Monday, February 18, 2008

The Atlas Group by Walid Raad

Given historical facts and the apparent truthfulness of physical documentation, it would seem that Walid Raad’s Atlas Group Project is a found treasure trove of forensic reports on Lebanon’s 14 year war. Through a series of books published by Walther Konig, Raad walks a fine line between art and science with this homesick vision of his war torn homeland. It is with closer readings of some of the documents that cracks in their “truthfulness” appear, stirring doubt about the directness of their presentation.

Volume 1: The Truth Will Be Known When the Last Witness is Dead presents four groups of documents from the notebooks of a Dr. Fakhouri who is cited in a brief foreword to have been the “most renowned historian” of the Lebanon. The first section is from Notebook Volume 72, titled Missing Lebanese Wars, as described by Raad: It is a little known fact that the major historians of the Lebanese wars were avid gamblers. It is said that they met every Sunday at the race track - Marxists and Islamists bet on races one through seven; Maronite nationalists and socialists on races eight through fifteen.

Race after race, the historians stood behind the track photographer, whose job was to image the winning horse as it crossed the finish line, to record the photo-finish. It is also said that they convinced (some say bribed) the photographer to snap only one picture as the winning horse arrived. Each historian waged on precisely when - how many fractions of a second before or after the horse crossed the finish line - the photographer would expose his frame.

Each page of Fakhouri’s notebook contains the newspaper clipping of the race photograph along with: notations on the race details, the bets placed, calculations of averages, and small descriptions of the winning historian’s personality.

The next documents come from Fakhouri’s Notebook Volume 38 titled Already Been in a Lake of Fire. This notebook is comprised of cut out pictures and notations of every make and model of automobile used in the 3,641 car bombings that took place in Lebanon from 1975 until 1991. Other facts relate to the date of explosion, numbers of persons killed and injured and type of explosive used are handwritten around the image.

At first these seem to be strict matters of record and documentation but the playfulness of arrangement of image and handwritten Arabic belies the seriousness of the facts. It is that playfulness which seems to reveal how the maker dealt psychologically with these horrifying events - recording them almost as if he is shell shocked and in need of lightening their unwanted presence.

Notebook Volume 57, No, Illness is Neither Here Nor There, is filled with photographs purported to have been taken by Fakhouri of medical and dental signs; trimmed and arranged on each page like an avant garde collagist.

The last section featured in Atlas Group Volume 1 is called, Civilizationally, We Do Not Dig Holes to Bury Ourselves. Presented is a group of self portrait photographs of Dr. Fakhouri on trips to Paris and Rome in 1958 and 1959. These are, according to our only source of Raad, the only photographs that exist of Dr. Fakhouri.

As all of this material is presented reproduced as documents with no apparent “manipulation” and complete with the patina of age, this last section would seem to add credibility through photographic fact to Dr. Fakhouri’s existence. Or, perhaps it is all a falsified construction on the part of Raad using appropriated material “factualized” by an elaborate and brilliantly constructed conceptual design.

Volume 2 of the Atlas Group’s series investigates the rash of car bombings that terrorized the populace of Lebanon from 1975 to 1991. Entitled, My Neck is Thinner Than a Hair, each page reproduces the front and back of photographs made where the car’s engines came to rest after each explosion. As explained by Raad, the engines are sometimes propelled tens - if not hundreds - of meters from the detonation site, often landing on rooftops or balconies, and many bystanders and photographers competed to be the first to find and photograph where they landed. This book presents 104 such photographs with notations of the photographer credit and date of the event.

The black and white images describe the identifiable remains of the engine amongst the wreckage caused by the explosions. Spectators, who look like same crowd that would be drawn around a fisherman and his prizewinning catch in a souvenir photo, fill out the background while authorities study and consult the engine block as if it were an oracle to which they had just asked a question. The answer would be in the form of the engine serial number with which they could start their police investigation.

Volume 3 of the Atlas Group’s dossiers is called Let’s Be Honest, The Weather Helped and it presents works credited to Raad himself as the author. The first of two sections called We decided to let them say “we are convinced” twice. It was more convincing that way is a series of photographs that Raad purports to have taken in 1982 of the Israeli invasion of West Beirut. Scarred by scratches, color shifts and intense graininess, the photos describe planes flying overhead and smoke from distant explosions billowing up over the tops of buildings while spectators (like Raad) seek high ground and witness the invasion.

Raad explains, “I was 15 in 1982 and wanted to get as close as possible to the events, or as close as my newly acquired camera and lens permitted me. Clearly not close enough.”

Once Raad does encounter Israelis, finds them at rest awaiting further orders. He moves around their guns and armored vehicles with the curiosity of a teen fascinated with weaponry and a curiosity towards the identities of the soldiers that employ them. When he discovers human life around the seemingly abandoned machinery, they are lounging in the shade with their shirts off and smile back at Raad’s camera with disconcerting joviality.

The second section consists of a project that is more complex in its conception and raises an overt political message.

“Like many around me in Beirut in the late 1970’s, 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 to the bullet’s diameter and mesmerizing hues I found on the bullets’ tips. It took me another 10 years to realize that ammunition manufacturers follow distinct color codes to mark and identify their cartridges and shells. It took me another 10 years to realize that my notebooks in part catalogue 17 countries that continue to supply various militias and armies fighting in Lebanon.”

The resulting documents read the closest as contemporary art pieces with their colorful dots healing the pock marked facades of the architecture. With these works it is the beauty of the imagery, as opposed to the scientific analysis, that initially draws the viewer’s attention and creates a slight tension through aestheticizing the evidence of violence. The titles of each work identify the country of origin of the cartridges and shells.

The last book I will mention is called Scratching on Things I Could Disavow published by Walther Konig and soon to be released. This collection handsomely reproduces several visual essays from the Atlas Group Project that have appeared in various art-related magazines and quarterlies. Larger in format than the other books, the contents are presented in 1:1 size ratio to their originals. All but three of the 17 essays feature work that doesn’t appear in the books described above.

Interestingly, as suspected from the lingering of doubt towards the authenticity of much of the Atlas Group’s archive, different members of the group seem suspiciously fictional. For instance, an artist linked to the Atlas Group named Ingrid Serven appears with a portfolio called Oh God, She Said, Talking to a Tree in an issue of Mouvement in 2004 yet the look of her work seems to be directly channeling - and stealing titles from - Raad.

Dr. Fadl Fakouri, the “most renowned historian” from Volume 1 bequeathed his notebooks and photographs to the Atlas Group “died” in 1993 and but that didn’t stop him from corresponding to Tracy Davis of TDR: The Drama Review in 2006 when she contacted him about contributing a piece for the magazine.

All of the books are very elegant in their design and book craft. Volumes 1 - 3 follow the same format, design and materials and work very much as a set. All three are covered in an attractive vellum jacket that is attached to the inside covers. The reproductions are rich and seductive. There are a few other titles published on Walid Raad and the Atlas Group Project and all seem to share the same interest in not only presenting the work but housing it in a handsome package.

Whether you can determine fact or fiction, Raad’s work has its way of blurring those lines so effectively that we become steeped in his visual games of constructing a history that has claimed the lives of over 140,000 of his compatriots and forced another million to flee the country. Raad’s family was within the million that fled, but his fascination for the minutia of war and history have entrapped him into a specific time and place that refuses to recede from his memory.

Buy online at Walther Konig

Book Available Here (Atlas Group Volume 1)

Book Available Here (Atlas Group Volume 3)

Book Available Here (Walid Raad and Silvia Kolbowski)