Reality, Fiction and Other Truths: The Work of Walid Raad
The Lebanese civil war began when Walid Raad was eight years old and lasted about fifteen years. Growing up in Beirut, the young Raad made a hobby of collecting bullets and shrapnel. Like many of his peers, he says, he would run through the streets when the shelling quieted, removing the spent munitions from building walls, vehicles and trees. Unlike the other kids’ collecting habits, though, Raad was almost museological in this endeavour. He photographed the sites of his discoveries and labelled the pictures with coloured dots representing the location, calibre and markings of the bullets he found there. It took him ten years, he says, to learn that the coloured shell and bullet tips he used to catalogue his findings corresponded to a coding system that identified their manufacturer. It took him another decade to realize that what he had inadvertently compiled as a youth was a compendium of the corporations, countries and organizations that supplied the armies and militias warring in Lebanon.
Raad donated his notebooks to the Atlas Group, a foundation dedicated to the research and documentation of the contemporary history of Lebanon, which exhibited these and other such documents widely in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Visitors will find the photographs currently on display at the National Gallery of Canada. What the wall text omits telling viewers, however, is that the Atlas Group is a fictive organization. Its directors, contributors and the contents of its archives are all the invention of Raad himself. He devised the foundation as a tool to ask questions about authority and authenticity in the production of knowledge. He is not trying to dupe his audience, instead he invites them to look more closely. Not everything they’ll find is false.
So, what are viewers to make of these photographs strewn with coloured dots, and the story attached? Raad did indeed grow up during Lebanon's civil war. And it is entirely possible that, as a child, he collected shrapnel from the street. (There are, in fact, newspaper clippings, in which he mentions this hobby, apart from any project.) It is also true that bullet tips are colour-coded, and a trained eye could use the information to identify the manufacturer. What is more difficult to believe, though, is that this rigorous photographic and indexing project was the work of a child. The annotated photographs simply can’t picture the events they purport to represent. Yet, through fiction, the series communicates volumes of truth about the forces that influenced the long, bloody conflict in the artist’s homeland.
“It’s all a very articulate, interesting and aesthetically rich ruse, presented with the rigour and weightiness of a comprehensive archive,” says Jonathan Shaughnessy, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art. Let’s Be Honest, the Weather Helped, the seven-photograph series, acquired by the Gallery in 2009, is shown right now alongside works by Thomas Demand, Taryn Simon and Nancy Davenport. Together, they all address “the veracity of the journalistic documentary image,” says Shaughnessy. While photographs might once have been held as the sterling record of authenticity, in this era of disinformation they are hardly unimpeachable. In the case of Raad, the Atlas Group, and these polka-dotted pictures, however, untruths can sometimes beget different truths.
In an interview with Ixel Rión, Raad describes “one possible answer” for his use of what he has called “facts in fiction.” Raad comments: “In certain events of extreme physical or psychological violence, a gap emerges between lived and experienced events; and that this gap is at times ‘filled’ by hysterical symptoms (recurring anxiety dreams, flashbacks, phobias, etc.) These hysterical symptoms may be said to ‘document’ the situations that gave rise to them. But they document them in a particular manner in that they are in many cases based on fantasies (personal and/or collective) rather than being a historical index of what was lived. I found this notion of the hysterical symptom to be a beautiful and generative way to think about the referential relations between the photograph and the world. And I wanted to see whether this notion could inform documentary practice in Lebanon.”
The gumball-coloured spots, ornamenting a tree in one image and speckling the wall around a garage in another, recall the dots conceptual artist John Baldessari famously used to deface photographs. There’s a childlike sensibility, befitting the pictures’ origin story, in that such a dutiful recording project materializes in coloured marker, stickers or some other overbright craft supply. This aestheticization — the dissonance of marking bullet holes and blast sites with these poppy and fun little dabs — emphasizes how infographics and data visualizations can sanitize what they’re supposed to represent.
Raad names the photographs in the series after the countries and organizations from which the munitions were supposedly supplied: Saudi Arabia, China, U.S., Switzerland, NATO, U.K. and Israel. Added to this list, Raad’s research also implicates Belgium, Egypt, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iraq, Italy, Libya, Romania and Venezuela. Let’s Be Honest, the Weather Helped may not picture the adolescent project of collection it claims to; rather, it suggests a history of proxy war, Western intervention, and the reaches of the global arms trade. The deception is quite productive.
This gambit is a favourite for Raad. Another work in the Gallery’s collection, titled I was Overcome with a Momentary Panic at the Thought that They Might Be Right, is a low, round platform, marked on top with a smattering of craters like the moon. Viewers are told it is the work of a Lebanese topographer charged with mapping all the detonations in Beirut between 1975 and 1991. What appears, however, is only a replica; the real model proved so contentious, that when it was presented in the country's parliament, it was vandalized and destroyed. Of course, the story is false, but it foregrounds the fractious nature of truth-telling and national narrative.
As in Let’s Be Honest, the Weather Helped, and across so much of Raad’s work, the viewer must recognize that nearly all recipes for history include both fact and fiction.
Walid Raad's Let's Be Honest, the Weather Helped (Saudi Arabia, China, US, Switzerland, NATO, UK, Israel) is on view in B202 at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.