WALID RAAD at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam

Installation view Walid Raad – Let’s be honest, the weather helped at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2019 Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij

Fiction though Curation – The Role of Narrative in Historical Re-Appropriation.

Upon hearing of Let’s Be Honest, the Weather Helped, the solo exhibit of Lebanese American artist Walid Raad, currently showing at the Stedelijk museum, I could not help but sigh in despair at the thought of another political commentary about the Civil War. Another lecture charged with pseudo-philosophical ethics backed by an all too obvious rhetoric akin to revelatory insights proclaiming to expose the realities of global warming followed by a plea to uptake recycling.

Raad’s insights on war threatened to mirror yet another self-righteous revelation of the unnecessary damages caused by mankind in its quest for power, followed by a  warning to remain critical of the media, which, unlike the artist’s own archives, fails to do justice to a deception most real, yet unseen.

What are the effects of violence on bodies and the mind, on culture and society? In his search for an answer, the artist compiled archives of the many participants of the Lebanese war, from photographies of missiles to contemporary sculptures, in an attempt to piece together the past, to gain a better understanding of the consequences of mass destruction.

Like the paleonthologist, the exhibit mimics an exclavation of ancient artefacts in an attempt to shed light on the effects of war that cannot be seen directly. As such, the artist presents us with an altered version of history to account for the idiosyncrasies of a post-war society.

Upon entering the first room, one is greeted by multiple panels of missiles of various sizes besides which a small inscription informs the viewer of their function as an extension of memory for soldiers who have lost track of the many devices imposed upon their body. Through these photographs, Raad not only highlights an inherent disconnect between humanity and destruction, but a more fundamental need for documentation through representation to make sense of one’s reality.

Further down, a line of photographs depicting vacant streets bear various inscriptions in English and Arabic of the many occurrences that have taken place upon the strips of concrete. Here, is where I walked, for hours on end, trying to avoid the soldiers trying to recruit me into the army, informs one.  These captions present its viewers with an alternate space brought to life by narrative, revealing the horrors behind scenery, which, through its ruins and vacuity, could almost come to be romanticized.

By endowing objects with a narrative of their own, Raad effectively makes the latter into subject, and a centrality to which one must now grant their attention, as the incorporation of beings sharing their own humanity imposes a layer of meaning with moral connotations upon the indifference brought by desensitisation in our consideration for war itself.

As such, by bringing to light the objects that have shaped the violence of war and curating the latter around subject and story, Raad makes use of fiction to bring forth realities of the past, closing the distance between our idea of the event and the components that have given rise to its occurrences, many of which have maintained relevance in the politics of today.

On the other hand, Raad’s methodology reflects a problem commonly observed in contemporary criticism, around the usage of irony to grant the content itself a legitimacy that is only present in light of the connotations behind the term itself, which suggests the user to be a necessary authority on the subject, yet ultimately disconnected from its posited shortcomings. As such, the artist makes use of the very form he comes to criticize to carry out a commentary that relies upon the very premise of the latter as an inevitable truth, despite an overall negation of the concept as a whole.

Ultimately, as the presentation of the past will inevitably shape how we see the present, the truths to which we have access will become the determinants of future possibility. As Raad expresses, “the first causality of war is truth”. Like any act of violence, the Lebanese War has had detrimental consequences on both the individual level and upon collective memory. Beyond its crippling effect upon physiology, the aspect most highlighted through photography, “Let’s be Honest” reminds us of the ways in which violence comes to alter the mind, shifting the course of entire societies as destruction becomes the basis of any cultural development to be.   Elaine Zheng    28th June 2019