Nearly three decades after the declared end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1991, Walid Raad continues to complicate the historical narrative of his native Lebanon and the Middle East as a whole. Raad came of age during the war, moving to the U.S. as a teenager, in 1983, where he earned a BFA in photography and a PhD in Cultural and Visual Studies. With roots in a country whose history has been continually rewritten to affirm shifting sectarian landscapes, Raad makes work that divulges the unreliability of human accounts of the past and interrogates the authorship of such histories. The photographs, prints, and video on view in his solo show at Paula Cooper Gallery are the latest in a series titled “Sweet Talk”—a group of self-assigned “commissions” begun in 1987 to document the city of Beirut as it underwent a drastic social, political, and economic transformation. The idiomatic title suggests how communities can be “sweet talked” into change under the guise of progress, only later to realize that history and tradition have been erased.
On ViewPaula Cooper Gallery
April 13 – May 24, 2019
Visitors to the exhibition are themselves seduced by the visually pleasing, kaleidoscopic imagery of a panoramic video projected onto one long wall in the main room, visible from the gallery entrance. The video—a series of mirrored loops—shows the demolition of individual buildings in the Beirut Central District in a mesmerizing forward-and-backward sequence; the structures explode and settle into billowing clouds of dust and ash, then swiftly rise again. As the buildings rise and fall, the gridded backdrop of a newly constructed city center and, notably, the cranes that erected it, remain unchanged. The beauty and repetition of the abstracted imagery put the viewer in a sleeplike trance, desensitized to the reality of destruction playing out on the screen.
Raad is interested in the idea put forth by the Lebanese artist, author, and filmmaker Jalal Toufic that, following catastrophe, documents and artifacts may be overlooked by the very communities that produced them, since what they refer to has been destroyed or re-presented by the victors of a conflict. The title of Raad’s video, Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut)_Solidere 1994 - 1997, refers to the name of one such victor: a construction company created by then-Prime Minister Rafic Hariri to undertake the controversial demolition and redevelopment of Beirut Central District. The firm exploited powers of eminent domain to destroy more buildings than necessary for the reconstruction. For Toufic, such a recalibration of the image environment means reality itself may be “withdrawn” from view, and it is the artist’s responsibility to “disclose the withdrawal and/or to resurrect what has been withdrawn.”1
Two groups of photographs in the exhibition function as an attempt at such disclosure. “Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut): 1984” (2019) is a group of fourteen archival-pigment prints depicting (mostly shuttered) storefronts in Beirut. The photographs were taken in the style of Eugene Atget, whose beguiling images of pre-Haussmann Paris were later heralded as a nostalgic portrait of a changing city just before it underwent drastic modernization. In an introduction to the “Sweet Talk” series in a previous exhibition, Raad wrote of a similar phenomenon he experienced in Beirut: “I could not stop thinking about the possibility that the individuals, streets, buildings and storefronts that I was photographing were not in rapport with photographic time. Eventually, I became convinced that a fraction-of-a-second long exposure of a building in Beirut was equivalent to a seven-decade-long exposure elsewhere. Beirut was moving at a significantly faster speed than the one marked on my shutter.”2 Raad’s 7-by-9-inch snapshots capture the stoicism of an uninhabited architecture. Yet they also call attention to the histories that such images evade. As is characteristic of Raad’s work, the wall texts throughout the exhibition convey memories and narratives, indeterminately real or imagined. The accompanying text here reads, “In 1984, as a budding photographer, I was thrilled to be hired by a cousin active in the local militia, to photograph various storefronts. It was my first ‘professional’ job…Years later, I found out that the stores’ owners had refused to pay the “security fees” imposed on them by my cousin’s militia, leading to the owners being beaten or exiled, and their businesses confiscated.”
Regardless of whether the tale of beaten shop owners is definitively “true,” it forces a reassessment of the historical moment in which the photographs were taken. If the images are at first striking for their formal characteristics—strong shadows, tight framing, intimate scale—they are also displaced from the particular context in which they were created. Only in retrospect, with a heightened awareness of time and place, do the shuttered, vacant storefronts function as referents of a fraught past.
The most recent photographic “commission” in the “Sweet Talk” series similarly uses narrative storytelling to assign a bygone moment to otherwise temporally displaced images. The eight black-and-white images of empty streets in Beirut are reproduced from a book supposedly found at a flea market, and are annotated in English and Arabic with specific, personal memories of each location. While the photographs are purportedly by the “unsung Lebanese photographer Ahmed Helou,” the written recollections belong to an unknown individual. Ostensibly appropriating these found image-documents, Raad obfuscates authorship and blends fact and fiction to probe the concept of the “original.” The resulting work establishes a form of authenticity that underscores the coexistence of parallel histories rather than a single, paramount truth.
The last room of the exhibition features a separate group of pigment prints entitled “Appendix 137” (2018). With bright colors and picture-book scenery, the works seem at first like an incongruent (if salable) afterthought. The wall text reads, “Several Lebanese artists volunteered their services during the war years and created camouflage military fatigues for the fighting militias.” The images are supposedly from a book cataloguing the artists’ designs, but the vibrant, abstract, collage-like cutouts suggest otherwise. Here bold and recognizable, Raad’s trademark blend of fact and fiction is clearly at work; the artists are real, but the application of their work to military fatigues is a construct. The juxtaposition of these works with the “documentary” images from the “Sweet Talk” series brings to light the flaws in our internal barometer for truth.
- Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster (California Institute of the Arts/Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater [REDCAT], 2009; Forthcoming Books, 2009), 61.
- Introduction, Walid Raad Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut), Camera Austria, January 1 – May 4, 2010.