LONDON — Following Baghdad’s fall to US troops in 2003, more than 15,000 artifacts were looted from the National Museum of Iraq by thieves. The presence of ISIS went on to facilitate further destruction of ancient culture in the country, yet looting and pillaging in Iraq is nothing new. Western archaeologists have been laying their claim over its heritage for centuries to allow Iraqi history to be displayed in Western museums, taken through colonial means. American-Iraqi artist Michael Rakowitz has been working to reconstruct these “(g)hosts” of the past since 2007, mostly using food packaging from Iraq to create sculptures, one of which — the Lamassu, a winged deity guarding the gate of Nineveh destroyed by Daesh in 2015 — has been on display in London’s Fourth Plinth since March 2018. And now, a full display of this project is on view as part of his career retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery, which looks not only to the specters haunting Iraq, but the whole world.
Rakowitz’s reconstruction project, titled The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (2007–ongoing), includes statues, vases, and the decorative friezes of the ninth-century palace of Nimrud. At times, chunks of the food-covered replicas are missing, in correspondence with fragments that have been destroyed. The whole series — intended to remind us of the specters of the past — began after Rakowitz discovered that the cans of Lebanese date syrup he was buying in the US were actually produced in Iraq, but were branded with Lebanese packaging and exported out of Lebanon, allowing Iraqi companies to bypass United Nations sanctions. Subsequently, Rakowitz — whose mother is Iraqi-Jewish — worked to import and sell Iraqi dates in the United States — re-opening a store once run by his grandparents — with the express aim of keeping the “Product of Iraq” label. These works made from Arab foodstuffs thus remind the Western viewer that Iraq, though it has been partially destroyed, survives and continues to live, eat, and breath, just like everyone else.
Alongside the bricolage monuments to ancient Iraqi civilization, Rakowitz also displays drawings with scribbles about individual objects, like the Mona Lisa of Nimrud, that perished for whatever reason in recent history. And below each large relief, Rakowitz includes a small label about where it was located and when it was destroyed, along with a quote about its fate — the specters of these objects lingering long after they’re gone.
Rakowitz’s look back to cultures — and more explicitly their citizens — of the past is most dramatic in a room dedicated to rubbings on paper and plaster casts of the architectural details to Istanbul’s buildings made by Ottoman Armenians. “The Flesh is Yours, The Bones Are Ours” (2015) was made for the 2015 Istanbul Biennial, which also happened to be the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, and consists of plaster cast replicas of Istanbul’s Art Nouveau buildings, cast from real animal bones. Much of this ornamentation was made by Armenian craftsmen, many of whom perished during the 1915 genocide, which Turkey has yet to recognize. Displayed alongside the plaster casts — made with animal bones from livestock descended from farms historically owned by Armenians — are rubbings made from the facades of these buildings, as well as photographs, and histories of the craftsmen and their ateliers, giving names to the forgotten and unrecognized ghosts of Ottoman Istanbul.
Additional references to the destruction of historical monuments are seen in “What Dust Will Rise” (2012), which was originally made for the Documenta festival of the same year, in Kassel, Germany. The work comprises recreations of Talmudic books that were destroyed by the accidental bombing of Kassel’s Fridericianum Library by the RAF in 1941 (they were already at risk of being burnt by the Nazis). Here Rakowitz introduces ghosts of different times and cultures to one another. His 2012 books were made in the stone-carving tradition of Afghan Hazari craftsmen with stone quarried from the Bamiyan Valley, where the Taliban destroyed Buddha statues in 2001.
Rakowitz also brings aspects of different worlds together in “The Break Up” (2010–ongoing), a set of works that parallels the Arab-Israeli Six Day War with the release of the Beatles’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. A Rolling Stone magazine with a photograph of George Harrison appears next to an issue of TIME with Yasser Arafat on its front page. Meanwhile, Peter Blake and Jann Haworth’s infamous album cover now includes Egyptian icon Oum Kulthum. In fact, within the works — which comprise Beatles memorabilia covered in Rakowitz’s scribbles — the artist compares each member of the band to the four quarters of Jerusalem, making us question whether there may, in fact, have been a link between the British band and the quest for peace in the Middle East, while also reminding us of the band’s popularity outside of the West.
Finishing this review where the exhibition begins, we turn to “Dull Roar” (2005), an inflatable grey structure that inhales and exhales as it fills with air and then deflates again. The work is a replica of the Pruitt-Igoe development designed in St. Louis, Missouri in 1954. Designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki, the structure was supposed to facilitate the cohabitation of middle-class African Americans with middle-class white residents between 33 buildings. The buildings became dangerously violent and run down, eventually being dynamited in 1972 with the rubble being used to build luxury homes in the suburbs.
The fate of the Pruitt-Igoe development reminds of the fates of the rest of the work in the exhibition, with the remains of one ill-fated structure going on to facilitate the building of another with its remains, introducing the ghosts of the past into rejuvenated constructions meant to erase the sordid history of their predecessors. On learning that the Pruitt-Igoe architect went on to design the Twin Towers, Rakowitz’s interest in the Middle East seeps in without the audience even realizing, introducing us to the ghosts we didn’t even know existed.
Michael Rakowitz is on view at Whitechapel Gallery (77-82 Whitechapel High St, Shadwell, London) through August 25. The exhibition is curated by Iwona Blazwick and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, together with Habda Rashid at Whitechapel Gallery and Marianna Vecellio at Castello di Rivoli.