An artist and Beirut native by the name of Walid Raad has, over the last seven or dozen or so years, on the strength of a cryptic assembly of varied photographic installations, lectures, ostensibly “found” scrapbooks, films, and color-field abstractions, produced a counter-history of the Lebanese civil wars from approximately 1975 to 1991.
If the sum of this data seems ambiguous, it is due not a little to the efforts Raad himself has made to obscure precisely what constitutes the structure of the work in question. The archive mentioned has previously been ascribed to the so-called “Atlas Group,” an inexplicably quasi-official organization with which Raad has or has not been linked, and which may have started in 1967, as has been cited in some sources, if not in 1989, as quoted in others, or else in 1999, as Raad has occasionally mentioned during public performances, events in which these materials arguably attain their most fulfilled state as phantasmagoria. Works listed within the group’s archives may have been made by the group, submitted by unnamed others, or drawn from newspapers, though one principal figure mentioned as the author of no less than 226 contributed notebooks and appearing in some 24 self-portraits, the mellifluously named Dr. Fadl Fakhouri, may or may not exist. “The Atlas Group” itself may or may not consist of anyone else or anything beyond Raad’s own artistic practice.
Notebook Volume 38: Already Been In A Lake Of Fire, Plates 59-60, 1991. © Copyright Walid Raad
Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
In opposition to its titular implication of organization and analysis, Raad’s adopted guise of bureaucracy, bearing as it does the mantles of “atlas,” “group,” and “archive,” functions more accurately as a scrim. It obscures any direct line of perception, and provides the site onto which is projected a dynamically assembling roman. Raad’s achievement is chiefly one of poetics: the undoing of historicism’s presumptive cohesion by lyrical means.
Two of the most explicit declarations of this are in his enthusiastic use of materials—collage, arcane symbols, and disparate found sources in arrayed states of rich decay—and the spare lines of verse he adds throughout the work to splendid effect. A series of photographs depicting the aftermath of car bombs carries the epigram “My neck is thinner than a hair,” while a page allegedly inscribed in Fakhouri’s hand reads more remarkably as the artist’s own confessional: “He was imbued with a patience and otherworldliness ill-suited for politics.” Raad is essentially a dandy—brutalized perhaps, but a dandy nonetheless.
Notebook Volume 72: MIssing Lebanese Wars, Plate 134, 1989. © Copyright Walid Raad
Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
This inevitably leads to contradiction. Raad’s undertaking invokes parallels to other 20th-century digests of catastrophe and banality, such as Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, but it is precisely the foreclosure of any access to lyrical or symbolist potentials that those precedents hinge upon. The Atlas Group constitutes itself around an aesthetic, or a style, which is to say a mode of production that identifies itself chiefly by the mannerism of its facture. The byproduct of this mystification comes uncomfortably close to an effect of the exotic. In privileging style, it can bear the intimation of a self-assigned Orientalism.
Which offers one possible explanation for why Raad has become increasingly plain about his role as sole architect of The Atlas Group project. As biography, however fractured or oblique, the work no longer struggles with issues of “the other.” It then more rightly reads as a work of high Modernist narrative, and can even be deeply enjoyed as such, rather than as the more active critique of form or social politics it has at times been positioned as. Raad is an engrossing author and a deeply sensitive handler of materials. The most rewarding way to experience his poetry is to accept it as precisely that.
Text © Copyright Gil Blank