Post-Card from Documenta 13: Walid Raad, Arabian Nights and the Pitfalls of Pilgrimages

Museum Fridericianum, 2012, Museum Fridericianum, 2012, Photo: Nils Klinger © dOCUMENTA (13)

Along with thousands of others, I made the pilgrimage to Kassel, Germany this year, to attend the opening festivities of Documenta 13. There were, of course, obvious reasons to go, first and foremost the chance to see Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s impressive show. Sprawling all over Kassel and beyond (to Kabul, for example), the show includes work by over 200 artists (living and dead) and collectives from 50 countries, and aims to reveal how art both reflects and interacts with the world. Open without being ideological, the show includes a number of pieces specifically about wars and current events. But these are accompanied by other types of expressions, for example works by Song Dong, Theaster Gates, Susan Hiller and Zanele Muholi, that focus on different aspects of the art/life continuum. Starting at the Fridericianum and moving outward to public spaces, parks and train stations, the exhibition’s opening days attracted thousands of colleagues and friends from all over the world (which was, of course, another reason to go).

But in fact it was really the invitation of my friend Walid Raad that persuaded me to make the trek to Germany. Like me, the Lebanese-born artist lives in New York, and we teach at adjacent universities. We get together when possible, and recently I started pestering him about doing an interview – specifically, a session where he and I discuss the work of artists (like him) who do extensive scholarly research in order to prepare for visual projects. To flesh out my understanding of his process, he was anxious for me to see his exhibition in Kassel, the culmination of five years of thought and refinement.  Entitled “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World,” the show was accompanied by a series of live performances by the artist which were among the hot tickets in Kassel during opening week. The works on view became, in this context, springboards for, and embodiments of, Raad’s concepts and ruminations. This was a Duchampian act for the 21st century, but instead of a Large Glass and an accompanying book (Notes and Projects), we had a multimedia display (including photographs and video, drawings, texts, collages, sculptures and models as well as paintings and prints) accompanied by the explications of the moving body.

Walid Raad, “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World”, installation view. Courtesy The Artist and gallery Sfeir-Semler Beirut Hamburg

Walid’s performances were so popular, and so crowded, that extra shows had to be scheduled, which made down time for an interview impossible. But his presentation – and it must be said that I’d seen a previous version, a slide lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts in March, so I’d had some time to think about the ideas – raised a lot of issues I’d like to discuss. Also, of course, since we are friends I’d heard about these projects over the years as they unfolded in his mind, and then transformed themselves into images. It is precisely this transformation that interests me about Raad, who has a tendency (he does have a Ph.D. in Visual and Cultural Studies from the University of Rochester) to do enormous amounts of reading, looking and archival research in order to arrive at a spare or surprising visual symbol: a field of blue, a green dot, a painted splotch of red. That Ur– image, whatever it is, then gives rise to other images, schemas and words, often lots of them, like those delivered in Kassel. Installations and performances grow up around a visual nugget, in other words, reversing the usual order of concept-based work. Is this indeed conceptual art – or rather visual thinking? The difference seems important to me.

The other thing that interests me about Raad’s art is its slippery slope between fact and fiction, which of course has become his trademark since the days of the Atlas Group. (This trait goes beyond art making. When I come away from a lunch with him, I am never sure if anything he’s told me is literally true – though it must be said that I’m always thoroughly convinced while he’s spinning his yarns. Over the years I’ve learned to take this ambiguity in stride.) Raad rode into the art world on the wave of Archive Art; one of the most interesting of the artists included in this trendy group, he used his youthful experience of the wars in Lebanon to drive a wedge between concrete evidence and the manipulation and reception of data. But there was a moment when the exigencies of this version of conceptual art began to constrict his creative process, and he started working with ideas that were more far reaching, amorphous and profound. Instead of focusing on truth and falsehood, he began obsessing over Jalal Toufic’s theory of  “surpassing disasters.” Described in the book Forthcoming, a “surpassing disaster” is one that literally affects tradition by making it “withdraw,” by rendering art works “unavailable to vision” and to the perception of sensitive artists. In other words, rather than deconstructing archival materials and intellectual strategies, Walid has decided to frame the history of Art in the Arab World by chronicling the inevitability of its material, aesthetic and conceptual withdrawal. Having grown up during a time of Civil War and terrorism, exiled by violence from his home and family at an early age, Raad’s own surpassing interest is in the affect of deep trauma: not only on “truth” but on the human spirit. How can an artist express what happens to people, to places, to societies, to civilizations when their experiences are so profoundly negative that normal paths to communication, empathy and sharing are blocked? The project in Kassel is about this state of affairs, and its consequences.

