Fact and fantasy

Walid Raad’s installations seek the “truth”
By GREG COOK  |  April 30, 2008
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EVIDENCE? Raad/Boueri’s I Feel a Great Desire to Meet the Masses Once Again.

“We Can Make Rain but No One Came To Ask” | Brown University’s Bell Gallery, 64 College St, Providence, Through May 25

Walid Raad’s installation, We Can Make Rain but No One Came To Ask, at Brown University’s Bell Gallery, feels like a Borgesian detective story in which truth is elusive, and cities themselves shiver with post-traumatic stress disorder.

For several years, the Lebanese-born New York-based artist has made art about the Lebanese Civil War of 1975 to 1991. This installation, Raad writes, focuses on a single car bombing in Beirut in 1986. The gallery is filled with five long tables, with 44 sheets of paper laid atop them like evidence. A fractured, impressionistic 17-minute video projected on a wall of the gallery seems to cover some of the same territory.

“My photographs [of Beirut] began to manifest colors and lines that were, at times, significantly different from the ones available to my eyes,” Raad writes in a group of pages that depict buildings mirrored, turned upside down, cut-up, and blurred. “I came to believe that something in . . . the time and space of the [bombed] neighborhood may have been affected not only by the 1986 detonation but also by every other war, skirmish, and assault in Lebanon since 1975 . . . I decided to print my photographs even if I still doubted what I was seeing in them.”

That doubt between fact and fantasy is central to Raad’s project. Working in his own name or seeming to collect information about the Lebanese civil war under the banner of his fictitious foundation, the Atlas Group, Raad mixes facts and invented tales to toy with the nature of history, of memory, of rumor, of evidence. One message is, perhaps, that history is a slippery thing, and “truth” changes depending on who’s telling the story.

Each set of papers offers a page or so of text and then images stripped across the top of the rest of the sheets. The small type is difficult to read, making the already dry text somewhat tedious. Raad tallies bombing data, discusses the fear the attacks inspired, insists the motives and culprits can be deciphered, identifies people allegedly behind the attacks, and adds that he’s surprised that no one tried to piece it together before. Perfunctory pictures show bomb damage diagrams and photos of bodies on the ground, rescue crews, and smoke rising from buildings.

Raad writes about a newspaper photographer reporting on the blast and recounts meeting with retired Lebanese Army explosives expert Yussef Bitar in recent years to discuss bombings that he investigated. “He never told me why he copied and kept the reports in his apartment,” Raad writes. “I suspect it was the hope that some day he might present them in court to prove that his originals had been altered time and again by . . . corrupt politicians and judges.”

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