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Part 2: "Staging Traces of Histories Not Easily Disavowed"

On contemporary artist Walid Raad's work in his recent solo exhibition at MoMA and on the changing politics of presenting art from the Middle East in the region and around the world. Second part of three.


Finbarr Barry Flood

New York University Dr. Finbarr Barry Flood is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the Humanities, Institute of Fine Arts and College of Arts and Sciences, at New York University and has... Read more »
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Part 2: "Staging Traces of Histories Not Easily Disavowed"

On contemporary artist Walid Raad's work in his recent solo exhibition at MoMA and on the changing politics of presenting art from the Middle East in the region and around the world. Second part of three.

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On contemporary artist Walid Raad's work in his recent solo exhibition at MoMA and on the changing politics of presenting art from the Middle East in the region and around the world. Second part of three.

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Installation view of Walid Raad. October 12, 2015-January 31, 2016. © 2015 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Thomas Griesel.

As Raad has often acknowledged, his work is indebted to the writings of the Lebanese artist and philosopher Jalal Toufic. In suggesting why colors, forms, lines, and shapes may have sought refuge in unlikely places, the introductory text for Scratching . . . cites Toufic’s idea of “the withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster,” an idea developed in an eponymous book of 2009.1 Toufic suggests that in the wake of a surpassing disaster—the atomic bombings of 1945, or the series of catastrophes that have hit the Arab world since the 1980s—certain artistic, literary, and musical works remain immaterially withdrawn. Artifacts, buildings, documents, and paintings may persist in a material sense but are unavailable to those directly affected by the surpassing disaster, being seen but at the same time experienced and engaged with as if unavailable to vision. The idea owes something to a distinction between zahir and batin, between exoteric and esoteric, form and essence, in mystical strains of Islamic thought.

The notion that artworks might be both materially present and immaterially withdrawn calls into question the way histories, historical events, and memories are constituted, and by whom. The problem is the violence not simply of war (as if that were ever simple) but of the archive through which histories of war (or histories in general) are constituted—fragments worn and torn, ripped from their context in order to preserve the testimonies that they are made to instantiate. Under interrogation, all such documents are produced, valorized, valued, and enshrined through a process of stratification or winnowing that divides the wheat from the chaff, the historically significant from the apparently contingent.

Yet it is precisely in the promise or potential of the contingent, the ephemeral, that the possibility of a counterhegemonic history emerges. For Toufic, the works and documents subject to immaterial withdrawal after a surpassing disaster—books, films, monuments, photographs, paintings—remain available to the hegemonic histories promoted by perpetrators and victors, while those affected by the disaster are compelled to resurrect these same works. In Scratching . . ., objects, documents, and images afforded archival status as marooned instantiations of (often contested) histories are manifest not as historical documents but in ways recalling Toufic’s suggestion that, following a surpassing disaster, “while the documentation of the referent is for the future, the presentation of the withdrawal is an urgent task for the present.”2 In both Toufic’s writings and Raad’s practice, the strategies of presenting withdrawal are multiple, including blurring, displacement, textual mediation, and temporal destabilization.3

In this sense Raad’s move from archive to museum is a natural one. A corollary of the recent rise of interest in modern Arab art, for example, is a headlong dash not simply to the archive but to constitute it, with varying results. In an arch in-joke, Raad’s Appendix XVIII: Plates 56–58 Dr. Kirsten Scheid’s Fabulous Archive (2008) plays with the anthropologist’s or art historian’s need for archives in order to resurrect occluded histories and the desire that permeates that archival quest. Named after a celebrated Beirut-based scholar of modern Arab art, the work includes blurry miniature reproductions of artworks, collated and collected yet still somehow inaccessible. Similarly, Preface to the fifth edition (2014) explores the mutually constituting relation between museum artifacts and archival ephemera, juxtaposing blurry photographs of museum objects with curatorial notes, statistical observations, and the sketches and reports of conservators.

