Michael Rakowitz

Oliver Basciano meets the uncompromising Iraqi-American artist

By Oliver Basciano

Michael Rakowitz. Photo: Mikael Gregorsky Michael Rakowitz, paraSITE, 1998–, plastic bags, polyethylene tubing, hooks, tape, distributed in Cambridge (MA) and Baltimore. Courtesy the artist Spoils (2011) features tableware looted from the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. Courtesy the artist Michael Rakowitz, Spoils (detail), 2011, culinary intervention, Park Avenue Autumn, New York. Courtesy the artist Still from a video released by Isis in 2015 in which an IS militant destroys an ancient Assyrian frieze in Nimrud in 2015 Michael Rakowitz, The invisible enemy should not exist (detail), 2007–, drawings, cardboard and newspaper sculptures, museum labels, sound. Courtesy the artist Michael Rakowitz, The invisible enemy should not exist (Northwest palace of Nimrud, Room N), 2018, Middle Eastern packaging and newspaper. Photo: Robert Chase Heishman. Courtesy the artist

For almost 3,000 years, the city of Nineveh, near Mosul in modern-day Iraq, was protected by a 30-tonne, 4.5m-high stone lamassu stationed at its gates. The Assyrian deity takes the form of a winged bull (at other times a lion) with a human head. In 2015 members of IS used a pneumatic drill to gouge out its eyes and subsequently destroyed the city’s ancient guardian. Then, in March 2018, the lamassu reappeared. This time beneath Admiral Nelson’s watchful eye in London’s Trafalgar Square. And with reincarnation came reinvention: what once was stone is now constituted of 10,500 cans formerly containing Iraqi date syrup.

This public art commission, located on the square’s Fourth Plinth, is a work by American artist Michael Rakowitz, who has mined the Iraqi heritage of his grand- parents, who left the country during the 1940s, in a number of open-ended projects. One of these, The invisible enemy should not exist (2007–; the title translates names of the ancient Babylonian processional way through the Ishtar Gate), involves the mammoth task of reimagining looted or destroyed Iraqi antiquities using food packaging available in Middle Eastern food shops in the West. With over 7,000 artefacts registered as lost, he has a long way to go.

Yet his projects involve much more than the production of objects: in 2010 in Ramallah he restaged The Beatles’ acrimonious last concert as an analogy for the Israel-Palestine conflict; in 2013 he opened an Iraqi-Jewish restaurant in Dubai with menus put together under headings such as ‘Bitter’, ‘Sweet’ and ‘Sour’; during Hungary’s 2006 elections, Rakowitz created a series of architectural collages riffing on ‘utopia’ on the streets of Budapest in collaboration with members of the public. The artist posits that culture, whether presented in museums, or that which is passed on via the kitchen or in music, is what makes us; consequently Rakowitz is vociferous in its defense, protesting against what he sees as its abuse through “artwashing” by corporate powers or governments. Ahead of a return to the UK, for a survey of the artist’s work at Whitechapel Gallery, and having withdrawn from exhibitions at the Whitney Museum and the Jewish Museum, both in New York, ArtReview met with Rakowitz to discuss cultural heritage, institutional ethics and his take on the history of art.

ARTREVIEW Is there a particular work from your past that drove you towards the approach to art you have today?

MICHAEL RAKOWITZ The work that I’ve returned to every winter since 1998, paraSITE [in which inflatable polyethylene shelters for the homeless are attached to the exterior heating vents of buildings] continues to teach me a great deal. It’s the work from which so many of my projects have been spun: the engagement with people who are rough sleepers taught me what it means to be a citizen without being accepted and how a work could wield some kind of resistance against capitalism and a government structure. That education came from slowing down: from listening more than speaking. Also finding a way in which I can foreground what I am interested in, as an artist, in terms of making things and still practice social engagement.

AR There’s been a growth in architecture that acts against the homeless: public benches with arms that prevent people from lying down, studs on walls. Was paraSITE a response to this trend, or did it stem from a more instinctive reaction to the problem of homelessness?

MR Initially it came from going to the Middle East for the first time. I wanted to look at the architecture of Palestinian refugee camps where, in some cases, they were replicating the facades of buildings that the Israelis had bulldozed. I went on an architectural residency to Jordan in the winter of 1997, but the Jordanian government did not want us anywhere near the refugee camps, so I ended up being shepherded into the desert to look at the Bedouin. All this is much romanticised, but one thing the Bedouin did every night was set up their tents in response to the wind patterns.

It was a very beautiful detail, but I had no idea what to do with it. When I got back to Boston that winter, I saw a homeless person sleeping underneath the vent of a building, where the warm air was coming from. The HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] system was keeping this person alive. This was another kind of a wind pattern and another kind of nomadism. I was made aware of the anti-homeless devices you’re talking about by a guy named Keith in Boston, one of the folks I was designing for. He pointed out that the air vents in Harvard Square that they used to sleep on were suddenly given a secondary metal structure that created a tilt so they couldn’t lie down. The shelters enabled them to siphon o the warm air. It is insidious how cities have made it imperative that you be in continual motion, unless you’re somehow ‘legal’, in which case you have to pay for the privilege of rest in rent.

