New York

Walid Raad

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

The fifteen years of war that began in Lebanon in the mid-1970s, when Walid Raad was growing up there, and the enduring threat of violence in that country have been a steady presence in the artist’s work, though in devious ways. Instead of bluntly claiming a place for Lebanon’s tragedies in our attention, Raad has clothed himself in fictions, signing his work “The Atlas Group” and presenting it as a body of collective scholarship, academic, indeed picayune, to a fault. In combining a loaded subject with a recondite form, Raad has escaped the “didactic” label so often applied to heart-on-sleeve agitprop art, but his inventions are more than simply strategic; reflecting a sly, Borgesian sensibility and a subtle sense of history, they suggest that memory and even the most concrete documentary records are conditional rather than “true.”

Raad has now somewhat moved on, exhibiting under his own name and exchanging the Atlas Group schema for a new ongoing project, “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World.” The overt impetus here is the emergence of an increasingly intricate infrastructure for art in parts of the Middle East where conditions of history, culture, and political unrest have only fairly recently made room for such a system. Raad’s work now intimates a sophistic plan to record this new growth encyclopedically, yet his feelings about it seem ambivalent at best, from the title phrase “things I could disavow” to the most elaborate work here, Part IChapter 1Section 139: The Atlas Group (1989–2004), 2008—a freestanding model gallery space with miniatures of Atlas Group works installed in it, including four diminutive but functioning videos. In a goes-with text (most of the show’s works have go-with texts), Raad claims that a Beirut gallery, the city’s “first of its kind white cube space,” had repeatedly invited him to exhibit there. When he finally did, “I was surprised to find that all my artworks had shrunk. I decided to display them in a space befitting their new dimensions.”

A gallery that makes your work smaller, like the drink in Alice’s bottle, sounds neither agreeable nor real. Yet art-world travelers, or in my case simply Googlers, will know that not only does the gallery Raad names, Sfeir-Semler, actually exist, but he has in fact shown there—has in fact shown this very piece there. That Raad is biting the hand that feeds him might be one reading, and he certainly raises issues of where a culture is going, what it is becoming. But other kinds of games are being played here. One presiding spirit, wryly taxonomic and museological, is surely Marcel Broodthaers. Another is Marcel Duchamp, whose Boîte-en-valise of 1935–41, a similarly diminished compendium of a period of work, both reproduced art and was art—which some of the objects it reproduced hadn’t always been themselves. This kind of aesthetic status, recessive and indeterminate, is Raad’s stock-in-trade.

One work here mostly comprised names printed near invisibly in white on a white wall, names of artists Raad says were sent to him telepathically from the future. Another was a large relief representing a 2006 installation by another Lebanese artist, Walid Sadek, that itself had contained only captions for paintings by Mustafa Farroukh that it only pretended to show. Absence seems to tease at Raad’s mind. Surely that focus is connected to the experience of war, and indeed it also featured in the Atlas Group project. There, for example, news photos of what apparently is often the largest solid remnant left by a car bomb—the engine block, a lump of metal solid enough to endure when the rest of the car, and much else in the neighborhood, blows away—showed something grossly material but indexed its atomized inversion. That piece, My Neck Is Thinner Than a Hair: Engines, 2004, was a classic Conceptualist series of black-and-white photographs; since then Raad’s work has gotten a good deal more visually stylish. But it is as elegant conceptually as physically, and its cunning conceits sublimate difficult freight.

David Frankel