The Madre Museum is hosting the first solo exhibition devoted by an Italian public institution to the work of Walid Raad (Chbanieh, Lebanon 1967), one of the most original and influential voices on the art scene of the Middle East.
In Naples, a city on the Mediterranean, Walid Raad has conceived an exhibition dealing with intensely topical and deeply urgent issues: the incidence of the war in a public and private context; the veracity of historical documentation; the dynamics guiding the formation of the individual and collective memory; the intimate nature of the artistic experience as against the pervasive influence of politics and economics; and the role of museums today, with particular reference to the Arab context. By balancing narrative and documentation, criticism and story-telling, history and fiction, such as the dimension of past, present and future, Raad’s artistic practice – with video and photographic works, installations and texts – explores and transcends the news media to develop a deeper understanding of society, history and art, deconstructing and restoring them through new and possible critical narratives. The exhibition is staged in two different exhibition spaces at the Madre, devoted to two different cycles of works: the large Re_PUBBLICA MADRE ground-floor gallery and a whole wing of the museum on the second floor.
The ground floor presents a broad selection of works from the cycle Scratching on Things I Could Disavow begun in 2007 and still in progress. This project starts off with a series of artistic, political and economic phenomena that have emerged in the Arab world in recent years: its appearance on the world art scene, the Western world’s growing interest in its artistic and cultural output, the relationships that have led Western museums such as the Louvre and the Guggenheim to design premises to be opened shortly in Abu Dhabi (one of several cultural capitals emerging in the Gulf), and the artificial creation of a contemporary Arab culture, deeply influenced by social mechanisms of global significance. Scratching on Things I Could Disavow investigates the ways these processes are changing the perception and the substance itself of contemporary Arab culture and thus their possible impact on contemporary global culture. In Raad’s work cultural institutions and the art system are not represented as neutral places extraneous to current events and history but as structures that, through their decisions in the matter of display or aesthetic and critical comment, reveal and conceal the cultural movements, economic flows and political interests that surround and influence them. In photography, video and sculpture, Raad explores the nature of the art object and the transformation of its meanings over time and space, analyzing the field of culture as a space of conflict, negotiation and compromise.
In this project Raad expands the tradition of the Institutional Critique which, from the late Sixties on, brought together European and American artists such as Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Fred Wilson and Hans Haacke, with their shared reflections on the nature of museum institutions, the narratives they produce, the political, economic and social factors they express and their function as producers of knowledge. Raad’s work also evokes, through reflection on the act of showing and the act of looking, the concept of art as a stage space of representation, which we find in the work of Giulio Paolini.
Raad then shows us that artworks are objects in constant mutation, true receptors of multiple relationships. In their hybrid and receptive nature they traverse time, space, different cultural traditions and forms of display and interpretation, and in doing so their meanings as well as their forms, colors and consistency are continuously transformed. Becoming populated with hypothetical and ghostly images, shadows and reflections, oblique and phantom visions, fluctuating between different spaces and times, the exhibition becomes a metaphor not only of an encounter between much more complex cultures than the current paradigms of so-called multiculturalism, but also of an (ideal) museum capable of accommodating and fully bringing out the irreducible richness, and therefore ambiguity, of every aesthetic and cognitive experience.
The exhibition continues on the second floor, with a broad selection of works from The Atlas Group, the project which engaged the artist from 1989 to 2004. In it Raad explores the political, social, cultural, psychological and aesthetic impacts of the dramatic wars that have plagued Lebanon in recent decades. The Atlas Group brings together historical and imaginary documents of different kinds (photographs, texts, and audio-visuals). While attributed to various people, these documents are in fact Raad’s creation, a hybrid between archival research and narrative. With The Atlas Group, Raad uses fragments from the historical world to compose imaginary documents and stories about the protracted Lebanese wars. His archive is, in a sense, composed of imaginary collective hysterical symptoms. As such, it exposes us to how events of extreme physical and psychological violence open up a space between the lived and experienced, a space that may occasionally only be stitched in fiction (meant also as a result of an historical trauma or of a personal withdrawal).
Certainly one of the most important and influential artistic achievements of the past two decades, The Atlas Group is not only a fresco of the contemporary history of Lebanon, but also and above all a commentary on the very concept of historical narration as negotiation and compensation, resting on the assumption of the German philosopher Hannah Arendt “The modern political lie addresses things that are not secrets at all but are known to practically everybody. This is obvious in the case of rewriting contemporary history, but it is equally true in image-making of all sorts, for an image [...] is intended not to flatter reality but to offer a full-fledged substitute for it.”
In the works on display on the second floor, Raad reminds us that works of art, like historical documents, are not only valuable for what they reveal, but also for what they conceal, or evoke, and they never cease to have value even when they are destroyed, manipulated or misunderstood. In this way Raad constructs a free and liberating framework, oscillating between documentary and fiction, that invites viewers to question the “immediacy of facts” and ultimately the concept of “responsibility” inherent in the very condition of the spectator who is also a witness.
Walid Raad was born in 1967 at Chbanieh in Lebanon. He lives and works in Beirut and New York, where he teaches at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. He has been the subject of solo exhibitions held by the most prestigious international institutions, such as the Kunsthalle Zurich and the Bildmuseet of Umea in 2011, the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in 2010, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid and the Fondazione Antonio Ratti in Como in 2009, the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporaneo in Mexico City in 2007 and the Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin in 2006. Walid Raad has also taken part in the 2012 and 2002 editions of Documenta in Kassel, the Sharjah Biennial in 2011, the Sydney Biennale in 2006, the Venice Biennale in 2003 and the Whitney Biennale in 2000. His work will be the object of a broad monographic exhibition at the MoMA- Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2015.