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.
But were the films made in collaboration with Bachar? And is Bachar real? Raad says the Lebanese hostage does exist, but he couldn't track him down, and that when he questioned the American hostages, they didn't want to talk. Because of the Western media's domination of events, Raad felt the need to tell Bachar's story, even as a fictionalized account. I tried Googling Bachar to establish his existence, and all I found were references on The Atlas Group Web site and in writings on Raad's work. Funny thing, that.
My neck is thinner than a hair: Engines (2000-2003) consists of 100 photographs (front and back) of car bombings taken by real photojournalists during the Lebanese Civil War and obtained from the archives of the An-Nahar Research Center and the Arab Documentation Center in Beirut, both real institutions. (The title comes from an eyewitness describing how he felt during a bombing.) During a car bombing, the engine, the only part to remain intact, is often thrown hundreds of feet away from its car. After each bombing, photographers jostle for position, wanting to be first on site to film the car's remains.
Each of the 100 photos depicts a car engine, or in a few cases the burnt-out chassis of a car. In one photo, a man dislodges an undamaged battery from the wreckage; in another, an officer wipes away dirt to reveal the engine's serial number. In a number of photographs, military, police or civilians pose in front of the debris, some smiling, while others look wearily on at what must be a sadly repetitive event. On the back of each photo are official stamps filled out in Arabic, which, according to labels, categorize the bombings into one of three groups: Explosions, Investigations and Crimes. The photos are repetitive, but this repetition makes one more aware of what people in other parts of the world face every day.
The final grouping, We decided to let them say "We are convinced" twice. It was much more convincing this way (2005) are the photos taken by Raad in 1982 after getting a new camera, reprinted, with some small changes, in more recent times. Framed in near stereopticon pairs, they depict civilians in East Beirut watching as West Beirut is bombed, planes dropping bombs overhead, and smiling Israeli soldiers relaxing in the shade of their trucks and tanks. Raad says that when he found the negatives in his mother's Beirut apartment, they were scratched up. He made no attempt to Photoshop out the scratches when he printed them because, as he says, what if it was the world that he photographed that was scratched instead? And yes, it is the world that is damaged, by the destructive acts that people commit day in, day out, year after year.
Sometimes an artist says he's created his work in order to make you view things differently, and generally that is a load of crap. But Raad's work achieves his exact intentions. It makes you question not only the "archive" of The Atlas Group, but the news you read and listen to every day.