Installation view of “Michael Rakowitz: Backstroke of the West,” 2017–18. MCA Chicago. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Ghost Stories: A Conversation with Michael Rakowitz

Over the course of six days in 2003 during the American invasion of Iraq, more than 3,000 artifacts on display at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad were looted or destroyed. For Michael Rakowitz, an American artist of Jewish-Iraqi heritage, the desecration was personal, and it inspired an ambitious sculptural project. He began making papier-mâché renditions of the missing works, which had all been previously photographed and catalogued by the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. Rakowitz acknowledges that The invisible enemy should not exist (2007–ongoing), which includes drawings, museum labels, and sound in addition to the sculptures, is an endeavor that will likely outlast his life. He thinks of these works not as re-creations or reproductions of the lost originals, but as “ghosts” that can haunt and also reassure. The same could be said about his entire body of work, which may vary in form but is always focused in intent.

It’s been a busy few years for his studio, beginning with “Backstroke of the West,” a mid-career retrospective at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (2017–18). Last summer, his sculptural tribute to the winged lamassu that protected Nineveh’s Nergal Gate from around 700 BCE until it was destroyed by ISIS in 2015 was unveiled at London’s Trafalgar Square, where it occupies the Fourth Plinth through March 2020. Rakowitz was also selected for this year’s Whitney Biennial but withdrew to protest the “toxic philanthropy” of museum trustee Warren Kanders, whose fortune derives from military products used against asylum seekers along the U.S. border with Mexico. When I met up with Rakowitz in his home and studio, a brownstone just north of the Chicago Loop, he was preparing for a survey exhibition, which debuted at London’s Whitechapel Gallery and opens at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin on October 8, 2019.

The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, 2018. View of work in Trafalgar Square, commissioned for the Mayor of London’s Fourth Plinth Program. Photo: Caroline Teo and Gautier Deblonde, Courtesy Mayor of London

Jonathan Rinck: You make sculptural, conceptual, and performance-based works; you’ve even created a graphic novel about the war in Iraq. Who were some of the influences behind this wide range?
Michael Rakowitz: My mother was the most profound influence on my practice. She and my grandparents made a huge effort to make Iraq visible and to resist dehumanization through otherness. When I was first starting to read, she would go to the library and pick out illustrated books by Native American authors, and many of them were about bison. Through very poetic language, they made clear that there was a direct relationship between the disappearance of the bison through sport-hunting and the disappearance of Native Americans, and that the desecration of the land was also the desecration of the people. My mother could not get through these books without becoming very emotional. She explained afterwards that being Iraqi Jews, we shared something with these other people who were being uprooted and torn away from their culture.

My hero was Michelangelo, and to this day, I love reading Renaissance history. I went into art school wanting to be a stone carver, and I took a class with Tal Streeter, who told me that if Michelangelo were alive today he’d be a video artist, and he’s probably right. That was an important moment for me. And then, Allan Wexler’s contagious excitement made me realize that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

JR: You have done some work with stone carving. Your Bamiyan Buddha project in Afghanistan, part of What Dust Will Rise? (2012), fuses traditional stone carving and performance/activist art.
MR: The Bamiyan Buddha is an interesting story. In high school, my teacher showed me the Bamiyan Buddhas—colossal sixth-century Buddhas carved into the mountainside. My first stone carving was a tribute to them, so when they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, I felt it in my stomach.

Burt Praxenthaler, the UNESCO custodian of the site, told me that stone carving had disappeared in the Bamiyan Valley. And I thought, “What if that skillset could settle on the public in the same way that the dust from the Buddhas had when they were blown up?” So, I did a stone carving workshop in the caves where the Bamiyan Buddhas were. It was a very beautiful experience. I taught with Praxenthaler and Abbas Allah Dad, an Afghan stone carver who had been hunted by the Taliban.

