By Jef With One F
By Pete Vonder Haar
By Abby Koenig
By Olivia Flores Alvarez
By Jef With One F
By Christina Uticone
By Angelica Leicht
By Altamese Osborne
Lebanese-born artist Walid Raad is founder of The Atlas Group and creator of "The Dead Weight of a Quarrel Hangs: Selections from The Atlas Group Archive," now on view at the Glassell School/MFAH. The Atlas Group, according to the exhibition, was founded in 1999 "to research and document the contemporary history of Lebanon," in particular the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Over the years, The Atlas Group has collected "an extensive archive of audio, visual and literary documents" from that tumultuous time. The exhibition includes photographs and videos from the foundation's archive.
Truth be told, The Atlas Group is, according to the MFAH and numerous other sources, not a real foundation but a decade-long endeavor of Raad, created to make us question how we understand and interpret events — in the news, in historic accounts and archives, and in our memories.
Understanding and interpreting Lebanon's recent history is especially important to Raad, as he grew up in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.
As wall text from the show reads, "In the summer of 1982, I stood along with others in a parking lot across from my mother's apartment in East Beirut and watched the Israeli land, air and sea assault on West Beirut. The PLO along with their Lebanese and Syrian allies retaliated as best they could. ...I was 15 in 1982, and I wanted to get as close as possible to the events, or as close as my newly acquired camera and lens permitted me. Clearly not close enough."
The exhibition begins with three strangely beautiful videos, including the melancholic I only wish I could weep (2002), which, according to the video, is the work of Operator 17, a Lebanese security agent assigned in 1996 to videotape activity along the Corniche, a popular Mediterranean seaside walkway in Beirut. Every day Operator 17 turned his camera toward the sea's horizon when he thought the sun was setting and returned it to its assigned position once the sun had fully set. Filmed in stop-motion, people walk by, talking on phones or to one another, smoking cigarettes or staring out at the sea. With each subsequent sunset, the camera moves toward the sun until, like Icarus, it becomes dangerously close. According to the video, Operator 17 loses his job because of his indiscretion but is allowed to keep the sunset tapes, which he gives to the Atlas Group Archive.
There is no Operator 17. The actual cameraman is Raad, who possesses the eye and voice of a poet. When I had the opportunity to interview him recently, Raad, who divides his time between Beirut and New York, where he teaches at Cooper Union, told me he filmed the Beirut sunset for years without knowing how or if he would ever use the footage. He came upon the idea for the piece one day while walking along the Corniche with a friend, who suddenly whispered for Raad to lower his voice as they passed one of the numerous minivan walk-up cafes that appear along the promenade. When asked why, his friend joked, "Didn't you know there are security agents filming from those vans?" And though the friend was kidding, Raad thought, who was he to say it wasn't so?
The other two videos, Hostage: The Bachar Tapes (Tapes #17 and #31) English Version (2001-2002) are, according to video footage and wall text, a collaboration between The Atlas Group and Souheil Bachar, a low-level Lebanese employee held hostage in Beirut from 1983 to 1993. In 1985, Bachar shared a cell with five Americans hostages during a period known in the European and American press as "The Western Hostage Crisis."
Tape # 17 begins with Bachar giving instructions in Arabic on how the video should be made — the tape should be dubbed by a neutral voiced-woman in the language of the country in which it is screened, with subtitles against a black background or "blue, just like the Mediterranean Sea." And as he speaks, so it is.
According to the video, all five American hostages wrote memoirs; each began by mentioning the weather, "as though being taken hostage was a natural event." Bachar remembers things differently — the Americans were obsessed with sex, his otherness repulsed them, the guards wanted the hostages to cheat and peek through the slits in their hoods. As Bachar speaks, the screen fills with images of the hostages made by their captors, Reagan announcing the hostage release to the American public and Ollie North testifying at the Iran-Contra trial. (The terms of the American release figured heavily in the Iran-Contra affair.)
Tape # 31 is almost entirely composed of a digitalized film of crashing waves, ending with Bachar standing on a rock, looking out at the Mediterranean. (This was the least compelling video work.) The Mediterranean plays an important role in each video. Lebanon is a long, narrow country facing out onto the sea, surrounded on three sides by Israel and Syria, two major aggressors in the Lebanese Civil War. During the conflicts, Beirut bore the brunt of the brutalities, and I imagine for its citizens, the endless violence and disruption must have seemed even more incomprehensible set against the backdrop of the sublimely beautiful Mediterranean Sea.