Like much of Raad’s earlier work, Scratching . . . suggests that the project of resurrecting past histories of art is not simply a matter of bringing them to light, of (re-)establishing them by constructing archives necessarily permeated by contingency and ephemerality. On the contrary, it is a more fundamental matter of staging the relation between the material and immaterial qualities of artworks, of interrogating the relationships between accessibility, temporality, and visibility. Here Raad’s approach is clearly inspired by Toufic’s idea that the ultimate goal of artists operating in the wake of a surpassing disaster is the resurrection of withdrawn works, the overcoming of their immaterial withdrawal. Pending that resurrection, however, the artist’s mandate is to present a withdrawal of a kind that manifests itself only fleetingly and incompletely. It can be discerned in a film’s closing credits, for example, or in the photograph that performs not in its historical role as an archival document, an index of the past available to the present, but as an index of immaterial withdrawal, capable of preserving its blurred or off-center referent only in a future time, when the work of resurrection has been completed.4 In passages rich with resonances for Scratching . . . , Toufic proposes that an appropriate locus for the display of such photographic indexes of withdrawal would be the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, where the theft of thirteen paintings by Degas, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and others on March 18, 1990, is memorialized by the continued display of the empty frames from which they were cut.5 In this way Toufic suggests how two distinct forms of absence or unavailability might be enshrined in the gallery, with photographic indexes of immaterial withdrawal complementing frames that memorialize material evanescence.

Several component works of Scratching . . ., among them the mixed-media installations Preface to the first edition (2014) and Section 88: Views from outer to inner compartments, literalize Raad’s engagement with practices of framing, functioning as stage sets that co-opt while echoing the framing role of the gallery itself. The principle operates in a cascading series of registers, from a vista of open doorways that leads the eye from one gallery space to the next (offering the tantalizing promise of a vanishing point that never quite appears) through material frames that articulate, define, and punctuate the space of the gallery, devices ranging from elegant classical door-jambs to skirting boards, walls, and picture frames, epitomes of an entire infrastructure of enframing. A text accompanying Section 88: Views from outer to inner compartments negates the invitation of these open doors and frames, telling the tale of a hypothetical resident of an unnamed Arab city who rushes toward the entrance of a new museum of modern and/or contemporary art only to find himself stopped in his tracks, frozen in place by the sense that should he proceed, he would “hit a wall.”

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Installation view of Walid Raad. October 12, 2015-January 31, 2016. © 2015 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Thomas Griesel.

Showcasing institutional carapaces generally occluded in the production of aesthetic or historical value, the frame functions in Scratching . . . as a hieroglyph for the staging not only of display but of practices of viewing and consuming. Its role in this ambivalent parsing of institutional productivity recalls Jacques Derrida’s characterization of the role played by the parergon, the supplement that in Kant’s aesthetics remains (at least in theory) exterior to the work: “The violence of framing proliferates. It confines the theory of aesthetics within a theory of the beautiful, the theory of the beautiful within a theory of taste, and the theory of taste within a theory of judgment.”6

Little wonder, then, that like Kovalyov’s nose, many of the works in Scratching . . . seek to break their bonds and take on a life of their own. In Preface to the second edition (2012), reflected images flicker as shadows cast upon the pristine floors of Mathaf. The museum’s polished floor is pressed into service as a primary medium for evanescent artworks whose alienated traces morph with the physical structure of their spaces of display. Conversely, in an exhibition of Islamic art from the collection of Doris Duke held at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design in 2012, Raad supplied some of the captive objects caught in the glare of museum lights with shadows, anticipating the hope expressed in a text accompanying Preface to the second edition that the reflections captured in his images will eventually join the paintings in the museum, which currently lack them. By contrast, in Preface to the seventh edition (2012) these reflections and shadows take their place as prime objects, framed as canonical examples of Arab abstraction in a hypothetical Emirati museum. An accompanying text explains that eventually archival research divulges their true nature as paintings of a painting’s shadow, at which point they lose their status as paradigms of Arab abstraction and are removed from view.

