by Kristie Evans Franco
Photography by Olivia Falcigno
Studying history across the years requires a constant re-working of our understanding. The founding fathers we were taught to respect during childhood are shaved of their mythological heroism year after year as facts of slavery and massacre continue to be unearthed. The battles we once thought were inspired by bravery are revealed to be brute reactions, heartless and imperialist. As all nations expand their knowledge of history, ardent national pride melts into something like shame.
Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art is currently displaying two of Walid Ra’ad’s long-term projects on war history. The first is the Atlas Group, a fictional research organization based in Lebanon that collects the history of the country in its archives. The second, Scratching on things I could disavow focuses on the recent rise of art institutions in the Arab world and their interaction with the current political and military turmoil. Both of the projects are built on mixed media; photographs, video and sculpture are all used to bring Walid’s statement to life. The exhibit will be on view through March 30.
The Atlas Group is a project that brings fiction into recent history, not unlike the accepted process of archiving that has taken place in societies since the beginning of rhetoric. The way we retell our stories is tainted by ego and biased by perspective; the characters, their motives and the resulting events are molded into tales that feed national ideals. Walid Ra’ad plays with the way we treat history by creating his own stories and embedding them into the existing Lebanese narrative.
In an interview with Alan Gilbert, Ra’ad speaks for the imagined Atlas Group when he states, “We have always urged our audience to treat our documents as ‘hysterical documents’ in the sense that they are not based on any one person’s actual memories but on ‘fantasies erected from the material of collective memories.’”
In one of the series, Let’s be honest, the weather helped, Ra’ad uses small colored circle stickers to create vibrant images of a city at war. His Atlas Group persona explains, “I would run out into the streets after a night or day of shelling to remove bullets from walls, cars, and trees,” which the researcher mapped and recorded onto black and white photographs. The result is a beautiful pattern that traces the trajectory of projectiles, “the color of the dots corresponded to the mesmerizing hues I found on the bullet’s tips. The colors were also faithful to the distinct color code devised by manufacturers in different countries to mark their cartridges and shells.” There’s no way of telling whether the search really took place; the archiving is as dreamy as it is possible.
The way the artist embellishes tragedy mirrors the way we collectively process history. This effort is also seen in the video footage of a sunset, said to be collected by an agent that abandoned his duty of monitoring the enemy once a day to videotape the sun sinking into the horizon. Whether these places or people are real matters not; it’s their stories that make them extant.
In Scratching on things I could disavow, the focus shifts from the conflict itself to the simultaneous artistic activities that take place during conflict. On the official website, Ra’ad writes “I am intrigued by the increased visibility of the makers, sponsors, consumers and histories of ‘Arab art,’ and more so by the acceleration in the development of new infrastructures for the visual arts in the Arabian Gulf.” The project analyzes how politics affect the visibility of artists and the artistic culture of a society; in other words, it argues that art is a victim of war.
For example, the artist links this shift in the art industry to the current violence in his piece Appendix XVII: Plates 22-257 by bringing the behavior of a war-torn population into the elements of his art. Like war victims who run, hide and are deeply affected by their surroundings, Ra’ad’s colors and shapes also escape and take cover: “colors, lines, shapes and forms took refuge in unexpected places: they hid in roman and Arabic letters and numbers; in circles, rectangles and squares; in yellow, blue and green.”
Walid Ra’ad has a satirical and denunciative tone in his analysis of human history and art. There are several series in the exhibit that approach the subject differently with various media, some of which the viewer can interact with. The exhibit is worth taking a look at given the amount of works being shown and the complexity of the artist’s statements.
Most importantly, this subject is relevant to the global political climate at the moment, describing how hopelessly repetitive history is. The elements of war are always the same: death, destruction and questionable conclusions. The effects of war aren’t new or improved—violence is glorified, winners cut out their own gold stars and no one admits to their losses. Walid’s work forces the viewer to face how convoluted our history is, and the lengths we will go to in order to protect our pride.