Walid Raad/The Atlas Group

We Can Make Rain But No One Came to Ask, 2005, a fifteen-minute-long DVD, is fully situated within documentary’s framework of truthfulness, the subtle and often humorous deconstruction of which is the by now well-known art of Walid Raad. Preceding the video is wall text, laden with signs of authority, explaining the piece’s provenance as a “possible collaboration” between Yussef Bitar, “the Lebanese state’s leading ammunitions expert and chief investigator of all car bomb detonations,” and Georges Semerdjian, “a respected and fearless photojournalist and videographer who, until his violent death in 1990, tirelessly chronicled the Lebanese wars of the past three decades.” The result, projected in an unusual panoramic expanse some thirteen feet wide and three feet high, is a fragmented recording of diagrams, notes, photographs, and video clips that concerns, we are told, an explosion in Beirut on January 21, 1986.

The video begins with a bird’s-eye view of Beirut before the camera descends to depict street scenes of everyday life. Realism disintegrates as cars and pedestrians suddenly emerge and disappear, images crack into sparkling pixels, and overlapping shots create inexplicable palimpsests of electronic data; it becomes clear the extrawide projection is an assemblage of synchronized video fragments. Intercut pictures of building diagrams act as metaphors for the architecture of historical construction, interrupted about halfway through the video by a montage of stills of gruesome destruction. The traumatic past is not simply shown, but disrupts representation, opening fissures that are never fully resolved by Raad’s imaginative quasi-narrative arrangement.

Another recent work, I Was Overcome with a Momentary Panic at the Thought That They Might Be Right, 2005, represents “an exact replica of a scale model of all detonations in Beirut between 1975 and 1991, designed by the senior topographer in the Lebanese army’s Directorate of Geographic Affairs, Nahia Hassan.” Appearing as a large white disk raised a half-foot off the ground, its flat surface punctured by variously sized holes, the piece divides the viewer’s attention between an elaborate explanation, located on the wall in sans-serif white vinyl lettering, and the mute sculptural expanse on the floor, leaving it up to her to question or animate the relationship.

Raad dramatizes the contestation of truth, and by extension rejects the representational transparency often assumed by Conceptual art’s bureaucratic aesthetics, which serves as one model for his practice. While this critique is achieved in earlier pieces, several examples of which are included here, real archival material increasingly forms the basis of Raad’s more recent reconstructions of historical catastrophe, wherein fictional scenarios enable the psychic processing of the traces of trauma. Raad’s complex project demonstrates not simply the fictional basis of reality, but the reality of fiction, especially when it is propped up by the rhetoric of documentary forms; it thereby represents a meticulously rendered theater of facts, which, in refusing to separate subjective experience from objective event, joins document and fantasy into a moving account of lived history.

T. J. Demos