Walid Raad, “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World”, installation view. Courtesy The Artist and gallery Sfeir-Semler Beirut Hamburg


Since we are discussing Walid Raad, of course, these consequences are never spelled out in a literal way. Topical political exegesis is not his style, though it is the focus of a number of projects on view in Kassel (like Rabih Mroué’s fascinating installation and performance, The Pixelated Revolution, about cell phone videos and violence in Syria). Instead, political and social truths are transformed into images in Raad’s work, and spun as tales told by cooks or dancers and perhaps embellished by psychics. This is, quite literally, mythmaking with historical pretensions and a theatrical flair. It is important to note that when discussing this project in 2009, Raad mentioned that its final form might in fact be a play, a “pièce de théâtre,” as the French would say. Seen in this way, the gallery becomes a world stage in the Shakespearean sense, a labyrinth of related projects that tell stories within stories, like the sprawling tales of the Arabian Nights.

The master storyteller William Kentridge also has a marvelous new piece (produced with Peter L. Galison) at Documenta 13. The Refusal of Time is a tour de force within the dilapidated spaces of the old train station. But Kentridge’s all engulfing style, his way of piling up films, animations, sculpture and music in a noisy aggregate, bears no resemblance to Raad’s minimal arrangement of interpenetrating theatrical “screens” like those that define the stage sets of Jean Genet. Upon entering the space, the spectator encounters a wall, a futuristic barrier of flashing lights that resembles nothing so much as a very high-end corporate presentation. Illustrated with what looks like a large-scale schematic drawing punctuated by video images, texts and visual documents, the tableau charts new art initiatives like the Artist Pension fund. Tracking the Dubai Branch’s complex relationship to the burgeoning infrastructures for the visual arts taking shape in the Arabian Gulf, the trail ends up at the doorstep of men trained in Israeli military intelligence. The “map,” with its constantly shifting (and hard to grasp) images and its data impossible to read, creates a claustrophobic vision of the symbiotic entanglement between politics, conflict and culture in the Arab World – and far beyond. It sets the stage for the other five projects on view, scenarios described in separate spaces, which Raad describes as “artworks and stories shaped by encounters on this ground with individuals, institutions, economies, concepts and forms.”

Walid Raad, “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World”, installation view. Courtesy The Artist and gallery Sfeir-Semler Beirut Hamburg


These encounters take place as people living in this closed circuit attempt to participate in their new culture. But their access – to their peers, their predecessors, their institutions, their customary modes of expression — is always denied. The “surpassing disaster” of war in the Middle East has withdrawn their tradition from them, and the viewer moves from scene to scene to experience this state of affairs. Artists’ projects (like the Atlas Group exhibition on view) suddenly shrink to 1/100th of their original size. Colors are no longer available for aesthetic expression in the future, since they have taken refuge in corporate logos, and paintings lack reflections. The names of historical predecessors, earlier artists in Lebanon, don’t show up in archives but can only be retrieved, inaccurately, by telepathy. A spectator attempting to enter a new museum of modern art in an Arab city is unable to proceed: he “hits a wall,” so to speak. With his entry blocked, he declares the world flat and is removed to a psychiatric facility.  All of these “scenarios,” of course, are visualized by sculptures, or paintings, or prints. The inaccessible entrances are made manifest by shifting mirages of architectural spaces, the shrunken photos are too small to read, the contrasts between splashes of spray paint and the flat hues of corporate prints become stark. The spectator “on the ground” begins to experience this world out of joint — which, surely, is Raad’s intention.

There’s another performance work in Kassel right now, a joyful piece by Tino Sehgal. The spectator enters a pitch-black room, filled with singing, dancing, clapping and people. In her review in The New York Times, Roberta Smith called Sehgal’s work the “beating heart” of Documenta 13, and I can see why. At the risk of spoiling any future viewer’s experience, I want to say that the intensity of the human contact that occurs when the lights go up is both surprising and overwhelming. It is just that human contact which is unavailable to the poor souls in Walid Raad’s airtight world. And since the circuits described in Scene 1 encompass the globe, this projected future must belong to all of us, everywhere, no matter how hard we try to “disavow” it. The pilgrimage to Kassel suddenly makes us players not only within Raad’s piece de theatre but also within the relentless wheel of culture, the flat world from which it grows.

(And, by the way, I haven’t given up on that interview. Stay tuned.)

Shelley Rice

© Shelley Rice 2012


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