In a world spiralling out of control, disorder provides opportunities to rethink the ways in which we tell and share important stories. Lebanese artist Walid Raad seeks to make sense of the history of his country of origin through the fragmentation of collective memory, as well as by questioning the authority of the archive, as a recording tool, and of how it influences our understandings of the past.

An extract work from The Atlas Group project.

An extract work from The Atlas Group project.

Raad is the creative mind behind The Atlas Group, an imaginary foundation whose primary concern is to document and research Lebanon’s contemporary history. Presented as a series of lectures, audio-visual material, and performances of the artist himself, the project departs from the idea that truth is the first casualty of war. The archive of The Atlas Group contains found, authored, and produced material, a result of Raad's extensive research on the violent events that took place when chaos reigned between 1975 and 1991, during the Civil War in this Middle Eastern nation.

The Atlas Group dwells between reality and fiction, facts and imagination. The artist suggests that, sometimes, the content of the archive is accidental, and he draws attention to the organisation and manipulation of historic events. The question of production and selection of archival material is in the foreground and invites us to interrogate the construction of the collective memories of our own countries.

Hostage: The Bachar tapes, 2001 by by Walid Raad.

Hostage: The Bachar tapes, 2001 by by Walid Raad.

An important component of this work is a discussion of the psychological scars of war trauma, which are not shared and experienced in uniform ways by those affected by it, nor by future generations, who inherit reworked histories and memories. In “My Neck is Thinner Than a Hair: Engines,” we come across a series of photographs taken in the aftermath of car bomb explosions. As noted in the inscription, the engine of a car is the only thing that remains intact after an explosion. Following these attacks, engines were found everywhere around Lebanon’s main cities and were constantly featured in newspapers. In Raad’s own words, this work explores the consequences of acts of violence in the production of discourses that affect individuals and communities, and the subsequent assimilation of these experiences.

My Neck is Thinner than a Hair: Engines, 2000–3 by Walid Raad.

My Neck is Thinner than a Hair: Engines, 2000–3 by Walid Raad.

The most recent work of Raad is being showcased at MoMA in New York City, and addresses the creation of a history of contemporary art in the Arab world. The installation and performance of “Scratchings on Things I Could Disavow” uses archival material to narrate the origin and development of art in Lebanon, and explores the intersection between art and money. Raad calls attention to the act of fabricating culture and history, and engages with ethics by being a part of the collective known as Gulf Labour, whose primary concern is the quality of life of workers brought from abroad to build Saadiyat Island.

Scratchings on Things I Could Disavow, 2011. Photo by Piet Janssens.

Scratchings on Things I Could Disavow, 2011. Photo by Piet Janssens.

In Raad’s work, we find ourselves in different dimensions, and it seems to be its goal to keep us there, while it awakens in us a sense of urgency, a need to question our knowledge and acceptance of historic truths. These projects speak to audiences at a psychological level, echoing the words of Carl G. Jung: "In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order."

Words: Astrid Scheuermann

Copy edited by Elena Stanciu