Colours that conceal themselves and paintings that become miniatures: Walid Raad’s wonderful ‘Scratching on things I could disavow’

‘Come and sit closer if you want to, as I am going to tell you some stories.’ A few dozen people, sitting on stools, facing a big screen with an interesting looking schematic chart, with names, pictures and arrows. It keeps on amazing me how sometimes you really don’t need much to make an impression. Take acclaimed visual artist Walid Raad and his Scratching on things I could disavow: a history of art in the Arab world, for instance, presented at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts (Brussels). Just a sympathetic storyteller, a few well-chosen works of art to look at and a slight sense of wonder. Loved it.

I know: the title is somewhat off-putting. And then the idea of an artist (a professor even) talking about his work? Even knowing that his works have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, Documenta and the Whitney Biennial, or that he’s recently been awarded the Hasselblad Award in Photography… how can that be a performance worth going to? A Lebanese artist who’s been involved with an art archives project called The Atlas Group, about Lebanon’s recent history? An artist who’s going to talk about the history of art in the Arab world and the development of new infrastructures dedicated to the visual arts in Abu Dhabi? Yep. Drop those prejudices and you’ll see.

Sure, a real actor and a real theatre playwright would probably have gotten more out of this. But one of the charms of Scratching on things I could disavow is exactly the fact that Walid Raad isn’t an actor. He’s just this sympathetic storyteller, this warm person that you really love listening to. I won’t spoil the fun by telling you what exactly he’s talking about, but I can tell you this. He starts off with an intriguing story about a worldwide pension fund for artists. Then he describes some of the museum projects in Abu Dhabi. And then he takes you to another set in those huge Hallen van Schaarbeek (Brussels): a miniature gallery. And he tells the strange story of an exhibition of his for which all his works of art suddenly were miniaturized without his knowing.

 

And after that one, he’s got a few other tricks up his sleeve. It’s nice how little by little you feel a sense of surrealism slipping into these stories. How in the end you don’t really know what to believe and what not to believe. How there’s a sense of wonder and marvel that permeates everything. When he’s done he invites you to stay a little longer and take a look at the works of art that are a part of this performance too. And you can see that he’s succeeded in enchanting his audience, because almost everybody does stay around.

(Performances in English by Walid Raad, performances in French by Carlos Chahine. Info here.)

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