Widely noted, the role of fiction in Walid Raad’s practice takes a lead throughout his mid-career retrospective at MoMA. In a room dedicated to his Atlas Group project (1989-2004) fiction appears through a fabricated archive amassed around the subject of the Lebanese civil wars, and in MoMA’s atrium fiction arises within works made after 2007 that explore how complex networks and excesses of information – rather than a lack of it – will obfuscate the truth.
Mid-career retrospectives are inevitably doomed to success. Despite all the biennales, documentas, group exhibitions, and institutional solos that have nurtured their content, such exhibitions are inevitably posed as revelations. Their success thus relies on a combination of newness and the stability of a recently-institutionalised canon. Looking at that canon, this review concentrates on Raad’s early work – The Atlas Group project – and its place within New York’s exhibitionary landscape this year.
The Atlas Group’s fictionalised archive of the Lebanese civil war is stylishly executed, with a pastel-hued analogue aesthetic that buries conflict in elegant formalism. The display can be compared to Doris Salcedo’s large-scale retrospective at The Guggenheim, which closed on the same day that Raad’s exhibition opened. Both artists have become recognised as cultural spokespeople for the conflict and trauma of their respective countries, though where Salcedo depends on witness testimonies in order to fill her otherwise mute objects with meaning, Raad’s “victims” of war are almost entirely abstracted out of vision. Conceptually and formally, Raad’s vision of the bare life of conflict is a depopulated one.
The Atlas Group’s “characters” emerge through extended captions; bomb experts, bureaucrats and archive contributors, their voices are prominent, but in the same way that the chorus in a tragic play is prominent. The hero of this play can talk politics through them, but without declaring a position or an ethic. Any figures actually visible are usually onlookers, stripped of signification beyond their role as background props. Active speakers such as the protagonist of 16-minute video ‘Hostage: The Bachar tapes (#17 and #31)’, (2001), represent various forms of trauma – sexual, physical, and mental – but thanks to the unbelief with which we are asked to respond, their trauma is never truly troubling. We are prompted to detach these figures from reality and as such, Raad’s work thoroughly opposes Salcedo’s melancholy hair-pulling and liberal-sympathetic identification with the victim as subject and truth. Which is partly the point. Or it would if the role of fiction in Raad’s body of work were not itself so obscured.
Once inside The Atlas Group display, visitors are given no direct clues that this is a fraudulent archive. A sentence revealing the fact is offered up in a wall text earlier in the exhibition, but apparently such indicators are rarely digested thoroughly. On the days that I visited, slyly shadowing various viewers I noticed that most were lapping up Raad’s “truths” whole, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the miniature-painted ‘Oh God, she said, talking to a tree’ (2004), for example, believing in the artistic skill of their painter and failing to see that they are in fact digital prints. In part, this is interesting, for it reveals how an empty reverence for subjects like “that war in the Middle East” and the trauma of others, if not also the authority of museum wall texts, precludes critical thought and scepticism. But on the other hand it is possible to argue that Raad’s conceptually knotty work depends on the assumption of stupidity rather than intelligence, an unhappy retreat within the wider canon of conceptual art.
Viewing these works I couldn’t help but be haunted by the exhibition that it replaced, ‘One Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North’, which had filled the same room only weeks before. In the vein of an imperative but often misdirected vogue for museum exhibitions and retrospectives aiming to bust the mainstream canon, (including MoMA’s collection show, ‘Scenes from a New Heritage’, and Wael Shawky’s sublime ‘Cabaret Crusades’ this year at MoMA PS1), this exhibition presented a rare view of the late Jacob Lawrence’s sixty-part ‘Migration Series’ (1941) in its entirety. An African American painter working in the fertile aftermath of the Harlem Renaissance, Lawrence’s panels describing the Northward rural-urban migration of more than a million African Americans during first decades of the twentieth century were exhibited at MoMA with historical and scholarly insight, their contemporary relevance poignantly underscored by the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent acceleration of the refugee crisis in Europe and West Asia.
The role of “artist as historian” was examined to great success by the collateral material curated around Lawrence’s paintings, along with his deployment of literary tools, (rather than fiction as untruth). Displayed with extended descriptive captions composed by the artist, Lawrence’s panels exposed their respect to the traps of history-telling through low-fi painterly abstraction and various critical moments explaining internal conflicts within the story of its subjects. Beyond the coincidence of their placement, similarities between Raad and Lawrence’s exhibitions are numerous. Both refract the experience of entire populations through an individual practice, researching and narrativising histories of conflict and trauma on behalf of fellow casualties and in part for the edification of privileged outsiders. Also working in the mode of “artist as historian”, Raad similarly relies on extended captions and a wide array of supporting documents (many of course based on fact), sharing with Lawrence the question of how complex forms of historical information can become an image, or in both cases, sets of images.
But entirely opposed to Lawrence’s buzzing, highly populated, and intimate paintings, Raad’s response has been to evacuate his images of their very subjects. This is an art made to look flashy, academic, and noble. But doomed to success as retrospectives like these inevitably are, both Raad (and Salcedo’s) much-vaunted exhibitions made for entirely digestible and fundamentally un-troubling canon-busters. Apparently what we desire from “difficult” art today is an art of people that doesn’t actually include any.