Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Art of War, Walid Raad

Currently on view at the Whitechapel Gallery is Lebanese multimedia artist Walid Raad's retrospective of his work from the last 20 years, including an installation for the fictional art collective, Atlas Group which was created in 1999 - 2004  to document the history of Lebanon.  The Whitechapel which prides itself on offering internationally renowned artists a non-commercial space to exhibit  works, across narratives, finds itself in challenging times.  It is often criticised for not interacting with its local community which is largely Bangladeshi and that the art it exhibits is "irrelevant" to Londoners at large.

This is a difficult exhibition but it is an important one, it rips off the veil of acceptability and naturalness of conflict. It defies the sanitised view of war and suffering presented to the world by those with vested interests.

 It's the day-to-day detritus, the discarded bullet shells, the bombed out cars, the scraps  of lives torn to shreds which he reclaims and redefines as  art  that force the eye  and the mind to stay focused when every natural instinct is repelled and upset by the cold, almost lyrical applications that Raad articulates. This is high art and pure, distilled emotion yet it remains detached.

In a poignant group of black and white photographs depicting shot out buildings, Raad has positioned stickers in different colours and sizes. This looks random, child-like but the child who wanted to be a war correspondent didn't have to travel far to find his context.  In Lebanon, he states,

Like many around me in Beirut in the late 1970s, I collected bullets and shrapnel, I would run out to the streets after a night or day of shelling to remove them from walls, cars and trees.  I kept detailed notes of where I found every bullet and photographed the sites of my findings, covering the holes with dots that corresponded with the bullets' diameter and the mesmerising hues I found at the bullets' tips.  It took me ten years to realise that ammunition  manufacturers follow distinct colour codes to mark and identify  their catrtidges and shells.  It took me another ten years to realise that my norebooks in part catalogue seventeen countries and organisations that continue to supply the various militias and armies  fighting in Lebanon : Belgium, China, Egypt, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Libya, NATO, Roumania, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, USA, UK and Venezuela."

The video installation is spine-chilling and irresistable. Souhail Bachar, a low-level employee of the Kuwaiti Embassy was held hostage in Lebanon from 1983 - 1993 in Lebanon. He spent three months  in a basement cellar of a suburban house, along with Terry Anderson and five other Americans.  In 2000 he collaborated with The Atlas Group to produce 53 videos about his captivity. Only tapes #17 and  #31 are allowed to be shown outside Lebanon. Bachar gives very explicit instructions on how he wants the tapes made and presented; the subtitles should be on a black or blue ground, his voice should be dubbed on a neutral-sounding female's voice, native to the country in which the film is being shown. He explains how the men went to great lengths initially not to allow their bodies to touch  for the first few weeks of captivity. He explains how although his own body disgusted them, they wanted to touch him, they touched him all the time and how one night, another of the male hostage's  ass pressed into his groin and he became aroused. The person pushed him away.  All five Americans released books about their captivity, upon release, Bachar did not get a lucrative book deal but this grainy footage  is infinitely more memorable than the  memoirs of  unfortunate preachers.

Souheil Bachar
The exhibition is mesmerising in its details: a catalogue of photographs, consisting  of 145  cut outs of cars used in the  conflict as a car bomb between 1973 and  1994. Alongside the photograph is the description such as the make, model, colour and  what was used to make this vehicle into a car bomb, as well as the Arabic text that describes  the place, time and date of the explosion, the number of casualties, the perimeter of destruction,  the exploded car's engine and chassis numbers and the weight and type of the explosives used.  By making this information a piece of art, Raad removes us from the horror of the atrocity this car was used to deploy but the text and annotations force us our gaze deeper, and we confront what we don't want to see.

This is a microcosm of "witnessing" and leaking information, maybe a mini-WikiLeaks before its time, this catalogue of weaponry so carefully compiled, with the obsessiveness for detail and  facts. By presenting them in this photo-montage fashion he becomes the whistle-blower for the truth behind the clinical image of war presented to us by our governments. WikiLeaks just took it further.
The Corniche was the boulevard along which lovers would amble, spooks would make drops,  and runners jogged along the coast. The Lebanese government posted cameras inside mini food vans to spy on these activities. One such camera operator changed the angle of his camera every day just for the duration of the sunset and these have been compiled into a film. Even in the worst of times, when the war was raging, there was some beauty and comfort the camera operator found by shifting his prescribed task to gaze at the beauty of the sunset. There's just something so human about that.  He was fired after this went on for over  a year but he was allowed to keep his contraband footage which he donated to The Atlas Group.

Walid Raad, just round the corner from Brick Lane, in this important and provocative exhibition raises important questions about how exclusion breeds hatred and isolation.  Raad's work is a concise historical document of what it was like to grow up in Lebanon as a teenager during the war years. There is no agreed upon  history of those troubled times so history cannot be taught in school.

This is art making history, serving a purpose being that of being emotive and decorative.

 The exhibition runs through January 2nd 2011.

Perhaps the Whitechapel Gallery is more on-message than it pretends to be.

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