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 suggest that a political issue has been made light of. This is art that is art because it is not art.
So far, so traditionally conceptual. But the Atlas Group’s work diverges from its antecedents in an important regard: the work is semi-fictional. The Atlas Group does not exist per se and each work comes with an invented backstory, which appears as a text next to the exhibit. Those cute plumes of explosions, we learn, “are attributed to Nahia Hassan who donated them to the Atlas Group in 2004. Until her dismissal in 1994, Hassan was a senior topographer in the Lebanese army’s directorate of geographical affairs.” Yeah, right. There is a speeded-up video of sunsets on a Beirut seaside promenade, apparently shot by a security agent who got bored with monitoring the crowd (I only wish that I could weep, 2002). There is a low-grade VHS tape of an interview with one Souheil Bachar, a “Lebanese airport employee” who was—hee! hee!—held hostage with Terry Waite and others in the 1980s (Hostage: the Bachar Tapes #17 and #31, 2000) This is a phoney, very witty archive that makes Walid Raad the Steve Coogan of conceptual art. It also opens a new chapter in narrative-based and politicised art.
And yet the much drier and spartan work in the upstairs gallery suggests the new commercialisation of Middle Eastern art may be paralysing its best artists. In the pointedly titled A History of Art in the Arab World Part 1_Chapter One, Raad abandons the Atlas Group disguise and Lebanese politics, and takes on the Middle Eastern art market. In the centre of the room is a miniature scale model of a retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work. On the walls of the main room hang huge, elegantly framed, vertical monochromes, in the centre of which is tiny Arabic writing. One text reproduces the invitation Raad received to represent his country in the 2005 Venice Biennale; in another the contents of a book are listed that includes essays like “From Excavation to Dispersion: Configurations of Installation Art in Postwar Lebanon.”
Raad has also tacked up newspaper clippings of reviews of exhibitions in Beirut from before the art boom. He is clearly worried that his work has been hijacked by the “exciting” new Middle Eastern art market—the dilemma being that the money and publicity in this new art world comes from institutions and individuals who may also be complicit in the problems that inspire the art. Raad has not found a way out of that one yet.