Walid Raad at Whitechapel

Posted on December 29, 2010


On entering Walid Raad: Miraculous Beginnings you will be met by a spidery diagram sprawling high and wide across the wall: a graphic explanation of the  Atlas Group. The Atlas Group is a fictional collective that is building an archive of fake documents that form a history of the oh-so-real Lebanon. A little confused? I was.

This exhibition presents the composed documentation of Walid Raad and his invented personalities. Apparent archives of life in Lebanon, lovingly collected and arranged and then, by chance, inherited by the Atlas collective. The works insight far more than the information they claim to order – they reveal minds infested with the same concern for humanity in times of trouble. A city profiled by a network of like-minded individuals who are simply trying to come to terms with the horrors of war; to give a semblance of structure in the midst of chaos. Individuals who are similarly (conveniently?) aesthetically driven. And although no hands could be raised in answer to a calling register of these names they exist in the mind of Walid Raad and in his mindful conception of the city of Beirut, given to us here, in the realised form of colour and film, photo and lettering. Is this practice deceitful, does it need to be reconciled?

Entering the gallery you are soon drawn to a video the other visitors are circulating around – Hostage: The Bachar Tapes(#17 and #31) (2001). It is a visual document of Souheil Bachar’s enforced captivity in Lebanon, during the years 1983 to 1993. The film is fascinating; shocking, enthralling, titillating. Fictional. You wonder what exactly you just spent 18 minutes experiencing.

Raad certainly does demand a great deal of thought from his viewers and you get the impression that much of his works’ content will fly over the heads’ of visitors to this exhibition, but is that part of the point? Raad’s mixed media art is engaged with the swirling throng of media that surrounds and informs us everyday. This involvement produces a critique by casting doubt on the authority of the media’s document.

Raad’s art strives to capture a spirit. In a new approach to the formation of a history, his art declares: we can never know the whole and real truth, so why try. These events may have not occurred, but does that matter? Many events that did occur are left undocumented or are incorrectly recreated in print and image. The tales spun by Raad’s archive are comparable to mythical stories that tell real life lessons. They may be fictional, but you would never hold that against a novel. This is Art.

Whitechapel has not gone out of its way to clarify the complexities of Raad’s work. I approached this exhibition, as many will, with a certain degree of ignorance about the Atlas Group and background reading was required before I felt that I had even reached an understanding of what Raad is attempting. Some will see this as a curatorial failure others will argue it is a trait, or perhaps even a flaw, in Raad’s work. Either way, if you decide to visit this exhibition do be prepared for something taxing. But, open your mind and absorb the sentiment and you will find something ultimately insightful.

The exhibition continues until the 2nd January.