Was at the exhibition “The Atlas Group 1998-2004. A project by Walid Raad ”, which was shown at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin in 2006, irritated and at the same time fascinated, can only be reconstructed from today’s perspective in a roundabout way. When documents from the “Atlas Group” appeared in various exhibitions in previous years, for example in 2000 as part of the show “Der Stand der Dinge” curated by Catherine David or in 2004 at Documenta 11 in Kassel, the amazement was astonishing enigmatic notebook entries by the Lebanese historian Dr. Fadl Fahkouri great. In 2006, further apparently historical documents about the Lebanese civil war were added to the already known documents for the exhibition in Berlin. As a visitor, you were confronted with historically-looking entries on images of engines that were left over after the detonation of car bombs in Beirut, or of an archival-looking group of images of crowds of people watching fighter jets in the sky.
As a curious but hardly classifiable part of the picture archive of the mysterious group, there were notebooks for the target photos of horse races, which should have been a common, because apolitical interest of various historians even in the darkest times of the civil wars in Beirut. Another curiously beautiful document showed dreamy sunsets, which – taken from the city’s seafront – might have had such a magical effect on the security guard who was supposed to be monitoring the promenade in a world full of violence that he had filmed them instead of the promenade.
The coverage of the exhibition at the time still shows how difficult it must have been in 2006 to understand the documents for what they really were – an artistic project by Lebanese Walid Raad. At that moment, everyone, including the author, seemed to be more preoccupied with interpreting the fantastic-looking narratives of the individual works than with being able to decipher the artist’s artistic strategy behind them. It was only gradually that the realization took hold that the difficulty of the interpretation was not only due to a lack of knowledge about Fadl Fahkouri and the other authors of the documents, but also that Walid Raad was not interested in fighter jets or target photos of horse races.
A sense of prophetic foreboding
He wanted to teach his viewers what it feels like to have to feel your way out of a dark universe in which documents that appear factual can rarely be trusted, and in which you always have to check what you can and can’t believe. Much better than the precise notes of a “real” historian ever could, Walid Raad succeeded in creating uncertainty in the viewer with the overall structure of his archive. A productive uncertainty that could illustrate the lifestyle of a torn society without intact civil structures. So it was not the documents themselves that shed some light on the intellectual state of Lebanese society for us as viewers, but the nested way in which fact and fiction were tightly interwoven.
In a conversation years later, Walid Raad, of whom there are almost no photos on the Internet, spoke of his documents like phantom pain of lost limbs. Even the bombed-away hand or the amputated lower leg can cause pain after years that seem completely real.
Looking back today, there is a sense of prophetic premonition. Where in 2006 people thought that Walid Raad was only about the inner workings of a non-Western society, in which public discourses are not to be trusted because of collective experiences of violence, one has understood since 2016 at the latest that this situation is by no means limited to a country divided by two decades of civil war may apply in the Middle East. Rather, the fictitious documents of “The Atlas Group” show how fragile the historically unifying narrative of any country can be and what happens to a society if it loses understanding of such a narrative. Who could have guessed in 2006 how up-to-date a term such as “fake news” should become?
The author has been the director of the Kunsthalle Mannheim since 2019.