As this suggests, Raad is master of the mise en abyme, his work at once archly ludic and infused with the poignant ambivalence and absurdity of contingency as a condition of life (and death).7 The miniaturization of his past work, and of the gallery itself as work, in Section 139: The Atlas Group (1989–2004) (2008) evokes a nostalgia for craft, for careful practices of making, by no means irrelevant to Raad’s own carefully constructed tableaux. The conceit underlying the work is the unexpected shrinkage of Raad’s Atlas Group works to 1/100th of their actual size when displayed in a Beirut gallery; in order to display the shrunken work, Raad constructed a white-cube gallery on the same scale. This model gallery housing tiny works constitutes a whole, which is displayed in gallery spaces that appear as macro-versions of its miniature spaces. Miniaturization through modeling provides privileged vistas into shrunken gallery spaces, engaging questions of exterior and interior that recall an observation of Susan Stewart’s: “miniature time transcends the duration of everyday life in such a way as to create an interior temporality of the subject.”8 At a formal level, several commentators have connected Raad’s gesture of miniaturization to canonical works of twentieth-century European art, invoking Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (1935–41) and the miniature museums of Marcel Broodthaers, but given the nature of the Scratching . . . project, other histories may be equally relevant. Among the most enigmatic and compelling examples of medieval Islamic art, for example, are small-scale ceramic replicas of houses and mosques, their roofs raised to show interiors replete with human figures, furnishings, and even well-stocked tables.9 Examples of these models can be found in most historical collections of Islamic art.

Similarly, Raad’s penchant for micro-calligraphy recalls the miniature scale of amuletic or talismanic scripts. It may not be entirely serendipitous that to an observer familiar with Islamic art, the horizontal line of micro-calligraphy extending across the width of Appendix XVIII: Plate 98 A History of Essays (2009) and other works in the Appendix XVIII series recalls medieval tiraz, textiles inscribed with a linear band of Arabic script, often containing historical information. This is the case with Appendix XVII, where a partly miniaturized reproduction of the contents page from a 2002 issue of Parachute magazine dedicated to the art of Beirut is rotated through ninety degrees, so that variations in the lengths of the articles’ titles register as verticals on a statistical bar chart.10 The texts of the Parachute issue include an essay on Raad’s Atlas Group by the art historian Sarah Rogers. Also present are writings by celebrated Beirut-based artists with whom Raad has collaborated, including Akram Zaatari, whose recent work also engages with themes of archaeology and archives, and Walid Sadek, whose work Raad has addressed in his own. Sadek’s Love Is Blind, an installation at Modern Art Oxford in 2006, comprised a group of framed captions and verbal descriptions of the landscape paintings of the Lebanese artist Mustafa Farroukh (1901–1957), images Sadek made accessible only through this textual narration; Raad’s On Walid Sadek’s Love Is Blind (Modern Art Oxford, 2006) (2008) restages that work as a trompe l’oeil painting after a photograph of the 2006 installation. The genealogy that Raad provides for this painterly recapitulation of a photograph of another artist’s work in which images are mediated by texts explicitly invokes Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing of 1953, an icon of transformative appropriation.11 Less obviously, perhaps, the palimpsest qualities of the work recall the visual concatenations that produced the improbable objects of Preface to the third edition.

Comparisons have been made between Raad’s overlays and practices of photomontage from Dada to Gerhard Richter, but the centrality of photography to his practice of morphing and layering is especially reminiscent of the work of Sherrie Levine (with whom he has exhibited). Levine’s comments on her paintings after photographic reproductions of paintings in books (what she describes as “ghosts of ghosts”) are worth quoting: “I wanted to make a picture which contradicted itself. I wanted to put a picture on top of a picture so that there are times when both pictures disappear and other times when they’re both manifest; that vibration is basically what the work’s about for me—that space in the middle where there’s no picture.”12 This quality of vibration, of hovering between manifestation and occlusion, captures the defining spirit of Preface to the third edition, and perhaps of Scratching . . . more generally.

In its allusive and anachronic telling of fragments and flotsam, layered to evoke conditions of living on and practices of reading back, Raad’s work has been compared to that of the art historian Aby Warburg. Warburg’s fabled Mnemosyne Atlas—left unfinished when he died, in 1929—was designed to showcase the afterlife and transformation of antique images and motifs, and consisted of constellations of images (including Islamic astrological paintings) brought into dialogue in a precocious analogue version of the hypertext.13 Similarly, in Scratching . . ., as in Raad’s earlier work, memory and montage are mutually constituting. Proliferating visually striking hybrids, a work such as Preface to the third edition draws attention to the impure temporality of artworks, materializing their temporal stratifications and sedimentations through the medium of photomontage.14

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Installation view of Walid Raad. October 12, 2015-January 31, 2016. © 2015 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Thomas Griesel.

The visual, even ontological indeterminacy effected through photomontage points to the epistemological uncertainties of the archive and of the object histories that it underwrites. Echoing Walter Benjamin’s observations on the capacity of translation to create its original, Toufic argues that it is precisely practices of re-creation and repetition, such as Levine’s, that prevent earlier works from appearing as counterfeits. In Toufic’s terms, these are works that have not undergone an attempted resurrection, the idea being that artistic traditions can only become fully visible as tradition if constituted retrospectively. In an inversion that might serve as an epigram for Raad’s earlier projects, which played with the authority of photography in their exploration of the Lebanese Civil War—one reason why the work has sometimes attracted criticism for undermining the very possibility of historical documentation—Toufic asserts that it is in fact the impression of being counterfeit that guarantees the reliability of the events that the work documents.15

In Raad’s earlier work, even photodocumentation is pressed into a performance of instability and uncertainty, an oscillation between states of occlusion and visibility, inner and outer, that also permeates many of the works constituting Scratching. . . . This dialectical quality invokes a tension between exoteric and esoteric, form and essence, a dialectic with evident relevance to the notion of withdrawal and the messianic specter of resurrection. Practices of re-creation, remaking, and repetition are integral to Raad’s undertaking, engaging the peculiar temporality of withdrawal. The easy temporality implied by such titles as Preface to the first edition is at once belied by the doubled allusion to sequential time implied by “preface” and “first,” a promise of progression consistently withheld from the reader/viewer of Raad’s work, with its appendices, indices, prefaces, interrupted series, and marooned numerical sequences.

If attenuated or mediated access is one index of withdrawal, temporal instability is another. This is art history as augury enabled by time travel and telepathy: the portfolio that constitutes Preface to the third edition was purportedly made by a female artist working in 2026; in Index XXVI: Red, blue, black, orange, yellow (2010) Raad appears as both choreographer and medium, exhibiting the names of Lebanese painters working during the last century. The names appear as relief Arabic texts in white on white vinyl, their full visibility frustrated by the materials of inscription; a text accompanying Index XXVI: Red, blue, black, orange, yellow explains that these names have been transmitted telepathically from artists in the future. Of the work’s dramatic corrections, crudely executed in colored, primarily red, paint, the text explains that these telepathic artistic mediums have purposefully distorted the names’ orthography, not to frustrate the writing of histories in the present but in the hope that the corrections necessitated by their errors will be made in colors immaterially withdrawn and unavailable to artists working in the future. The artists from the future, like the vampires that feature in Toufic’s work, will then seek to harvest this blood-red pigment from the present. Their mediated and opportunistic time-travel echoes the scavengings of contemporary art historians. Equally, the corrective policing of the contemporary canon necessitated by the orthographic distortions transmitted from the future performs an authority attenuated by the multiple mediations underlying it.

That artists from the future enable the writing of histories of art in the present (even if their activities are marked by an ambivalence emblematic of Scratching . . . itself) is one more indication of the way in which the project ranges blithely and refreshingly across temporal taxonomies. Once again, the impact of Toufic’s work is palpable: integral to the temporal disruptions that follow traumatic events, Toufic suggests, is the fact that artists who were once avant-garde are merely of their time, any future-oriented aspects of their work the results of anachronistic collaboration with artists from the future. Similarly, Toufic suggests that the eschewal of tradition often associated with a certain rhetoric of modernism leads to a form of relativism that exaggerates its own absolutist (or universal) credentials. Consequently, “Only those who fully discerned the withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster, tried to resurrect tradition, failed in doing so, may become truly absolutely modern.”16 Such a scenario levels the distinctions between tradition and modernity, so that what might once have appeared traditional is revealed not to be so, while “many modernist works of art which vehemently attacked ‘tradition’ are, prior to any reluctant gradual canonization, revealed by their withdrawal to be part of that tradition.”17

This is the second section of the essay. Read Part 1 here and Part 3 here. Excerpted from Finbarr Barry Flood's essay "Staging Traces of Histories Not Easily Disavowed" in the exhibition catalog Walid Raad available at the MoMA Bookstore.


Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster, 2009, available online (accessed February 21, 2015). A print copy of this text was included with Walid Raad’s exhibition catalogue Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Arab World/Part IVolume 1Chapter 1 (Beirut: 1992–2005), ed. Clara Kim (Los Angeles: California Institute of the Arts/REDCAT, 2009). For Raad’s introduction to his Scratching project see his website (accessed March 12, 2015).


Ibid., pp. 59–60.


Suggestively in terms of Scratching . . ., Toufic imagines that, in the space of the gallery or museum, proximity to any index of immaterial withdrawal will affect the artifacts or images on display with blurring, a lack of sharpness or crispness. Ibid., pp. 66–67.


On the supposed indexicality of the photograph, however, see Peter Geimer, “Image as Trace: Speculations about an Undead Paradigm,” in differences: a Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 18, no. 1 (2007):7–28.


Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition, pp. 58–59. The missing Gardner paintings have been the subject of two projects by the French artist Sophie Calle, which combined texts and photographs to explore questions of absence and memory. In 2013, Calle’s work was displayed in the Gardner Museum itself; see website (accessed March 12, 2015).


Jacques Derrida, “The Parergon,” trans. Craig Owens, October no. 9 (Summer 1979):30.


In this as in its engagement with the archive and the museum, some of Raad’s work recalls that of Barbara Bloom. See Dave Hickey, Susan Tallman, and Bloom, The Collections of Barbara Bloom (Göttingen: Steidl, and New York: International Center of Photography, 2008).


Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 66.


See Margaret S. Graves, “Ceramic House Models from Medieval Persia: Domestic Architecture and Concealed Activities,” Iran: Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies no. 46 (2008):227–51.


Parachute no. 108 (2002).


See website. On Erased de Kooning Drawing see Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art,” Artforum 21, no. 1 (September 1982):43–56.


Sherrie Levine, quoted in Jeanne Siegel, “After Sherrie Levine,” in Sally Everett, ed., Art Theory and Criticism: An Anthology of Formalist, Avant-Garde, Contextualist and Post-Modernist Thought (Jefferson, N.C.: Mcfarland & Co, 1995), p. 266.


Aby Warburg, L’Atlas Mnémosyne (Paris: L’écarquillé, 2012).


See Georges Didi-Huberman, “Before the Image, before Time: The Sovereignty of Anachronism,” trans. Peter Mason, in Claire Farago and Robert Zwijnenberg, eds., Compelling Visuality: The Work of Art in and out of History (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), pp. 31–44.


Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition, pp. 26–27, 56. See also Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe, “The Migration of the Aura or How to Explore the Original through its Facsimiles,” in Thomas Bartscherer and Roderick Coover, eds., Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts (Chicago: at the University Press, 2011), pp. 275–98. Relevant earlier projects of Raad’s include My neck is thinner than a hair: Engines (1996–2001) and Let’s be honest, the weather helped I (1998/2006).


Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition, p. 34.


Ibid., p. 64.

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