Atlas Group and Mark Dion at the Whitechapel Gallery

Saturday night (Nov 22, 2003) was dominated by Walid Raad's tour-de-force powerpoint presentation about the activities of The Atlas Group. The Group’s archive deals with "the situation" in Lebanon, especially since the civil war in the mid 1970s. It is a fictional archive, (sometimes a fiction based on true documents and events), which attempts to make sense (and even poetry) of the constantly unstable political climate within Lebanon. It does so by utilising the minutiae of everyday life, and this is important for both the archive’s intrinsic content, and its apparent authenticity.


By concentrating on vast quantities of very minor information (such as the make, model, and colour of every car used for a bombing in Lebanon between 1975 and 1989) we are swept into a world enormously different from our own (in terms of daily personal danger) and yet incredibly similar and banal at the same time (ordinary cars, in colours we might choose ourselves). In this, The Atlas Group consistenly proves that it is in masterly control of the craft of its fiction – the overwhelming quantity of detail which makes us swoon, and forget the fact that it might actually be all just made up.


Raad extends this performance craft even to the point of planting questions in the audience, for which he has answers ready-prepared. In response to one of the questions, “can you give us some background information about the situation in Lebanon?” Raad sighs, and opens up the directory of his computer (visible to the audience on a data projector), revealing countless filenames for documents on the history of Lebanon decade by decade for the last five hundred years. By this strategy, he can reveal the breadth of the answer to that question, without actually needing to answer it directly.


For as he said, “when you talk for too long, people will try to make you shut up. But when you are asked a question, you have permission to talk for a long time”.* As both me and a friend commented at the same time, he is one clever cookie.


*…however, it should be noted, that this information about questions and answers was volunteered by Raad, and not given in response to any particular question. (Perhaps he wants to hammer home just how clever he really is, and why not, we all got a kick out of it anyway).


Mark Dion, prior to Raad’s presentation, showed old-fashioned slides, and gave an entertaining A-Z of extinct animals, and biological nightmares of our times. In moments, it was very informative (especially in relation to biological facts), yet, as my friend Tom pointed out, the tone of the lecture was "more catastrophic than critical", and therefore not very useful for instigating concrete change to the problems it described. However, the scope of the lecture was modest, and I don’t believe it set out to achieve more than it did – therefore it was nowhere near as irritating as the Carey Young performance (and the claims made on its behalf) earlier in the week.

2 thoughts on “Atlas Group and Mark Dion at the Whitechapel Gallery

  1. Ruark Post author

    mmm, saw the Atlas man at Haus of Kultur in Berlin, and my German friends Dieter and Jutta where sort of enjoying it, but were left dangling. They asked me about the language game, rhetoric style I guessed, and said I thought Raad must had either attended Michael Taussig’s lectures or else he was a plagerist. I guess in fine art, the fakes always succeed, to quote “Johnny Rotten”.

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