Michael Rakowitz and Daniel Taylor on 'April is the Cruellest Month'
The Iraqi-US artist Michael Rakowitz has worked closely with the anti-war organisation Veterans for Peace UK on his new commission in Margate: a life-size cast of British soldier Daniel Taylor, who served with the Royal Artillery and was stationed in Basra from 2007-8. He now works with Veterans for Peace and has trained as a therapist, to help returning soldiers.
Intended as an anti-war memorial, Rakowitz’ sculpture is situated near the shelter where T.S. Eliot wrote part of the Wasteland while recuperating in Margate in 1919 – referenced here in the title, ‘April is the Cruellest Month.’ The sculpture is crafted from Basra sand and earth, mixed with Margate chalk, and contains medals from UK veterans (including Taylor’s medal for service in Iraq), as well as votives from the artist and local Kent residents.
Sitting in dialogue with Margate’s Grade-II listed ‘Surfboat Memorial’, a bronze Surfboat rescuer pointing out to sea, Rakowitz’ statue points inland towards Parliament and the Foreign Office in London, where the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was made.
"the idea of two figures being in dialogue with each other through a history of sculpture and this trajectory of time. It will create that space of tension and an inconvenient reminder in some ways of what really happens."
How did you approach this new commission for England’s Creative Coast?
As I started to think about the invitation that I received from curator Tamsin Dillon to do something for England’s Creative Coast, I visited Margate and I saw the ‘Surfboat Memorial,’ which is this really curious, figurative life-size sculpture of a rescuer on a Surfboat looking out at sea. It commemorates the rescue at sea of a capsized boat by the ‘A Friend to All Nations’ rescue boat [surf boats were powered by oar and sail and have now been replaced by lifeboats]. I immediately started to think about these figurative sculptures in Basra, who are actually pointing out at a waterway – the Shatt al-Arab river – which divides Basra, in Iraq, from Iran.
If you think about the way that people try to get from a place like Calais to England, the interception of those people is not about welcoming them in, but actually turning them away, then it shows that things have changed. I wanted to find ways to actually make it clear that those tensions, that kind of xenophobia, which intersects with Islamophobia, when it comes to those people that are seeking asylum, who are coming from places like Iraq and Syria, their lives have been destabilised because of decisions like the Iraq war. What would it mean to take that moment of figuration and to complicate it and to put another figure in dialogue with that Surfboat memorial?
T.S. Eliot wrote part of the Wasteland when he was convalescing in Margate in 1919 – and also lent your statue its name ‘April is the Cruellest Month.’ The town was full of recuperating WW1 soldiers at the time. Does your new commission, over a century later, also reflect on the trauma of war?
When I read the Wasteland I was struck by one of the lines:
“On Margate Sands. I can connect. Nothing with nothing.”
And here I am connecting everything, to everything, to everything! – and realising that these intersections for me hold the most hope and the most generative energy. If we do connect and allow ourselves to connect – we keep falling into the traps within organising and activism – betraying the thinking of [poet and activist] Audre Lorde, there really are no single issues, because we don’t lead single-issue lives. When you are fighting for the abolition of war, you are also fighting for the abolition of ecocide, you are fighting for the abolition of misogyny, and all of these things that are entangled and connected. I feel the need to do things that are more unexpected.
Is this an Anti-War Memorial?
"I feel the need to do things that are more unexpected."
What would be the one-to-one corollary to the Surfboat Memorial – I don’t know, maybe it would be about the refugee crisis? But can we think a little bit deeper about why there is a refugee crisis – people feel the need to leave their homes in this urgent way when they are made unsafe? How are these people in places like Iraq and Syria made unsafe? I think we’ve already forgotten about the Iraq War. Instead of healing the people who’ve been wounded and actually even grieving with dignity the people who’ve been lost – we’ve allowed George W Bush to become a painter.
My hope is that I can create a space of tension between both of those two works – the idea of two figures being in dialogue with each other through a history of sculpture and this trajectory of time. It will create that space of tension and an inconvenient reminder in some ways of what really happens.
Michael and Daniel, can you talk about the collaborative process of working together on this statue?
It was in us talking together [at the Whitechapel Gallery, during a major survey of Rakowitz’ work in 2019 ] that it really started to flow. It was really cathartic to do it and to meet Michael. It’s been a bit of a journey – coming into my new role in therapy – it’s a million miles away from being a soldier or in combat.
It’s a direction of trying to heal others and to do this project and put on a uniform again. We had to source bits of uniform that aren’t even used anymore and then to put it on again as a 32-year-old – 10 years after leaving the army – it was almost like a release when I took that back off after being scanned at the studio.
When I told Daniel the story about Siegfried Sassoon [throwing away the ribbon of his Military Cross – as referenced on a plaque at the bottom of this new statue], he said the Iraq War medal is a form of currency for us, because it is the proof that we went through this and its essential for us to get the care that we need - and so I understood that completely. Last February 2020, my last trip to the UK when I went to see all these things that the veterans were giving, and I was invited over by Daniel to his apartment and he brought a bag out to me of the things he wanted to give – it included his military boonie cap, and a flag with the word Peace on it – but then there was also his medal at the bottom of the bag. I turned to him and I said, ‘Daniel we’ve talked about this, you said it’s a form of currency’ but he said ‘yeah, but now’s the time to spend it.’ And that tore through me.
I’ve purposefully kept myself away from the statue, I still haven’t seen it - I was invited to - but something came up and I told myself I would like to wait and see it at the same time as everybody else. I’ve seen a few pictures of the casting. I think the work will start as this is launched, I think it’s about the conversations that will happen after. The fact that I destroyed my medal [it is cast within the statue] is quite a strong political message – and the nation as a whole might ask why a UK veteran would discard a medal, given to him by the Queen?
Some of the veterans are still existing with some of the feelings that I had to go through, and I really don’t want that for them. If this can increase conversations around the way veterans are treated and around the way that war is conducted – something sensational had to happen to that medal, for people to listen to what needs to be said.
Daniel is giving up his medal and the sculpture is based on a scan of his body – he represents one of many – but this statue brings you into conversation with a person. Daniel gets it going, he starts it, but he doesn’t have to be burdened with all of it. There is this myth that people can never understand what a veteran has gone through, but that can only serve to isolate them more. We are all connected in some way, to all of this – we have to look at this painful moment that we’ve all gone through together.
‘April is the cruellest month’ will be installed in Margate from May 1.
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