The Artist Who is Recreating Looted Treasures
Michael Rakowitz’s work makes the invisible visible – whether it’s the victims of war or those made homeless by the economic downturn.
Michael Rakowitz is a connoisseur of ghosts. He is also a teacher, a stone carver, a radio broadcaster, a chef. His work often refers in various ways to things and people that are dead, gone, lost, or on their way out. He creates charming funerary objects and souvenirs; his art resurrects, ‘reappears’, rematerialises. His apparitions contain multiple political and historical meanings beneath the childlike wonder of their surface. He likes the words ‘hostility’ and ‘ghost’ because they both contain the word ‘host’ – you are very welcome! Until you are not. “I have often thought about the intersection of hospitality and hostility,” says the artist, whose career is the subject of a new exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.
Speaking of (g)hosting, in 2011 he acquired on eBay china dinner plates looted from Saddam Hussein’s palace in Iraq during the war that began in 2003, and mounted a ‘culinary performance’ he called Spoils in conjunction with the Manhattan restaurant Park Avenue Autumn. Venison on top of Iraqi date syrup and tahini was presented on the looted plates, in a high-dining style. Rakowitz was referring to the spoils of war, or possibly the spoilage of an unnecessary war, or perhaps the rot of Hussein’s despotism. One way or another, the dish can’t have been comfortable to swallow. “I believe in turning the stomach while simultaneously filling it,” he tells BBC Culture.
These challenging flavour combinations of aesthetics, politics, and culture are prefigured in Rakowitz’s own family background. He is an American of Jewish-Iraqi extraction on the one side and eastern European on the other. His maternal grandparents were forced to flee Baghdad in 1941. His mother was born in Bombay. The family came to rest in Long Island, New York, and put down new roots. Iraq, a place he has never visited, became a story and a culinary touchstone in his childhood.
His own heritage is one cause of his interest in migration, displacement, disappearance, discomfort, violent high and low cultural transformations. These ideas undergo a further seductive translation in his work, taking shape in media with unthreatening connotations like papier-mâché and inflated plastic. As he puts it, “I try to make… scenes of destruction somehow run in reverse, though without denying them.”
Ghosts in the machine
His project paraSITE (1997, ongoing) involves putting large inflatable toys on the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts. They look like mangled children’s wading pools or abstract balloon sculptures. In actuality these installations are temporary shelters for homeless people, constructed of cheap materials (like bin liners and food bags), and attached to building outtake vents to harness airflow and waste heat in a parasitical fashion. The artistic value of paraSITE (strange, compelling inflatable public sculptures) is fused with and subverted by its social value.
Together they represent migration and violent cultural transformation – Rakowitz views homeless people as “victims of the oppression of money”, of neoliberalism – within the confines of the American state. Homeless people linger on the streets of America’s cities like ghosts in the machine, cultural waste, and the artist provides them with appropriately diaphanous dwellings made of physical waste (which paradoxically make them more visible). This project neatly encapsulates Rakowitz’s humanitarian politics.
“All that is solid melts into air,” Marx and Engels wrote of the magic trick of capitalism. As if to demonstrate this fact, Rakowitz’s Dull Roar (2005) shows the rise and fall of a famous American public housing project in the form of a giant inflatable toy, surrounded by an observation deck, that regularly deflates and reinflates every four minutes. The Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St Louis, Missouri, was built by the architect Minoru Yamasaki in 1956 and demolished in the 1970s. (Yamasaki also designed the World Trade Center in New York City.)
It was to provide accommodation for 10,000 people while honouring Le Corbusier’s three fundamental principles of urbanism: sun, space, and greenery. In short, Pruitt-Igoe was to be a Modernist utopia. The project was dogged by design problems which resulted in public spaces being dropped from the design, and from the beginning it was racially segregated. The complex rapidly became known for dilapidation and crime. Finally its 33 blocks were razed to the ground in spectacular explosions. Dull Roar is simple and eloquent: the American dream dies every four minutes.
It is difficult to summarise the range of Rakowitz’s work: its forensic analysis, its subversive cross-cultural connections, its ingenious symbolic ‘trouble-making’ – its carefully controlled anger. White Man Got No Dreaming (2008) tackles contemporary indigenous life in Australia; it links visionary Soviet architecture with Aboriginal Dreamtime. The Break-up (2010, ongoing) blurs the career of the Beatles, from the birth of John Lennon to their break-up in 1970, with the Pan-Arabist dream that died with the Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, in 1970. According to Rakowitz: “My lifelong obsession with the Beatles… is the closest thing to zealotry I’ve experienced.” The Flesh is Yours, the Bones are Ours (2015), a sort of ‘reliquary’, refers to the 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey through reproductions of Art Nouveau plaster ornaments and designs created by Armenian craftsmen to adorn buildings in Istanbul.
Ancient Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of civilisation, falls within Iraq. Its great cities (Nineveh, Nimrud, Babylon) were ruled over by mighty warrior monarchs with names like Sennacherib, Shalmaneser, and Ashurbanipal. The latter’s gardens in Nineveh are likely to have inspired the legend of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. If you want to see Ashurbanipal relaxing by doing a little lion hunting, you’ll have to go to the British Museum in London, where exquisite friezes from his palace now reside.
What would these kings have made of the subsequent history of their palaces, now world-historical cultural sites, one wonders? In 2018 Rakowitz recreated a Lamassu, a monumental winged god, blown up in the palace of Nineveh by Islamic State iconoclasts in 2015. He re-employed empty Iraqi date syrup cans and other Middle-Eastern food packaging to coat it like scales. It currently sits in startling glory on a plinth in Trafalgar Square in London, in the company of British imperial monuments. Before the recent war in Iraq, the country was famous for its dates and a huge exporter of date syrup, a staple in the region. The Lamassu evokes Iraq’s destroyed economy. Given the replica’s location, it is safe to say there is some kind of commentary about the rise and fall of empires underway here as well.
Back to life?
The statue is part of Rakowitz’s larger, hugely ambitious project, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (2007, ongoing), which involves reconstructing the 15,000 archaeological objects looted from the National Museum of Iraq after the city fell to American troops in 2003, as well as others that have been destroyed and defaced. He is systematically reproducing fragments, statues, votive objects, and friezes to scale, using Middle-Eastern packaging and print media.
The title of the project is derived from the flickering green images of surgical strikes on Baghdad by coalition forces (the invisible enemy); it is also a reference to the Processional Way in Ancient Babylon, which was called Aj ibur shapu (literally, “the invisible enemy should not exist”).
In July 2019 Rakowitz published a date syrup cookbook, A House with a Date Palm Will Never Starve. “This cookbook seeks to extend the space of Lamassu beyond the Fourth Plinth [in Trafalgar Square] into your cupboards and bellies,” he says. The recipes are by luminaries such as Claudia Roden, Yotam Ottolenghi, Nuno Mendes and others (including Rakowitz’s mother, Yvonne). It is a cookbook as artwork, a ‘culinary intervention’, and history and politics are also among its main ingredients.
How often reviews of Rakowitz’s work talk about him “bringing destroyed Iraqi art back to life”. Surely this is to miss the point: that the destroyed people who used to live alongside the destroyed art can never be brought back to life, and they matter more. His ‘reappearances’, which situate themselves in the high-cultural realm (as monuments, museum pieces and exhibits in galleries), are actually a trap exposing the viewer’s callous aestheticisation of history. The Lamassu were protective deities, and the final irony may be that they can’t even protect themselves.