Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
Chicago, Il, USA
16 September 2017 – 4 March 2018

 

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago presents the first major museum survey of Chicago-based, Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz whose work explores contested social, political, and cultural histories. Rakowitz revives destroyed and looted objects and marginalized histories, and questions how art can function as a space for closing those wounds. Drawing on personal experience and research on these subjects, as well as history and popular culture, Rakowitz creates illustrated objects, installations, and performances that invite viewers to contemplate their complicit relationship to the political world around them, recognizing that hospitality and hostility are interlinked. The exhibition includes his major commission What Dust Will Rise? created for Documenta 13; The invisible enemy should not exist, a lifelong project by the artist to refabricate to scale every single item looted from the Iraqi National Museum; and an important new commission, The Ballad of Special Ops Cody. On view from September 16, 2017 to March 4, 2018, Michael Rakowitz: Backstroke of the West is organized by Omar Kholeif, MCA Manilow Senior Curator and Director of Global Initiatives.

An unprecedented survey of Rakowitz’s works, this exhibition isolates key points in the troubled history between the east and the west to reconcile the complex and often violent relationship between the artist’s homeland of Iraq, with his upbringing in the United States, with an American father and an Iraqi-Jewish mother. Backstroke of the West refers to a mis-translation of Revenge of the Sith, from a Chinese bootleg version of the Star Wars film, likely from a program such as Google Translate. The title speaks to Rakowitz’s interest in translation as a means of crossing social and political boundaries, as well as how popular culture can be used to access shared cultural narratives.

Entering the exhibition, visitors encounter the powerful work May The Arrogant Not Prevail (2010, pictured), a replica of the famous Ishtar Gate from Iraqi antiquity, made out of recycled Arabic food packaging. The Ishtar Gate was built in c.575 BC by Nebuchadnezzar in ancient Babylon (now modern day Iraq), for the avenue called Aj ibur shapu, which means “the invisible enemy should not exist,” or its alternative translation, “may the arrogant not prevail.”

The exhibition includes a portion of What Dust Will Rise? (2012), a site-specific commission for Documenta 13, in which Rakowitz re-creates lost volumes from the State Library of Hesse-Kassel, Germany, that were destroyed in a fire. Rakowitz had stone carvers from Afghanistan and Italy remake the lost books out of travertine quarried from Bamiyan where two massive sandstone Buddhas once stood before they were destroyed by the Taliban. The work reveals Rakowitz’s desire to close wounds and reconstitute lost histories from the mutual tolls of countries at war.

One of Rakowitz’s most acclaimed works, The invisible enemy should not exist (2007-ongoing) suggests that the voids left by human conflict have no geographical boundaries. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US, numerous artifacts from the National Museum of Iraq were stolen by looters. The centerpiece of the project is an ongoing series of sculptures that represent an attempt to reconstruct the looted archaeological artifacts, and speaks to Rakowitz’s interest in reconstituting histories that have been lost, stolen, or marginalized. Rakowitz has also created new work from this series to top the fourth pillar in Trafalgar Square in 2018 and 2019 – a winged bull that guarded the ancient Nergal Gate in Ninevah from 700 BC to 2015 when it was destroyed.

In The worst condition is to pass under a sword which is not one’s own (2009), Rakowitz traces links between western science fiction and military activities in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s regime. The installation shows the influence of the Star Wars films on the uniforms worn by the Fedayeen Saddam, an elite militia whose members dressed like Darth Vader. The paramilitary group was under the leadership of Saddam’s son Uday who was an avid fan of George Lucas’s space opera. Also, the design of war monuments in Baghdad, such as the famous Hands of Victory, bears an uncanny resemblance to the iconic poster for the Star Wars fifth episode, The Empire Strikes Back. Rakowitz re-creates this with two hands frozen in combat with clashing light sabers, meticulously wrapped in pages from Saddam Hussein’s novels.

Also dealing with pop culture, The Breakup (2010) is a ten-part radio series accompanied by records, magazine covers, maps, and other ephemera on the Beatles final years, alongside Middle Eastern media clippings detailing the movement to unify Israeli, Palestinian, and other regional authorities under one umbrella at the end of the 1960s. Rakowitz draws parallels between the Beatles’ break-up and the rise and fall of the Pan-Arab dream of unification. The Breakup suggests that the same weakness – a failure to “come together” – is responsible for each of their respective downfalls, with a centerpiece of the Sgt. Pepper’s cover transformed with historic Arab figures such as Egyptian singer Oum Kulthum and the late Egyptian president, Gamel Abdel Nasser.

In conjunction with the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the exhibition presents one of Rakowitz’s most celebrated works, paraSITE, an ongoing project since 1998, which enables the homeless to create their own inflatable shelters using a set of instructions that Rakowitz wrote and distributed throughout New York City and Boston. Rakowitz works directly with local communities on this project, allowing homeless people to attach their shelters to a building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system for warmth and circulation. Like many of the artist’s works, paraSITE illustrates Rakowitz’s desire to make the world a more hospitable place for everyone.

Another interactive work in the exhibition is Enemy Kitchen (2017), where Rakowitz plans to install a pop-up food truck at the MCA at times during the run of the exhibition, and serve Iraqi-Jewish cooking from favorite childhood recipes he has collected from his mother. These dishes are served on paper plates which are exact replicas of the ones used in Saddam Hussein’s former residence. With a light, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, Rakowitz shows that hospitality–such as a warm meal–can easily lull us into complacency and trust, navigating collective fears of hostility and otherness at a safe, even geographic distance.

The MCA has commissioned a new work for the exhibition, The Ballad of Special Ops Cody (2017) that also comes from Rakowitz’s long-term engagement with US veterans. The work is based on an incident in 2005, when an Iraqi insurgent group aligned with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed to be holding a US soldier for ransom. The US military soon realized that the threat was a hoax and the ‘soldier’ was a souvenir action figure produced for military families named Special Ops Cody. The installation will reproduce the fake scene and then travel to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago where it will hold Mesopotamian votive statues that were taken by the west, a kind of ancient surrogate hostage.

Michael Rakowitz lives and works in Chicago and is currently a professor of art theory and practice at Northwestern University. He received his BFA from Purchase College SUNY and his MA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was recently selected for the prestigious Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square in London. He has exhibited at Documenta 13 in Hasse-Kassel, Germany; the Museum of Modern Art and P.S.1 in New York; and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The artist has had solo exhibitions at the Tate Modern in London, UK; the Lombard Freld Gallery in New York, NY; Alberto Peola Arte Contemporanea in Turin, Italy; and Kunstaum Innsbruck in Innsbruck, Austria. He is the recipient of the Tiffany Foundation Award (2012); the Sharjah Biennial Jury Award (2007); the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship Grant (2006); the Creative Capital Grant (2002); and the Design Grand Prix from UNESCO (2002).

 

Image:

Michael Rakowitz, May the Arrogant Not Prevail, 2010. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Marshall Field’s by exchange. Image courtesy of the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery.