Atlas Group/Walid Raad

Writing history is never easy. Especially if you come from Lebanon, whose history has been recorded mostly from a Western perspective. Atlas Group/Walid Raad has already essayed a new take on it: the attempt to investigate present-day Lebanon from the perspective of an artistic-historical convergence, through invented documents combined with real ones and the persona of the fictive historian Dr. Fadl Fakhouri. Thus, differentiating between the real and the invented, the authentic and the imaginary, in Raad’s work only marginally addresses its point, for in this difference appears but the “false binary of fiction and nonfiction,” according to Raad. Of course, he does work with that antithesis, but in the knowledge that no historical essence may be won from it. The real could always be the fictive, or vice versa.

My Neck Is Thinner Than a Hair is a piece begun by Raad in 2001 and not expected to be completed until the end of this year. Four parts were originally announced, of which the first, a multimedia installation, is now being presented for the first time. The project is to document, retroactively, all the car bombs set off during the Lebanese civil war of 1975–91. Of a total of 245 such explosions, Raad has been able to document one hundred in images. This, we are assured, is authentic material, consisting of photographs from archives, each of which Raad has nevertheless reduced to a standard black-and-white format. The “fiction” of the current installation, so to speak, consists in that it creates the impression of an official stocktaking of terrorist acts.

Car bombs are peculiar in that they leave the engine of the exploded car more or less unscathed. Accordingly, the photographs show the engine block itself, plus individuals or groups of people who have gathered around the symbolically charged relic. What the photos do not show is the cause of this unexpected unveiling of the automobile’s power train. Theoretically they could just as easily be about accidents caused by ordinary mechanical failure. Only when one knows the context does the whole work’s connection to sectarian violence become clear. “Hence,” says Raad, “this project, which also includes interviews with individuals who experienced directly or indirectly the car bomb explosions, whether civilians who were victims, militiamen who packed and planted the car bomb, or doctors and psychiatrists who treated the civilians and militiamen, will also be an exploration of what it means to speak, write, and know anything about the war and postwar experience in Lebanon.” Seen in this perspective, the skeletal remains of a weapon can thus become an icon of a history of suffering, after all. That which has made it through more or less “whole” is what symbolizes the damaged character of that history.

The traces of war are always different, depending on time and circumstance. The suffering of war, on the other hand, is always similar. Perhaps that is why Raad arranged his installation in a different chronological order, one that knows no years, only the dates, the first through the thirtieth, of an unnamed (perhaps fictitious?) month. In the installation, all images of the same number—that is, all those dated, say, the first, second, or third of the month—are hung next to each other. Time does not repeat itself but instead accumulates, calculating itself according to repetitions, repetitions of the war and the suffering it caused.

Wolf Jahn

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.