“Art is a lie that tells us the truth.” Picasso said that, but Lebanese contemporary media artist Walid Ra’ad might as well have. Ra’ad, who spoke about his work at the Cochrane-Woods Arts Center last Wednesday, has built an entire body of work around the premise that so-called facts are not always the best way to convey a history.
Ra’ad, a professor of art at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, works primarily with the Atlas Group, which is, in his own words, an “aesthetic, historical think tank” that he founded in 1999. The Group’s mission is to document the recent history of Lebanon, much of which (from 1975 to 1990) has been spent in civil war. Film, photography, collage, and other media comprise the Atlas Group Archive, a collection of documentary artworks. A notebook contains collaged photos of every make of car that was used as a car bomb during the war. A homemade video tells the story of a man who was held hostage in a basement for five months. A series of photographs shows the impact of car bombs with an initial image of the smoke from afar, followed by a photograph of the crater formed by the explosion, and finally concluding with pictures of the victims themselves, in an attempt to show the entire “perimeter of destruction.” The works are poignant not only because of their uneasy subject matter, but because they are beautifully executed. They explore what Ra’ad calls the “difference between lived and experienced,” juxtaposing hard facts and ideas against the less tangible atmospheres of the mind and the psyche.
But here’s where the twist comes in: many of the pieces in the Archive, although presented as documentary works by various artists, have actually been created by Ra’ad. The Archive, then, is a collection of (sometimes factual) works by actual artists, Ra’ad, and others who never even existed. This, of course, throws the validity of all Atlas Group works into doubt; how can one distinguish between fact and fiction in such a tangled web of actual and fabricated? At a certain point, though, viewers realize that that blurred line is the entire point of Ra’ad’s work; it is a simulation of life in a corrupt, war-torn nation where truth is very difficult to come by.