The lecture hall in the Carpenter Center is packed with an audience expecting to hear about the work of one of the most prominent Arab artists in the world. What they get is something unexpected: not a conventional lecture about Lebanese artist Walid Raad’s work but an hour-long talk in which Raad recreates the simultaneously real and false narratives that lie behind his artistic approach.
Raad is known for blurring the lines betwen truth and fiction in his artwork. Visual and Environmental Studies professor Carrie Lambert-Beatty alludes to this when she warns the audience that Raad is “disarming.”
A member of the audience commented at the end of the lecture, “I totally suspended my disbelief when I wasn’t supposed to.... Everything he said was so believable.”
Walid Raad now lives in New York and is deeply interested in the intersections between memory and history and between fiction and reality. His work is influenced by the traumatic events of the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1991, which he uses as a backdrop in some of his stories.
Raad begins his talk by providing an overview on his works in the past decades. Raad created the most well-known of his projects under the name of “The Atlas Group,” an imaginary foundation dreamed up by Raad that features the work of both real and fictional artists.
The foundation is entitled “The Atlas Group 1989-2004” but Raad is quick to inform the audience that the name is misleading: He continues to work on the project today, but all works will be assigned a production date between 1989-2004. A prominent figure is Dr Fakhouri, a historian who bequeathed his works to The Atlas Group—but Dr. Fakhouri is a fictional character.
Then, under dimmed lights and dressed in black, Raad begins to tell the first of four stories he will share during the night. The narratives seem credible, or at least he is a consummate performer.
Some of his tales sound more absurd than others. One of his stories concerns his reluctance to exhibit his work in Beirut. Finally, after repeated petitions, he relented in 2008 and agreed to exhibit his work at the Sfeir-Semler gallery. But as he prepared for opening, a strange phenomenon takes place: All his works shrink to a hundredth of their original size. Other stories about the Artist Pension Trust, “the most beautiful man [Raad] had ever seen,” disappearing colors of the future, and invisible art works bewitch the audience.
His stories seem stranger than fiction, yet so much is grounded in what he calls “historical fact” that his world transforms into an incredible place where anything is possible. His seamless intertwining of truth and fiction seeks to question the audience’s conviction in the importance of fact and the steadfastness of logic.
Director of the Carpenter Center David Rodowick comments that he doesn’t “know of any other artist doing [what Raad] is doing contemporarily.” Raad’s work, he says, is “extremely grounded in history.... He keeps sourcing [his work] like a historian, but you never quite know what is true and what is not.” In this realm of indiscernible truth and fiction, the audience has little idea of what is real and what isn’t. Or perhaps they are relegated to a state of unimportance.
Raad is confronted by a member of the audience who challenges the veracity of his lecture at the end of the talk. She shouts out microphoneless and nervous: “You’re a great storyteller, whether your stories are true or not.”
Raad’s response is perhaps rehearsed to seem unrehearsed. He replies simply, “I seem to always work with facts, and sometimes these are historical facts.” His lecture is far more than an informatory talk: doubtless, we are informed about his work and the state of the contemporary art world, but the lecture is an experience that profoundly tests the audience’s credibility.