Walid Raad: In 2005, the Sfeir-Semler Gallery opens in Beirut. It opens in an area called Qarantina. Now, if you know anything about the history of Lebanon, you know that Qarantina was the site of a brutal massacre in 1976, but I'm not going to talk about this here.
This gallery, this Sfeir-Semler Gallery, opens on the fourth floor of a former industrial building, and the gallery is 800 square meters. It has gorgeous, four meter high, 60 centimeter thick, incredibly smooth white walls, a concrete floor like you've never seen, this concrete floor, and the entire space is bathed in northern, even light. It's the white cubes of white cubes. We’ve never had a space this beautiful in Lebanon, and some of us have been waiting for a space like this for the past 40 years.
The woman who opened this gallery in Beirut, her name is Andree, Andree Sfeir. Andree also has a gallery in Hamburg, and I've shown my work in her gallery in Hamburg. And ever since she's opened this space in Beirut, she's asked me about the possibility of exhibiting my work called The Atlas Group in the Beirut gallery.
I should say that The Atlas Group, this is a project that I worked on for 15 years. It's a project about the wars in Lebanon, but it's a project that I've never shown in Lebanon. I've always felt odd about showing this work in Lebanon. I always felt that something would happen to the works were I to show them there, not that they would be censored, but that the works themselves would be affected somehow.
In 2005, when Andree asked me to show the work in Beirut, I refused. I tried to explain to her why I'm refusing, but it wasn't clear in my head, so I couldn't explain it to her.
In 2006, she asked me again. I refused again.
In 2007, she asked me again, I refused again.
In 2008, she asked me again, but this time, I don't know why, I just agreed. I proceeded to print and frame my photographs, I produced copies of the sculptures and videos, I designed the exhibition space, I printed all the wall text, and I sent all of these elements to the gallery in Beirut for the installation.
Three weeks later, I go to the gallery to see the exhibition, and this is what I confront. I confront the reduction in scale of every single one of my artworks. Everything I had ever done is all of the sudden miniaturized to 1/100th of its original scale.
At first, and given my own psychological history, I think I'm in the middle of a psychotic breakdown. So I ask Hassan—Hassan is an installer in the gallery—I say, “Hassan, please come here, tell me what do you see.” Hassan approaches, and immediately he begins to marvel at the detail of the small-scale reproductions, which proves to me that he sees the works at 1/100th of their original size too. But I also know from my own reading in psychology that in the history of psychiatry, no two people have ever experienced the exact same psychotic episode at the same time. And I doubted that this situation was a historical exception. I then become convinced that I was not in fact in the midst of a psychotic episode, but that my assistant, my framer, and my printer, they were behind all of this. I became convinced that without telling me, they had decided to make everything small. They produced all my works at 1/100th of their original size as some kind of practical joke, or better yet, as some kind of gift, because they know how fond I am of all things miniaturized.
A couple of hours later, when my assistant, my framer, and my printer arrived, they're all struck by the technical aspects of the miniaturization. They assure me they have absolutely nothing to do with this. In fact, they think that I'm the one playing a joke on them. They're also feeling betrayed, and one of them even says to me, “Oh, so you're now going behind our backs and hiring another technical team to build your work because you don't think we're sophisticated enough to build this kind of work?” And one of them even says to me, when she sees the work, she even says to me, “Well you know what, your works are even better when they're small, when we can't even see them.”
And as soon as I hear this, as soon as these words leave her mouth, I realize that I now have no other choice. I'm forced to face the fact in Beirut, in 2008—and what I'm going to say, I don't mean as a metaphor, I don't mean as an allegory, I mean it literally.