One of the best of a new wave of Middle-Eastern artists is finding that success can mean uncomfortable compromisesby Ben Lewis / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Middle-East conceptualism: Notebook volume 38 by Walid Raad
Much like the rest of the world economy, the focus of the art world has shifted east over the past few years, to China and the Middle East. Here, we are told, lies not only the world’s greatest concentration of new wealth, but also its most exciting new art.
The contemporary art scene in China is now well known— but the Middle East is a newcomer. The quality of its art ranges between two extremes. At one end is a predictable pop art that adapts the formulas of the west onto local icons. The worst exponent of this strategy is the Iranian Farhad Moshiri, whose gold-plated toy guns sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But at the other end is some highly-charged, intellectual work, driven by the conflicts and repression of middle-eastern politics. This is an art that moves imaginatively beyond the formulae of the west, and has won attention thanks to the new market and institutions promoting it. With success, however, has come a predicament that is in danger of paralysing it.
Walid Raad—the subject of a mid-career retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery (until 2nd January)—is an example of the best of them. Born in 1967 in Lebanon, he now teaches art at the Cooper Union art school in New York. He’s a favourite on the Biennale art circuit. In the Whitechapel’s ground floor galleries you can see his work from the early 2000s, produced under the name the Atlas Group. This remarkable body of work is rooted in the familiar conceptual art forms of found photographs, videos and typologies arranged in grids, popular since the 1970s and often described as “archival.” There are photos of engines from bombed-out cars—the engines were often hurled far away by the explosion and photojournalists used to compete to be the first to find and photograph them (Engines, 2001-03). And there is a grid of pretty little pink, blue and grey puffs of colour which when you look closely are clearly the plumes of smoke from explosions in Beirut (“Oh God,” he said, talking to a tree, 2004-08).
The work is simple, acerbic and paradoxical. The artist is a punctilious assembler of significant visual material, an aspiring historian. The message is that this subject is way too serious for art. At the same time, the work uses the ironising strategy of aestheticisation—of making pretty—to…