Waalid Raad MoMA Exhibition Review

Six glossy photographs take up the space of an entire wall, each one depicting a hand holding a small metallic object brought into larger-than-life focus by each picture’s size. At a glance, each of these objects could be a number of small, miscellaneous metallic things: parts of machinery, tools, perhaps even decorative elements of some sort. In truth, these photographs depict various types of explosive devices, and are just a few of the photographs in Walid Raad’s series “I might die before I get a rifle (1993/2002)”. The series is part of Raad’s decades-long project, The Atlas Group, which itself is on display as part of Raad’s MoMA survey exhibition. The wall text that corresponds to “I might die before I get a rifle” attributes the photographs to someone named Hannah Mrad, and it is accompanied by a statement from Mrad reading:  

“In 1991, after fourteen years in the Lebanese Communist Party, I was folded into the Lebanese Army’s Ammunition and Explosives division. Months into my new assignment, I found myself unable to remember the names of the thousands of explosive devices I was meant to master. I began to photograph them, hoping that the photographs would aid my memory. They didn’t and I was let go. I still blame my photographs for my release.”

Taking in the rest of Raad’s work in his exhibition, however, will reveal that the veracity of the narratives that are integral to and consistently presented with each of his works is questionable. This fact places the narrative behind “I might die before I get a rifle” under a different light. Is Mrad real? Are the photographs real? If so, to what degree? Each photograph is presented as evidence; evidence is the truth. However, in the dialogue seen throughout his works, the artist informs the viewer that his narrative itself might lie, or it might not. The cognitive dissonance that comes with the discovery of a questionable narrative is a central theme in Raad’s work. Our culture is inundated with narratives, constructed with varying degrees of truth. In turn, the exposing of the imperfect construction of narratives, in historical, political, and artistic contexts, is a subtle but powerful theme in Raad’s work, and it is a theme that he has explored in increasing complexity throughout the course of his artistic career. 

In his audio introduction to his MoMA exhibition, Raad says of the theme of truth crucial to his work: “In most of the work that I do, I always proceed from facts, but I think that there are different kinds of facts. Some facts tend to be historical, some facts are emotional, and some facts are aesthetic. An artwork is an interesting instance in which one may be able to maintain all these facts in their continuum and their complexity.” The Atlas Group project, which consists of works complied and produced between 1989 and 2004, speaks to this theme in a literal historical sense that illustrates the uneasy relationship between facts and narrative. “I might die before I get a rifle” is on display alongside many of these works—works spread throughout the gallery, diverse and eclectic, but with a common seemingly documental element that relates them all in some form to the contemporary history of violence in Lebanon. “I might die before I get a rifle” embodies the artistic and aesthetic thread connecting every Atlas Group work on display. Each of the piece’s six photographed objects has a particular form, color, and texture captured in a way that is made for display. The gloss of each large photograph adds to the aesthetically minded form of the work, a display easily at home in the white cube gallery space. However, there is also an inescapable sense of scientific or historical categorization present in the photographs, one that is perhaps at odds with their aesthetic representation. Each explosive is held and exhibited as a specimen, an impression that only becomes the meaning of the work upon the reading of Hannah Mrad’s statement that accompanies the piece. Whether Mrad’s narrative is true is irrelevant; in the time spent consuming the varied elements that Raad presents with “I might die before I get a rifle,” its reality, true or not, becomes the overwhelming feature of the work. These six explosives embody a reality of violence that the museum-goer becomes aware of but is still worlds— or realities—removed from. 

Despite the degrees of separation between Lebanon’s violent recent history and the viewer, in his survey exhibition, Raad gives museum-goers an opportunity to experience their own reality within his work. Below the gallery where Atlas Group is on display is part of Raad’s more recent ongoing project, an installation of an array of works titled “Scratching on things I could disavow.” This group of work, Raad explains in his audio commentary, is “an exploration of how culture, art and tradition are affected by a history of violence in the Middle East and the Arab world,” and “a history of the emergence of large infrastructure for the arts in Arab cities.” Prominent among the various pieces in the installation is “Section 139: The Atlas Group (1989-2004).” As its title suggests, this piece is derivative of The Atlas Group exhibited in the gallery above. It presents, as a small diorama, works in The Atlas Group in miniature form, roughly 1/100th of the size of the actual works. Many of the works in “Section 139” are on view in the exhibition’s Atlas Group gallery; there are four video screens, miniscule photographs and documents hung on the walls, installations, and wall text too small to be legible. The piece allows viewers to experience Raad’s interpretation of a reality immediately available to viewers in the very situation that they find themselves in. The layout and works presented in “Section 139” do not correspond exactly with MoMA’s gallery for displaying The Atlas Group. Raad’s wall text and audio for the piece contribute to it a narrative explaining that, after years of the artist’s hesitation, the first time The Atlas Group was to be exhibited in Lebanon, the country on which it is based, the gallery—an existing Beirut gallery— shrunk all of Raad’s works to 1/100th of their size. As the viewer experiences this version of an experience found merely a few steps away, the story of the shrunken exhibition may as well be true. It doesn’t matter.