Book Review: Silvia Kolbowski and Walid Raad

Between Artists: Silvia Kolbowski and Walid Raad

A.R.T. Press, 2008

“Do you think that a body of work can somatize such cultural trauma?” Silvia Kolboswki asks Walid Raad in the beginning of an email exchange that soon and unexpectedly begins to mirror such attempts. Raad received Kolbowski’s question last July at his home in Beirut just days before the latest Israel-Lebanon conflict began. Conversations about art and politics often dissolve into the ether of theory or pat, ill-informed historicism. But the incursion of “real life” into the reflections of these two artists, both interested in the layers of mediation between a traumatic event and its aftermath, has produced an unusually compelling and concrete discussion of art and politics.

The third book in A.R.T. Press’s Between Artists series of artist dialogues (previous efforts paired Paul Chan with Martha Rosler and Liam Gillick with Lawrence Weiner) initially focused on issues as painfully self-concious as how to work with the format of an interview. As Raad’s safety became increasingly compromised, however, the correspondence took on the urgency of the moment. He sent clipped messages of his progress to evacuate his family, while Kolbowski, safe in Pennsylvania, fumed at U.S. media coverage. In a particularly vivid rant, she deconstructs the American television news blaring at the gym. Her sense of distance and helplessness and Raad’s resigned pragmatism coalesce over a quote by Lebanese writer and artist Jalal Toufic: “All I ask of this world . . . is that it become less laughable so that I would be able to laugh again without dying from it.”

Both artists rely heavily on other writers to guide their correspondence, Raad on Toufic’s incisive notes on violence and memory and Kolbowski on Jacqueline Rose’s psychoanalytic “diagnosis” of Israel in her 2005 The Question of Zion. Psychoanalysis has long shaped Kolbowski’s thinking, and she invokes it frequently as she discusses the working through of traumas for the nation or individual, and especially whether artists can influence such processes. “Aesthetic experimentation doesn’t stop military invasions,” she notes, then asks, “but does it have something to contribute over time to new ways of thinking, or to new ways of formulating identity. . . which is so closely tied to ideas of nationhood?”

A portfolio of images at the end of the book pairs selections from Kolbowski’s in-progress Images based on the film Hiroshima Mon Amour and Raad’s Let’s be honest, the weather helped (1989). Raad’s diagrams of missiles, with their sober data and calculations, convey the emotional distance created by repetition and numbers. Kolbowski’s Images, which the two discuss at length, are a series of photographs replicating each frame of the love scenes between the Japanese man and French woman who star in Alain Resnais’s film. The bodies of work represent two distinct (and potent) ways of “somatizing” the cultural traumas linked to clean, logical dates and names: January 21, 1986, Beirut, and December 7, 1945, Hiroshima.

The dialogue between two people so discourse savvy and theory informed—Kolbowski was co-editor of October for eight years—could in other circumstances have resulted in something pretentious or, at worst, irrelevant. But here, for once, artists’ blunt confrontation with violence and vulnerability created a gripping exchange firmly moored to the present. Kolbowski and Raad may have failed to reach any conclusion about the topics they touch on here: the impact art has on political resistance, for example, or the role of form and content in such work. But conclusion would have been antithetical to both artists—it would imply an end to the working through.

Published in Modern Painters, May 2008

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