AR Your work might be described as ‘social practice’ but I believe you dislike the term. Most artists don’t like labels, but is there something more to it than that?

MR This is a term that has its origins in the field of psychology in the 1980s and has been recycled. As I understand, in psychology, it is about a certain kind of betterment or behavioural improvement, where I’m also interested in antagonisms. The claim of ‘social practice’ for a certain kind of work also invokes a particular stereotype, when in fact all artworks are social. I don’t want to overemphasise this though, because people can call my work whatever they want and I respect everything that’s come before me. I started out as a sculptor, then went on to study graphic design in college, before going back to sculpture. I became really enamoured with site-specific work and then moved towards artists such as Krzysztof Wodiczko, Dennis Adams and Mary Miss, who were looking at the contexts in which they were working and engaging with audiences.

AR Your identity is very wrapped up in the work you went on to make. You are American but your maternal grandparents were Iraqi. Did your upbringing feel very Iraqi?

MR Yes, I was born in Great Neck on Long Island, where my grandparents had settled. My mother was born in Mumbai after my grandparents had started to live between there and Baghdad, a consequence of the British colonial presence in both places. When the Farhud, the anti-Jewish pogrom, occurred in Iraq in June 1941, my grandfather realised that the emergence of nationalism in the Middle East, whether Zionism or Arab nationalism, would mean minorities get torn up. So he made plans to leave the region. I grew up in this house full of rugs; on the walls were paintings and the miniature drawings that they were able to bring with them. Iraqi music played on reel-to-reel tape during family gatherings. I would hear Arabic whenever they didn’t want me to understand something. I assumed all this was Jewish. It wasn’t until I had been round somebody else’s house that I realised it is actually Arab. “I’m an Arab-Jew.” Being surrounded by this culture rescued all of us when the Iraq War started in 1991. Highly televised, with these vulgar images of buildings being destroyed, I at least had that counter-understanding of the city that my grandparents loved and were heartbroken to leave.

AR While my introduction to ‘Iraq’, as a child in the West during the first war, was the tragedy that befell the country...

MR Right, and that dehumanises, demeans, the people. I knew then that I was, for the rest of my life, going to have to do something to rescue those stories that my grandparents told us and to do something to elevate those things that surrounded me: the crafts, the history, the music, the food.

ARY ou have this familial culture, but you’ve never been to Iraq. How come?

MR I have a certain amount of privilege with my US passport, and it’s a privilege not afforded to the many people I work with on my projects who can’t go back. The places that I heard about in my grandparents’ stories, the places that are part of ‘my’ Iraq, those places don’t exist any more. It is not that I will never go back, I don’t want fetishise this decision – I get asked about it a lot – it’s that I want to be invited by my Iraqi friends, have them show me their places. So I will go when the circumstances allow that to happen.

AR You used the word ‘antagonism’ in relation to your work. There’s also a humour to it. I’m thinking of Spoils, the Creative Time project in which meals at a restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan were, in 2011, served on plates looted from Saddam Hussein’s palaces. It is antagonistic, but there’s also a humour for the rest of us in imagining these moneyed Americans being forced to eat o such charged objects.

MR When the humour comes in, it’s really not something that I’m trying too hard to do. I’m aware of the small moments of irony but don’t want a project to stop at that. The vulgarity of the US invasion becomes apparent in these war trophies, hawked on eBay by returning soldiers. I remember seeing pictures of Iraqis carrying things out of Saddam’s house – his big chairs or chandeliers. A lot of people installed those things in their own homes, and a lot of the plates, of which there were many, were used as tableware. There was a dispersal of the symbols of power. It was like when, in colonial history, the body of a dethroned sovereign was paraded through the city.

AR A very visceral demonstration that power has been transferred.

MR The absurdity of minor objects telling a major story is something I seek out: it creates tension without resolution. I think about this in the context of Iraqi cooking, where it’s very important to engage with hamud-helou, sweet and sour. Likewise I’m interested in making art that makes you feel really good and really bad at the same time.

AR The invisible enemy should not exist also deals with looting and with the object as a symbol of conflict.

MR I was always troubled by the comfort with which countries like the US can wage wars remotely. There is total dehumanisation. I often talk about the looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003. It was almost like the first moment of pathos in the war where people – whether they were for or against the war – could agree that this was not only an Iraqi problem. This was a world problem: some of the first moments of human history and ingenuity were at risk. I was very conscious that the outrage about lost objects did not translate into outrage about lost lives, so I asked myself, “What would it mean to bring the war home?” Being represented by a commercial gallery in New York in 2006, when I started to develop the series, it was clear to me that you could walk through Chelsea, where the galleries are, and not know that we were living in a war culture. I wanted to engage with that in a way that wasn’t heavy-handed. A commercial gallery makes sales, of course, and I was conscious that it was the antiquities market, fuelled by demand in the West, that allowed the Iraq Museum to be looted in the first place. I decided to make this work that ‘reappeared’ – not reconstructed – the ghosts of the artefacts looted from the museum using date syrup labels.

