Dossier | Blind Spots, Caesurae and Other Archival Lucanae | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Blind Spots, Caesurae and Other Archival Lucanae

  • Walid Raad / The Atlas Group, Let’s Be Honest, the Weather Helped (Egypt), 1998. Photo : © Walid Raad, permission de | courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Blind Spots, Caesurae and Other Archival Lucanae
By Andria Minicucci

Fiction is treated as reality, and facts can be reliable fictions in the works assembled by Lebanese artist Walid Raad, who claims to be working under the auspices of a fictional collective called The Atlas Group. The boundaries between history and fiction, individual authorship and collective authorship, are not merely rigorously challenged but completely eroded. The collective is, in reality, the artist’s own artistic project and functions as a visual historical archive established by Raad himself to document and research the contemporary history of Lebanon, in particular the Lebanese Civil War, which took place between 1975 and 1991.

Drawing on the aesthetic conventions of modernist painting, Raad targets the historiographic complexities of the archive, especially when it is concerned with documenting trauma — the unspeakable and unrepresentable. Raad’s fictive archive works to expose the caesurae in history’s truth-telling narratives. By utilizing fiction and imaginative devices to investigate the “truths” of documentary realism, Raad delves into the in-between spaces of the archive that appear as gaps, absences, and lacunae within the historical field: the spaces that are lost or omitted — such as those between what happens and what is recorded, between what is recorded and what is interpreted.(1) That which eludes enquiry is what we can refer to as the historical archive’s “blind spots.” Such absences are brought forward for investigation not only through elaborately staged and fictitious documents but most strikingly through Raad’s formal style.

Intimately versed in the history of photography and the avant-garde, the artist shapes both the figuration and content of his work through formalist strategies, revisiting modernist tropes. Before the onslaught of digital photography, Raad was fascinated by how photographic papers produced various colours and tones when exposed to chemicals. Working as a chemical mixing technician while attending college in Rochester, New York (where he went on to earn his PhD at the University of Rochester), Raad spent months experimenting with the volatile variables that affect colour reproduction: exposure time, temperature, and expired film. Alongside his investigations, trips to nearby George Eastman House and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery exposed him to the works of Eugène Atget, Berenice Abbott, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Arshile Gorky, Morris Louis, Ad Reinhardt, and Clyford Still, among others.

The prominence of colour in Raad’s plates reflects his technical training and the influence of Abstract Expressionist and Colour Field paintings. Colour has a prominent place in his later works, as in Let’s Be Honest, the Weather Helped (1998/2006 — 7), a series of seventeen colour plates of Raad’s notebooks filled with odd handwritten notes and calculations obfuscated by black and white photographs pasted on top. These images reveal scarred urban landscapes: “Like many around me in Beirut in the late 1970s, I collected bullets and shrapnel. I would run out to the streets after a night or day of shelling to remove them from walls, cars and trees. I kept detailed notes of where I found every bullet and photographed the sites of my findings.”(2) Particularly intriguing are the bright, fluorescent, coloured dots saliently scattered over the monochromatic photographs, marking the spots where he covered the holes left by the bullets with coloured stickers that correspond to each bullet’s diameter and the mesmerizing hues found on the tips. Raad states it took him over a decade to realize that ammunition manufacturers followed distinct colour codes in order to identify their cartridges and shells. What he had essentially but unknowingly created was a colour-coded document cataloguing all the various countries and organizations that supplied the militias and armies fighting in Lebanon. But what initially attracted the artist to the bullets were their coloured tips: “I just loved the colours of those bullets, who wouldn’t?”(3)

The sporadic dots of colour are reminiscent of Pointillism, a technique developed by the Neo-Impressionists for mixing colours. Raad’s dots also recall the radical re-examinations of colour in the 1950s and 1960s, explored through colour charts, particularly the ready-made colour charts by artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Gerhard Richter. Similarly, Raad turns to ready-made colour in the form of circular labels obtainable at any stationery shop. The formalism of his abstract compositions — shaped by vivid circles — contrasts with the documentary mode of the underlying photographs of carnage and unpopulated landscapes.

There is something clinical and statistical about these plates, and their colour-coded labels add a note of cool detachment inherent in their unremittingly stark formalism. The contradictory nature of the archive is mirrored in the skewered history of colour. Art historian Briony Fer has noted that “a one pole colour is meant to be subjective, intuitive, expressive, translating into a language of aesthetic feelings and emotions; at the other it is objective, scientific, systematic.”(4) So too is the archive at odds with its overtly proclaimed agenda, struggling to reconcile the subjective, testimonial, and emotional with its more traditional emphasis on the objective, statistical, and factual. Raad’s seductive and sensuously coloured aesthetics not only add to the legitimization of his documents but also to their capacity for critiquing how the archive’s content is shaped by its representation.

