Walid Raad, We have never been so populated @Paula Cooper

JTF (just the facts): A total of 40 photographs and video works, variously framed and displayed with text captions in five separate gallery spaces. The following works have been included:

  • 10 pigmented inkjet prints, 1993/2021, each sized roughly 30×23 inches, in editions of 3+2AP
  • 7 inkjet prints, 1997/2020, each sized roughly 32×23 inches, in editions of 5+2AP
  • 3 MDF wood and paint, 2014, each sized roughly 95x48x26 inches, unique
  • 10 pigmented inkjet prints, 2021, each sized roughly 24×21 inches, in editions of 5+2AP
  • 1 set of 7 pigmented inkjet prints, 2021, in varying sizes, overall roughly 82×213 inches, in an edition of 5+2AP
  • 3 single channel videos, 2022, looped, no sound, with paper cutouts, in editions of 1+1AP

(Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: Storytelling (in various forms and guises) lies at the heart of a great deal of photography, but few contemporary storytellers bring as much perplexing magic to their craft as Walid Raad. Raad’s artworks all sit in an unusual conceptual space – instead of being overtly identified as photographs or artworks made by the artist himself (which they are), they are almost always delivered with a fictitious or imaginary backstory that locates them instead as found artifacts, made by someone else and simply presented by Raad (or his Atlas Group). In this way, Raad seems to stand with us as viewers, looking at these strange objects he has uncovered and sharing our sense of wonder and confusion as we try to puzzle out their unexpected histories and meanings. Often, this leads to a duality of playful misinformation, where we know (or assume) Raad is playing a subtle joke on us, but that joke (and the distance he creates between himself and the “artifacts”) successfully amplifies his oblique lines of thinking.

Raad has applied this sneakily sophisticated perspective to a wide range of subject matter over the years, from vantage points on the various civil wars and political intrigues in his home country of Lebanon to more esoteric studies of museums and their collections. Building on the works shown in Raad’s 2015 retrospective at MoMA (reviewed here) and in a series of gallery and group shows since, this show reprises a few of those efforts and brings us up to speed on some of his newest projects.

Two collage projects from the 1990s provide smart background examples of Raad’s unorthodox approach to engaging with Lebanon’s history. One assembles images of birds, maps of Lebanon, and various statistical charts into layered compositions combining each of the three elements. The results are strangely elemental, and Raad’s invented backstory fills in a pleasingly unlikely narrative – during the Lebanese wars, the Christian militias tried to breed invasive species of birds that they would then send into enemy territory in the hopes of upsetting the ecosystem, and the collages represent their visual notes on the effort. When seen with this fictional context, the connection between the images in the collages resonates more strongly, even if it feels altogether farfetched.

In another project, Raad has taken colorful images of flower specimens and collaged them together with small black-and-white heads of various ’70s and ’80s-era political leaders (from Qadaffi, Hussein, and Assad to Gorbachev, Thatcher, and Reagan), adding them to the centers of blossoms in densely repeated clusters set against colored backdrops; from afar they look like any number of botanical prints, but up close, the faces of the leaders pop out of the petals with unexpected fractal oddity. Raad’s associated backstory is cleverly inspired – a woman named Fadwa Hassoun who worked in the Lebanese intelligence division was given the task of providing code names for all the international political leaders at the time, and since she was interested in botany, she gave the leaders the names of flowers, and also made the collages. Such a tale finds just the right mix of ridiculous and charming, giving the resulting works a particularly unique fictitious “context”.

A recent set of three large-scale video works continues Raad’s imaginative historical reclamation, using a story involving Lebanese militias and waterfalls as a framework. The plotline for these works takes the opportunistic financial support of the militias as inspiration, with money alternately coming from various regional neighbors like Israel, Syria, and Iraq. Raad has extrapolated those back-and-forth movements of allegiance to the naming (and renaming) of Lebanese waterfalls in honor of their funders, with small reproductions of the leaders shown at the bottom of towering, gallery-filling video reproductions that endlessly tumble and cascade from ceiling to floor. Tiny suited figures lie at the bottom of the impressively frothy visual churn, the scale mismatch so large that once again Raad edges toward unlikely satirical comedy.

The rest of the works in this show turn back inward toward art, using museums and collections as their starting point. A group of three sculptural works reprises an interest Raad has had in shadows in museum displays, using physical cutouts that replicate – and hope to attract – shadows that have mysteriously “gone missing”. More intriguing are two more recent photographic projects. One gathers together seven photographs ostensibly of the backs of paintings, each with a cloud study painted on the back side of the canvas. Raad’s fantastical invented backstory follows the efforts of a master restorer at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and her discovery of these unexplained paintings, that look remarkably like 19th century studies by John Constable. The images show the cloud paintings as interrupted by frames, stretchers, and various labels, and the entire fable has a sense of uncanny inside-the-museum magical realism.

The other project follows a parallel path back into the storage areas of a private collection in Amman, Jordan. There Raad discovered a selection of gold and silver objects, including tankards, animal sculptures, vases, and other ornate vessels. He has photographed each on its own in a sparse still life setting, adorned with handfuls of bugs and insects. Raad’s invented fable for the project claims that each object attracts only one kind of bug (and repels the others), so there are ants on one, spiders on another, and moths on a third, like some kind of entomological magnets. The images themselves have the subtle conflict of attraction and repulsion, but seen together, the typology of treasure offers an oddball twist of playfulness.

At his most lyrical and transporting, Raad has consistently established his place as the Italo Calvino of photography, and a similar willingness to indirectly engage with complex political realities has also tied the two artists together. The most engaging of Raad’s visions can be invitingly heady, testing the edge of believability with deadpan seriousness, and while not every photographic project of Raad’s feels entirely explicable (or even memorable) at first glance, his inspired ability to wholly reframe an artistic narrative with just a few sentences of wall text is where his durable originality lies. Raad’s inventive image/text combinations push us into unexpected flights of fancy, where something mystical or extraordinary just might be happening.

Collector’s POV: The photographic works in this show are generally available as single prints, with priced ranging between $15000 and $18000 each. The Constable works are being sold as a set, at $130000 for the group. Raad’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with only a few lots coming up for sale. Prices on those few lots have ranged from roughly $4000 to $90000.

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