AR Why that material?

MR Because of the embargo and then because of bureaucracy, Iraqi dates and date syrup, which is the best in the world, have since the war been labelled as products of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, even Sweden. The dates are smuggled across the border before they are packaged. Again, it is this question of the market.

AR You say that the destruction of these artefacts in Iraq is a global tragedy, which points to some kind of universalism, or common ownership of the cultural object. At the same time, your work highlights the pillage of objects by imperial powers for Western museums. That suggests that these objects are owned by the cultures that produced them, in some sense, and should be returned to them.

MR I’m interested in listening to people from places that have suffered this haemorrhaging of their culture. I’m also interested in what it means for an encyclopaedic museum to exist, where people who are truly curious about one another can go. I leave open the possibility that there should be restitution, but also that there can be moments of exchange. If we were truly visionary, what might it mean to say, “Well, if the British Museum has the Lyre of Ur from Mesopotamia, perhaps they could send John Lennon’s first guitar to the Iraq Museum”?

AR The British could send over a bit of Stonehenge.

MR Exactly! I think that we need to be careful not to oversimplify the history, but there also needs to be some kind of accountability. Apologising merely liberates the person who is apologising. That said, I’m thinking about this from a position of privilege. I don’t bear the traumas and wounds directly. I think it’s up to the people living in those countries to decide.

AR You declined an invitation to participate in the Whitney Biennial while Warren Kanders – the owner of Safariland Group, which manufactures tear gas canisters and other military products – continues to be vice chair of the Whitney’s board of trustees. You also pulled out of the second leg of Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything, a touring show that opened at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal and is currently at the Jewish Museum in New York. What is the background to the latter decision?

MR My wife is Canadian and really introduced me to Cohen’s music. We went to see him in concert and it was amazing. I got really into him and started researching him intensely. While surfing fan forums I found an image of Cohen playing to the Israeli Army in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. He met Ariel Sharon – this was when the world already knew what kind of man Sharon was. I became intrigued: Cohen never stated publicly his thoughts on Israel and Palestine. I am, however, a signatory of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. I learned that in 2009 Cohen was set to play Ramallah. Cohen is famous all over the world of course, but in the Arab world he is loved. I thought at first this was Cohen making amends for the 1973 performance, but the Palestine concert ended up being cancelled after it became apparent that he was also to play Tel Aviv. The concert in Ramallah was an attempt to be ‘balanced’. But, of course, that puts aggressor and victim on the same level. Anyway, I started to wonder what it would mean if I staged the concert in Palestine, if I sang his songs with air from my Arab lungs.

I bought Leonard’s old typewriter from a superfan in Germany and wrote him a letter asking his permission. Of course, I did not get a reply. Last year the curators of the Cohen exhibition in Canada heard about this project and invited me to be part of the show. By now, however, my Palestinian collaborators were nervous and decided that restaging the concert, given Cohen’s history, was too risky. So in Montreal I showed a video projection reconstructing the period in which Cohen travelled to Israel. Then he died, and his management took over. After the show opened I got wind that the manager did not like the work. He thought it one-sided. I had a meeting with him, which was cordial, but then I got an email in which he wrote that he ‘looks forward to helping me complete the work’. That rang alarm bells, so I declined to show it in New York.

AR There’s an instability built into your practice. Things don’t always go to plan, which seems very much part of the work: the problems with Cohen’s management now become part of this project. With Spoils, for example, the dinner plates ended up being requisitioned by the FBI and returned to Iraq.

MR On the Iraqi prime minister’s private plane! He had just had a meeting with Obama. I happened to be in New York at the time and was able to witness the plates being packed up and driven to the embassy. And of course that was the best possible result, one I could not have predicted, for the work.

AR The Whitney Biennial issue is different: it hasn’t opened yet and you removed yourself from it.

MR I want to be clear that I intended my withdrawal to be private. I didn’t want to put any of the other artists in a difficult position. For me, however, I could not continue after reading the letter the museum staff had courageously written to the management. The tear gas canisters that Warren Kanders’s company manufactures can be found at the border with Mexico, and in Palestine. The whole power structure can be traced through those objects.

AR But where do you stop? Naturally, before this interview, I checked through the patrons and funders list of the Whitechapel Gallery. There’s nothing immediately obvious, though no one gets rich entirely innocently.

MR Right, I did too! Things are changing, though, slowly. For example, the Whitechapel sent me an email asking me what patronage or funding sources I would be comfortable with. That is progress. Every museum I know is pursuing an extension or a capital project, maybe institutions just have to do fewer in the future. Maybe they don’t have to expand. Maybe they don’t need to put on shows with the big, star artists. Maybe it’s time to instead work with the local art scenes or invest in local artists at the expense of always having to be bigger.

Michael Rakowitz is on view at Whitechapel Gallery, London, through 25 August. A version of the artist’s 2011 work Spoils is being presented in FOOD: Bigger than the Plate, at the V&A, London, through 20 October

From the Summer 2019 issue of ArtReview