“Some people I know (…) let themselves be fooled by typographic trickery (…); they believe a fact is real because they see it printed in big black letters. They mistake truth for a number twelve character.” J.L. Borges.
This past October Madre Museum inaugurated Lebanese artist Walid Raad’s first exhibition in an Italian public institution. Born in 1967 in Chbanieh, Lebanon, Walid Raad is a fascinating artist who has a complex yet poetic artistic language. On the first floor I am confronted by what look like old artifacts attached to the wall. They appear as museum “ leftovers”, and generate shadows. I find out that the shadows are fake, drawn by Raad, who states: “Recently I was surprised to find out that the majority of the paintings exhibited at the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha are partially (though not completely) lacking shadow and glare. My hope is that the shadows and the reflections in my photos will go away and resemble more the paintings of the museum.”
Moving on I am confronted by an incredibly refined photograph. It depicts an image within an image, and there is a sense that it becomes something else – that it becomes a pure image. In this room we find the most daring part of the exhibition. The works are installed to purposefully mislead the viewer, and the result is wonderfully cynical. Yet, it is not the contrast that is ultimately the point, but rather the “passage”. The wooden floorboards, limited to their geometrical significance, interact, thanks to chance, with other essential black and white yet ambiguous works. Some of the pieces appear as if they had jumped out of a screen and become three dimensional. The bond- if existing at all – between the works is thinly sketched, subtle, and is expressed through gestural sensitivity and never obvious. In this way, with conscious ambiguity, Walid Raad questions himself through his work. An example of which may be found in Madre Museum’s text; which states“ (…) truthfulness of the historical document; the dynamics which anticipate the composition of both individual and collective memory; the artist’s intimate nature compared to the pervasive influence of politics and economy; the role of the museum today in a particularly Arabic context”.
In the next room, there are a series of black and white photos where the artist has collaged small colored paper circles. The result is elegant and absolutely modern. The origins of these works, moreover, have their roots at the end of the 1970s. Raad used to pick up bullets and shells and after a battle he used to tear out the bullets from the walls and take a picture of the location where he had found them. Then he would cover the holes with a mark as big as the diameter of the bullet with the same shade of color of the point of the bullet. By doing this, Raad understood that weapon producers used specific chromatic shadows to identify their own ammunitions and discovered that seventeen nations and organizations supplied, and are still supplying, weapons to the different groups that fight in Lebanon.
The historic work becomes art. This is an example, yet again, of how history becomes an image. In this case with a declared journalistic and critical stance Raad has donated these works as a gift to The Atlas Group.
Underlining the state mutation which takes place in Raad’s work, there is “ the Hostage: Bachar’s Polaroid”. This is a work that could be described as a hint, an attempt, perhaps a vehicle, or even a hypothesis. Bachar was photographed repeatedly by his prison wardens in the ten years he spent incarcerated (the photos were unsuitable for the public dissemination) and eventually the photos were given to him by his jailers. Both Bachar’s head and body were cut out of these pictures. As a result he decided to paint watercolored self-portraits into the missing voids.
The exhibition’s highlight takes place in a room that only contains photographs. Bullets and grenades, held in a human hand, as if they were a magnifying glass, are trapped in the image with a result, this time, not of “emptying” of its meaning, but of extreme focus. The result of this transition is that of a quintessential function, which is mute, intimate and finally abstract.
The final room hosts black and white photos of explosions, buildings, clouds of smoke. They appear almost desperate or dramatic. But in a way they also appear quite classic as if they were waiting to transform into an ‘other’ state.
Preface is an important exhibition and Walid Raad, as with all great artists, uses simplicity and synthesis to great effect. A fact which confirms that art is first and foremost “a mental act”.
Vincenzo Della Corte
© Museo Madre Napoli © text Vincenzo Della Corte
Curators: Alessandro Rabottini, Andrea Viliani