Stone carving workshop at site of destroyed Bamiyan Buddhas, 2012, part of What Dust Will Rise?. Photo: Bert Praxenthaler, Courtesy the artist

JR: Was the Taliban still a threat?
Not at all. As far as I understand, after the destruction of the Buddhas and the Hazara massacres, the Taliban left. It wasn’t a very easy place to get back to because of the mountains, so it was relatively peaceful.

JR: When I look at that project and your work in general, I’m reminded of the Judaic principle of tikkun olam, “repairing the world.” Does that concept tie into your work in any way?
MR: It’s an interesting idea, but I don’t think I’d ever say that about my work, because that would be assigning art a function. It can happen, and when it does I’m thankful. But while I, and everyone here in the studio, am addressing the reconstruction of objects from the Iraq Museum and the sites of Nineveh and Nimrud, you can never truly reconstruct what was there. People always talk about 3D printing. You can’t 3D print the DNA of the people who perished alongside these works.

JR: One thing that struck me when I saw your MCA retrospective was that the United States is also implicated in the destruction of artifacts. It seems like a life’s work to reconstruct all of the objects looted from the Iraq Museum. Why are you doing it?
MR: It is a life’s work. And it’s one that will outlive me and probably the studio. The project happened through realizing that the looting of the museum had opened up the first incident of pathos in the war. It didn’t matter if you were for the war or against it—you could agree that this was a shared catastrophe.

But I was also very conscious that the outrage over lost artifacts didn’t turn into outrage over lost lives, and so it became a kind of angry project. It was first shown in a commercial art space in New York. And I thought, “How do you make work that meaningfully addresses the fact that it’s going to be sold?” I thought about these works as reconstructions that would come back and haunt collections.

Installation view of “Michael Rakowitz: Backstroke of the West,” 2017–18. MCA Chicago. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

JR: Even though your background is in stone carving, you don’t use stone for these re-creations of looted objects. And the same goes for your Fourth Plinth monument. Why use papier-mâché and throw-away materials? The results seem deliberately inauthentic.
MR: I’m always very conscious about not trying to erase the problems, so reconstructing something one to one out of limestone or alabaster would cave to an idea that I have a very visceral reaction against—the satisfaction people have with going to places like Syria, taking photographs of these sites from all different angles, and feeling as if something’s being protected. It disturbs me; there’s an arrogance to it.

When I was making the first artifacts, I was also operating Return (2006), a storefront project that had its first incarnation in 2004. I revived my grandfather’s import/export business, Davisons & Co., and sold date syrup, a traditional Iraqi product barred from the U.S. because of sanctions. Consequently, Iraqi date syrup was driven to Syria, packaged, and exported to the U.S. as a “product of Lebanon.” I was thinking about how Iraqi date syrup feels the xenophobia that refugees feel; they don’t want to tell you where they’re from. I was sitting in the shop one day, looking at these beautiful tins of date syrup and the beautiful wrappers of the maamul (date) cookies, and I thought, “This is how these objects should come back, as the detritus and the junk of now that can’t speak for itself.” I liked that because it wasn’t one to one. Papier-mâché could communicate the urgency and a little bit of the futility of the act.

The newspapers that we use are the Arabic-English papers that one finds in North America where you have newly arrived refugees. If you trace The invisible enemy from the first works in 2006, you can read how the subject matter has shifted from Bush to McCain, to the “Surge,” to Obama, to pulling troops out of Iraq, and then to Syria in 2013, and ISIS in 2014. So, I ended up with all these different layers that I couldn’t have predicted.

Return, 2006. View of storefront installation in Brooklyn, New York. Photo: Courtesy Jane Lombard Gallery and the artist

JR: You used date syrup tins extensively on your Fourth Plinth sculpture. The British Museum houses many examples of these Assyrian protective deities, which were excavated, or looted, from Iraq and brought to England in the 19th century. Is there an implied critique in terms of materials, subject, and placement?
MR: For me, it was a continuation of the same materials, but it clearly needed to be something that would survive outside, so it couldn’t be papier-mâché. I had been wondering how to work with the date syrup tins for a while, and they were perfect because they’re made out of non-corrosive tin plate steel, with their labels printed directly on them in metal lithography.

