I wish that, in place of this article, you were here with me, walking the elevated wooden platform to view Dull Roar, the inflatable grey building — one of three works I’ve already mentioned. Unassuming as a bouncy castle, the work stages a contradiction as it rises and collapses: the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis was architect Minoru Yamasaki’s attempt to provide safe democratic living space; just sixteen years after it was built, the building was publically demolished, the rubble serving as landfill for luxury homes in the suburbs. Is this the resurrection of Yamasaki’s utopian dream or a never-ending encore of its violent collapse?
Michael Rakowitz at Whitechapel Gallery
The collapse of a utopian dream is an inflatable building… A never-made visionary monument functions as a broadcast tower for an Indigenous Australian radio station… Beatles records chart the breakdown of political negotiations in the Middle East…
Time and again in the work of Michael Rakowitz, minor objects tell a much bigger story.
Michael Rakowitz’s work is personal, by which I mean it should happen between people — as is so often the case with its production, chefs meet artisans meet sculptors meet the wider community around which a project is based.
What do you think? The reason I wish you were here with me in Whitechapel Gallery is because Michael Rakowitz’s work is personal, by which I mean it should happen between people — as is so often the case with its production, chefs meet artisans meet sculptors meet the wider community around which a project is based. And Rakowitz’s work is already so full of writing, stories and explication that a more suitable response than this article would be to have an equal exchange, swap some stories. One of my favourite Rakowitz projects is his 2011 work, Spoils, a culinary intervention which saw New Yorkers eating venison atop Iraqi date syrup atop plates looted from Saddam Hussein’s palaces (you can hear the story in his own words here.) In another artist’s hands, this conceit might involve moving one object (plate) from one context to another (restaurant) for ironic effect. Rakowitz, rather: here are Hussein’s actual plates, which I sourced from eBay. Let’s break bread together and become part of the story. (The story ends with the subpeona of the plates back to Iraq the day before the U.S. withdrew its troops, a final Gothic reversal in a long history of looting.)
Both Ullman’s memorial and Rakowitz’s work echo Heinrich Heine’s warning that ‘Where books are burned, in the end they will also burn people.’ These are ghostly volumes.
So let’s break bread. From the wooden platform, over the way, you can see White man got no dreaming, including a model of Vladimir Tatlin’s unrealised Monument to the Third International (1919). Now a symbol of revolution, the towering helix is knocked together using reclaimed gas pipes and cables from soon-to-be-demolished houses in The Block, an Aboriginal neighbourhood of Sydney. An accompanying series of narrative drawings shows, among other strands and notes, Tatlin earning a living as a circus boxer — social relations traced across decades. Hand-written notes are woven throughout the exhibition evoking the curiosity of a museum-goer over white cube reverence.
Rakowitz has a remarkable ear for echoes. What Dust Will Rise? sees stone-carved books laid out on glass tables. They’re tactile. You want to pick them up. Here again are notes in Rakowitz’s hand, widening the view from the personal to the historical. These are recreations of books destroyed by British RAF during World War II, hand-carved from travertine quarried in the Bamiyan hills where the Taliban destroyed two sixth-century sandstone Buddhas in 2001. The work puts me in mind of sediment: broken down, eroded material that forms into rock, a figure for destruction and creation. Tombstones. Paper weights. It makes me think of Maya Angelou, ‘You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise’. Or, Micha Ullman’s memorial to the 20,000 books incinerated by the Nazis, a glass window set in Bebelplatz’s paving stones through which you can look down on an underground room with empty bookshelves. Both Ullman’s memorial and Rakowitz’s work echo Heinrich Heine’s warning that ‘Where books are burned, in the end they will also burn people.’ These are ghostly volumes. Upstairs, more phantoms. Here, you are surprised to see and hear The Beatles. The Breakup sees the band’s 1969 disbanding paralleled with the disintegration of political relations in the Middle East. Rakowitz’s sleuth-work projects a link between John Lennon’s murder and Egyptian president Nasser’s death. The work attempts to pinpoint — literally in some cases, with pins stuck in vinyl records acting as a map — the exact moments of tension and alienation, in a deranged and scholarly exercise.
In The Flesh is Yours, The Bones Are Ours, rubbings of Istanbul’s Art Nouveau friezes cover the walls. Plaster casts (of bones that want to be shells that want to be friezes) litter the floor, as if left by lions for hyenas. The title is taken from a customary Turkish saying meant to convey a master’s influence over his apprentice and the work was made to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in 1915, after Rakowitz discovered that much of the city’s architectural decorations were designed by Armenian artisans. Again, we see social contradictions made manifest in a minor object (a decorative panel), and direct engagement with people and communities (the frottages were collected by Rakowitz and students from the city’s remaining Armenian population.) While the work would not be so grandiose as to presume a resolution to such contradictions, conflict and injustices, we find resonances: craft and tradition as resistance to cultural erasure.
Such is the force of 'The invisible enemy should not exist.' The project began in 2006, unfolding an intricate narrative about artefacts stolen from the National Museum of Baghdad and, in many cases, attempting to recreate them.
Such is the force of The invisible enemy should not exist. The project began in 2006, unfolding an intricate narrative about artefacts stolen from the National Museum of Baghdad and, in many cases, attempting to recreate them. In the Whitechapel show, we stand in front of large friezes from the Palace of Nimrud, ninth century BC. Destroyed by Isis millenia hence, they are here recreated with the kind of bright food packaging that would make a spoiled child’s eyes go saucer-shaped: golden yellow of Magi halal chicken soup and sea-shimmer of Al-Kbous tea. Whole sections are missing, and diligently labelled. This cataloguing corresponds to earlier losses at the hands of Western archaeologists, who removed entire sections to be shown in European museums.
From the same invisible enemy series is the winged god who used to guard the Nerval Gate of Ninevah, currently standing on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. The Lamassu is made from recycled Iraqi date-syrup cans — let’s break bread together: empty vessels to symbolise a once-renowned industry now decimated by war. Who knows how the Lamassu’s story ends. But as pointed out by Rakowitz (in the Honey & Co interview above), this Lamassu is not like the ones that are inside the British Museum: his wings are raised, he’s looking south east, towards the Foreign Office, towards Parliament, and beyond towards Nineveh, in the hope that he can one day return. Pulled from museums and into galleries, out of distant history and notional spaces to new resonances, Rakowitz’s expansive practice congeals in a simple equation: there, here. Then, now.
By Sammi Gale