text resets our perspective – the videos document buildings demolished in the 1990s to make way for a reconstruction effort in Beirut and were purportedly taken by “irritated former tenants who had been ousted and/or bought-off to make room for the new downtown.” Now Raad’s visual extravaganza of knocking down and pulling up has a face and a cultural context with consequences. While it seems unlikely that these perfectly squared off blue sky views of demolition moments were actually taken by disgruntled residents at that time, Raad’s story has enough potential plausibility to get us thinking about the contrasts of evicted residents and a shining future city that never entirely arrived – and so Raad has successfully embedded layers of historical richness and complexity in his diverting geometric patterns.

A series of black and white cityscapes lines the back wall of the room where the video is being shown. The pictures document street level views of Beirut, filled with flanking buildings and apartment blocks, parked cars, and forgettable roadways. Raad’s wall text tells us that he found the images in a flea market in 1994, in a book by the “unsung Lebanese photographer, Ahmed Helou.” He also notes that the images have hand written inscriptions (mostly in Arabic, some climbing up drainpipes), which have been translated on the wall labels.

The image captions turn the dull, empty street views into stark scenes from vanished lives. One reads: “I walked back and forth on this street for hours when I turned 16, on June 15, 1983, hoping to avoid the thugs visiting my house to force-recruit me into the Christian militia.” Another tells us: “In 1976 or 77 and around the corner from this building, a militiaman teaches me how to fire an AK-47, launch a grenade, and graffiti anti-Palestinian slogans. I remember him laughing all the time.” Each place represents a turning point moment, where the politics of the country invade the everyday. Whether (or how much of) these backstories are fact or fiction is impossible to know (as well as who actually took the pictures or wrote the captions), and these layered uncertainties keep us wondering more deeply about the narratives and artifacts we are being shown.

A group of small storefront photographs offers a similar inversion. The pulled down security gates, plate glass windows, and squared off geometries of the facades look like images made by countless other urban photographers the world over. The text caption nearby delivers the punch – in 1984, Raad was ostensibly hired by his cousin (who was active in the local militia) to photograph the storefronts. It continues “Years later, I found out that the stores’ owners had refused to pay the “security fees” imposed on them by my cousin’s militia, leading to the owners being beaten or exiled, and their businesses confiscated.” Again, we are left in limbo, unsure of whether this is true or false or somewhere in the middle, the pictures now freighted with (and haunted by) a complicit history they may or may not actually document.

The works in the smaller side gallery push Raad further toward more winking fabrication. Painted scenes of soldiers provide the baseline for these flights of fancy – in each image, the soldiers have been filled in with abstract patterns and colors, turning them into brightly colored silhouettes. The caption reveals “Several Lebanese artists volunteered their services during the war years and created camouflage military fatigues for fighting militias.” And indeed, the checklist references the work of various real artists whose paintings have been appropriated and reworked by Raad. The caption goes on to credit one Farid Sarroukh for cataloguing the designs, calling him “a mediocre immodest painter who was irked at not having been asked to submit his own designs.” It’s all a joke, until it isn’t, or until we acknowledge the absurdity of both the construct and its strange possibility.

Raad’s work can sometimes be mystifying, but that sense of being deliberately confused is part of its strength. These projects remind us of their inability to communicate any version of the whole “truth”, and this relativity prevents us from coming to overly easy conclusions, both about what the pictures supposedly document or what learnings we should take away. In these projects in particular, benign surfaces routinely hide darker and more complicated histories, Raad’s edge-of-bleak humor opening up more human windows into a cultural past troubled by memories.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The sets of photographs are available at $75000, $125000, and $150000 respectively, while the video is available at $50000. Some of the photographic prints are also available as individual works. 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 $90000. A retrospective of his work was held at MoMA in 2015 (review here).

Walid Raad, Paula Cooper Gallery

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Aaron Schuman, Slant

Aaron Schuman, Slant

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 88 pages, with 46 black and white images made between 2016 and 2018. Includes 50 reproductions of newspaper ... Read on.

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