I wanted it to be very clear that while the winged lamassu is in proximity to the British Museum and the National Gallery, it faces its hindquarters toward the museum, while looking southeast toward the Foreign Office and the Houses of Parliament, where the decision to enter Iraq was made. But it’s also looking past them, southeast toward Nineveh, and it has its wings raised in the hope that it might one day return. I also thought about the material culture of Trafalgar Square, where the lions at the base of Nelson’s column are made from the melted-down cannons of the HMS Royal George. So you have weapons of war looking up at the lamassu, which is made out of the victims of war. It’s a very considered placement.

I also wanted the reverse of the lamassu to be visible. There is always a carved cuneiform inscription on a lamassu—a statement from the king that was between the king and the divine—which was never meant to be seen by human eyes. But I wanted the inscription to be the thing that people see as they approach the square, because then it’s something displaced. The inscription was originally supposed to be hidden between the wall and the back of the lamassu, because these beings weren’t intended to be seen in the round. Revealing the inscription shows that the lamassu has been torn away, just like the bottom of a tooth that’s pulled, and you can see the residue.

JR: The tone of current American political discourse has made your work appear more relevant than ever. Has the changing rhetoric from Bush to Obama to Trump figured its way into your work?
MR: You know, I look at all these projects that I do, and in a way, I wish I never had to make them. There’s a desire for these works to become obsolete.

The Ballad of Special Ops Cody, 2017. Stop-motion video, duration 12’50.” Photo: Nick Ash, Courtesy Barbara Wien Galerie

JR: You even addressed fake news in the stop-motion video Ballad of Special Ops Cody (2017), which takes off from a 2005 hoax in which an Iraqi insurgent group threatened to execute a U.S. soldier unless Iraqi prisoners held in U.S. jails were freed. The solder turned out to be a souvenir action figure called Special Ops Cody. It seems like your work never loses its relevance.
MR: I was thinking of calling my Whitechapel and Castello di Rivoli survey “Unfortunately still relevant.” This happens all the time. In Mark Tribe’s Port Huron Project (2006–08), they were re-staging campaign speeches from 1968, and you realized that a Robert Kennedy speech from that time suddenly means the same thing years later. And so the question becomes, what isn’t still relevant? I remember one not very thoughtful review about my work in 2009, when I did the project about science fiction and Saddam. A New York Times critic said, “The news cycle has moved on, Obama has been elected, yet Michael Rakowitz insists on Iraq.” And I still insist now, because I often hear Americans say that the Iraq war ended in 2011—but it continues for the Iraqi people. I’m adamant about making that understood and visible.

It was really shitty to be an Iraqi refugee in 2014. It’s even shittier now. But can we please not make a mythology that if we just rewind, everything is going to be ok? The hardships that people had to go through, being from somewhere else, from an Arabic-speaking, Muslim-majority country, have been made life-size for me, and that’s impacted how I work. A radio project that I did in Philadelphia is a case in point. People agreed to be a part of it in 2014, but when we were doing a public performance in 2017, it was a week after the first travel ban had been issued. Even though Iraq wasn’t on the list, the Iraqis that I was working with understood it as a Muslim ban, and because some of their papers were still in process, they didn’t want to risk being involved. So, it’s important to recognize that yes, perhaps these things are more relevant than one would’ve thought they’d be, considering it’s been 15 years since the invasion of Iraq, but it’s also important for us to understand that time just doesn’t move on that quickly. In a way, we’re still fighting World War II.

Michael Rakowitz is the recipient of the 2020 Nasher Prize. “Imperfect Binding,” Rakowitz’s survey show, is on view at the Castello di Rivoli, Turin, October 8, 2019 through January 19, 2020.