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Kaleem Hawa: "Weeding and Seeding Histories: Walid Raad at Paula Cooper"

In an imagined account of Lebanese historians flocking to Beirut’s hippodrome to gamble on horse racing during the civil war, Walid Raad’s recurring, alter-egoic academic character Dr. Fadl Fakhouri annotates several images of horses at the finish line, recording “the race’s distance and duration, the winning time of the winning horse, calculations of averages, the historians’ initials with their respective bets, [and] the time discrepancy predicted by the winning historian.” The suite of works, titled Notebook volume 72: Missing Lebanese wars (1989/1998), suggest that the indexing of historical events, whether an equine competition or a three-decade war, involves a jockeying of various perspectives, their later relevance a product of skill as much as fate. Raad’s work often depicts history as a necessarily contested site: querying when, by whom, and for what purpose occurrences become record. His overwhelming thesis is that these attempts at capture are futile and imperfect, that they must be problematized, and that supposed triumphs are in fact bitter in the most Lebanese way—full of educated guesses.

Raad, who was born in Chbaniyeh, Lebanon, in 1967, does not chronicle the Lebanese war so much as slip past it, irreverently describing its marginalia: the natural world, infrastructural oddities, tools. Most of his work is part of or related to “The Atlas Group,” a fictional archive he began in 1989 that includes photographs, videotapes, notebooks, and mixed media. Past Atlas Group projects have included I might die before I get a rifle (1993/2002)—a compilation of highly tactile photographs supposedly taken by a Lebanese communist during service in the Lebanese Army’s “Ammunition and Explosives Division”—and Let’s be honest, the weather helped (1998/2006), an investigation into how the aftermath of war, in this case the scarring of bullets and shrapnel, alters artistic form, here, a set of relatively abstract compositions of colors and lines marking where buildings were hit by artillery. The bulk of his latest works in “We have never been so populated” at Paula Cooper in New York share a sense of serious play. A set of photographs depicts exquisite gold and silver cups seemingly on display in a museum; another group of inkjet prints resembles scrapbook pages with illustrations of birds and flora; and a cluster of larger images depicts horizons as if painted on the back sides of canvases, partly hidden by stretcher bars. Finally, three video installations of waterfalls figuratively bathe paper cutouts of international leaders.

This last category of individuals, architects of death and dislocation, appears frequently in Raad’s art. In this show for instance, Better be watching the clouds (again)_Hussein (1993/2021) depicts a spray of flowers, many of them embellished with a photo of a double-chinned Saddam instead of a stigma, against a cornflower-blue backdrop; Reagan appears in similar fashion atop a weedy vine on mustard, Mubarak on lavender, and so on. The works are part of Raad’s series Better be watching the clouds (2000/2015), which comprises grayscale headshots placed atop shrubbery: the Lebanese Army General Michel Aoun is paired with bladder trefoil, with its oval denticulate leaves, and the Phalangist leader Pierre Gemayel appears alongside Galatian bindweed, as if the vampiric capitalists were strangling Lebanon’s hillsides. The plants—labeled with printed Latin taxonomies and the sites where they grow—also serve a secondary purpose, directing attention away from those high-profile alterers of the land toward the hardy things that, despite their trampling, persist in Lebanon’s lonely places long after the human drama has played out.

Raad also reprises his examinations of “hysterical documents”—what he defines as “fantasies erected from the material of collective memories,” or artworks extrapolated from archival collections. In one example, Raad’s latest set of map-and-graph prints ties population trendlines of invasive bird species to cartographies of Lebanon’s political decimation since 1975; a few important parties receive an ornithological representative. Raad’s imagined artist, the supposed paranoid author of the works, shows their hand most clearly in designating the Israelis Streptopelia decaocto—the Eurasian collared dove, one of the world’s great pest bird species—and placing them next to a drawn map of military operations, littering the geography of Saida and Sur like droppings.

This interplay between humans and nature over historical time carries forward to the visually arresting waterfall series, Comrade leader, comrade leader, how nice to see you (2022). The looped videos provide the illusion of water cascading from a height of fourteen feet onto minuscule printed images of political figures propped up on the floor, the disorienting scale trivializing the personalities.

By rapidly zooming in and out on disasters with a playful sense of critique, Raad makes work that is both unsettled and unsettling. Liberation becomes a question of scale: the defilement of the land by jostling nationalisms is made clear at the level of the leaf; the topographies of rivers and hills are pan-Arab reminders of what existed before Sykes-Picot. Speculate from a distance and you miss the essential stories of the land and people. Look too closely and you miss that there is one people for one land. Raad suggests, then, that we resist by reclaiming our agency over the quasi-imperial forces of magnification and compression. In his Preface to the seventh edition (2012), Raad ostensibly finds some of his Atlas Group works shrunk to a hundredth their normal size by a vengeful dealer, leading him to fight back and build a micro-gallery to house them. This is art for Arabs, examining the ways we are small in the face of occluding powers, and filled with subjective victories.