Walid Raad is a hoax historian, a mad sociologist, a liar—and perhaps the only one offering the truth about the Middle East. The absurdist poet of Lebanon’s past and the region’s future is presented at the Museum of Modern Art through January 31. Steeped in research and floating pragmatically between mediums, his work is a debate between the visual and the literary, emphasizing the irrationality of experience to challenge the abstractness of the social sciences.
In The Atlas Group—a project aiming to archive the Lebanese Civil War—he’s primarily a surrealist photographer. Raised in the turbulence of that conflict, Raad focuses on the resulting reshaped social psyche. Seemingly simple documentations prove to be constructed. Working for a possibly hoax organization, this artist/archivist gathers the made-up observations of imaginary characters. In Miraculous beginnings/No, Illness is Neither Here Nor There (1993/2003) connections are made subconsciously, beyond facts and reason. This two-channel video made of hundreds of photographs – some of moments the fictional Dr. Fakhouri thought war was ending, followed by his snapshots of signs for doctors offices – manifests the chronic hopefulness of humankind. The jokes are painfully real. Using photography as a truthful lie, Raad creates a psychological game that breaks the audience/artist barrier. One enters the insanity of life under war.
In this exhibition, Raad resembles the venerable Middle Eastern poets—who challenged politics through the language of unreason. Scratching on Things I could Disavow (2007- ongoing) focuses on the politics of Arab art. Visually unattainable—a wall from Beirut with translucent Arabic text, enlarged monochromatic prints of texts discussing Arab art (dissertations, press releases, budgets, letters, etc), a video of the region’s future white-cube museums, a miniaturized model of The Atlas Group, and an elaborate chart visualizing the power dynamics of the art world – they await Raad’s narration. This he offers in his performance/walkthrough, which he gives several times a week at MoMA—daringly political, utterly neurotic (mentioning mental breakdowns and telepathy), and touchingly absurd (describing colors as political refugees). Here, as always, he presents what no scholarly study can, the intricacies of art, politics, power-games, suppression, war, and culture.