What do these whimsically coloured plates actually document? The barrage of colour only underlines the degree of devastation caused by violent gunfire. Indeed, the holes, disfigurations, and atrocities of war are not entirely visible. The documentary photographs are obfuscated by brightly coloured labels concealing bullet holes (even though they are designed to highlight them) and their corresponding manufacturers. Raad invokes the formalist strategies of Abstract Expressionism and colour charts as a visual strategy in order to deliberately obscure vision and interpretation. His ready-made coloured dots stuck all over the photographs become literal (as well as formal) blind spots, hiding photographic evidence as well as figuratively pointing to the historical blind spots that undercut the evidential status claimed for photographic archival documents.

But it is in Secrets in the Open Sea (1994/2004), a series of six large blue monochromes, that colour takes centre stage. According to the statement that formed part of the exhibition, twenty-nine prints were found buried under rubble during the 1993 demolition of Beirut’s war-ravaged commercial districts. In 1994, six of these prints were allegedly sent by The Atlas Group for chemical and digital analysis. Extraordinarily enough, in each of the six prints a small black-and-white portrait emerged from a sea of blue: the Atlas Group identified the men and women in the portraits as tragic victims who had drowned in the Mediterranean between 1975 and 1991. In each of Raad’s radiant and sizable works, a monochromatic bright blue field — the electric blues reminiscent of the works of the neo-avant-garde, particularly Yves Klein’s patented YKB monochromes — floats atop a broad white border while a tiny thumbnail portrait hovers silently in the lower right corner. Beside each image, small numbers and codes such as “Plate 17.AG_FD_Secrets” announces the prints as documents meant for archival purposes.

In Barbara Rose's book on monochromes, she describes the monochrome as mute, as a work of art that resists interpretation. Raad’s series is very much evocative of lost or mute testimony. The portraits of the dead in the corners of Raad’s monochromes, opaque and faded to a pale gray, appear ghostly and silent. Yet it is the brilliant blue hues, not the miniature, barely visible images of the anonymous dead that impinge on the viewer’s space. Raad invokes the monochrome as a device to convey the documents’ commitment to mutism. There are no testimonies preserved here, and although The Atlas Group managed to identify the individuals, their identities are not revealed here. The images are reproduced on such a small scale that even the likenesses are barely perceptible. Lacking the testimonies of the dead, these monochromes risk becoming pure surfaces.

What is preserved and expressed in these pure surfaces is as paradoxical as the nature of the monochrome itself. The monochrome always exists on a threshold: Rose traces the two polar sources of the monochrome in the transcendental (mystical) and the concrete (material).(5) Raad’s formal strategies, rooted in modernist abstraction, expose the caesurae and aporias of the archive — that which cannot be documented. Just like the monochrome, all things exist in a non-place or liminal state, oscillating between two polarities. Giorgio Agamben has ruminated on the “impossibility of language” and states that all testimony necessarily contains certain lacunae: “Yet here the value of testimony lies essentially in what it lacks; at its centre it contains something that cannot be borne witness to and that discharges the survivors of authority. The ‘true’ witnesses, the ‘complete’ witnesses, are those who did not bear witness and could not bear witness. They are those who ‘touched bottom’ . . . the drowned. The survivors speak in their stead, by proxy, as pseudo-witnesses; they bear witness to a missing testimony.”(6)

The lacunae are the pseudo testimonies, the holes created by missing testimonies that have been unwittingly replaced by proxies because the true testimonies are irretrievable; they exist in the non-place of mute articulation. In Secrets in the Open Sea, Raad’s series of glossy blue monochromatic surfaces are impenetrable and uncommunicative like a vast ocean, and sitting at the bottom right corner are the miniature fading faces of those who have “touched the bottom,” who have become mute, whose testimonies have been lost alongside them. Raad paradoxically preserves the memory of these drowned victims, these lost lives, by presenting the loss of their testimony.

The Atlas Group’s collection of documentation fails to satisfy its audience in that it does not elucidate or remember the actual events of the Lebanese Civil War. Raad felt it would be futile, even impossible, to document the war in Lebanon. Instead, the collection satisfies an amnesiac desire, one that highlights the forgetfulness, gaps, and absences of the archive. Its blind spots remind us of the ineluctable relationship memory shares with forgetting. Over time, things get lost or displaced and become irretrievable. Rather than creating proxies, the artist incorporates fictive characters and testaments, and though fictional, they remain original. Meaning and affect, even truth, resound in Raad’s archive — speaking not through the cryptic facts or numbers of the documentary record, but through aesthetics and the bold flights of the artist’s imagination.

(1) Here, I echo Renée Green’s words in her personal investigation of “in-between spaces.” See “Survival: Ruminations on Archival Lacunae” in Interarchive, ed. Hans-Peter Feldman et al. (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2002), 174.
(2) Walid Raad, Miraculous Beginnings, ed. Achim Borchardt-Hume (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2011), 55.
(3) As quoted in Ann Temkin, Briony Fer, et al., ed., Colour Chart: Reinventing Colour, 1950 to Today (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2008), 216.
(4) Ibid., 28.
(5) See Barbara Rose, Monochromes: From Malevich to Present, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 21.
(6) Georgio Agamben quoting Primo Levi in his Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 1999), 34.

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