Esquire (UK)

A new exhibition by Michael Rakowitz

A Jewish-Iraqi-American artist counts the human cost of cultural destructio­n

- Interview by Miranda Collinge Portrait by Charlotte Hadden

One of artist Michael Rakowitz’s longest-running projects is called “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist”. It is an attempt to remake all of the 7,000 objects looted from the National Museum of Iraq following the Coalition invasion in 2003, as well as other monuments across the country destroyed during the war. Rakowitz’s recreation­s are made from food wrappers and Arabic-English newspapers; one of the larger pieces, an Assyrian bull god, or Lamassu, that stood at the gate to Nineveh from 700BC until it was destroyed by the fighters from the so-called Islamic State in 2015, he recreated using date syrup cans. It currently occupies the Fourth Plinth of London’s Trafalgar Square where, on a sunny day, it glitters. Other parts of “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist” will be on display at the Whitechape­l Gallery in London when the first major European survey of his work opens in June.

“When the looting happened, I think one of the reasons we were all drawn to it is that it was a galvanisin­g moment where we had shared pathos, regardless of what our views were about the war,” says Rakowitz. The 45-year-old, over for a few days from Chicago, is sitting in a light-filled room in the Whitechape­l. You needn’t ask if Rakowitz is a Beatles fan, just note the Sgt Pepperness of the collar, the colour and the moustache. “We knew this was a loss we felt together, that it was catastroph­ic. But I was also outraged that the outrage did not go from this mourning of lost objects to an outrage for lost lives. That’s one of the things I’ve always thought about, because when you grow up in Jewish households post-Holocaust you know that when books burned, people burned.”

Rakowitz was born in Great Neck, Long Island, to an Iraqi-Jewish mother and an Ashkenazi Jewish father, and studied graphic design, sculpture and then architectu­re at the Massachuse­tts Institute of Technology. His multi-disciplina­ry training plays out in his clever, thought-provoking artwork: inflatable shelters for homeless people that are warmed by air expelled from buildings’ heating ducts; stone books carved from travertine quarried from Bamiyan in Afghanista­n, where two sixth-century sandstone Buddhas stood until the Taliban destroyed them in 2001.

The first thing visitors to the Whitechape­l will see is a recreation of the Pruitt-Igoe buildings in St Louis, Missouri, designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki, who also conceived the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The public housing complex failed in its aims, which were fatally flawed from the outset — middle-class African-American residents were supposed to occupy the “Pruitt” buildings, with middleclas­s white residents in the “Igoe” ones, though it ended up almost entirely black and poor, and was dynamited in 1972. It’s demise is considered one of the death knells of Modernism. Rakowitz’s version of Pruitt-Igoe is made of vinyl and will inflate and deflate every three minutes like a giant lung. “It was this moment of collapse: of buildings, people and ideas,” he says.

“In an era of conflict and exile, Michael shines a light on the accidental, comedic and poetic cultural strategies communitie­s in extremis adopt to survive,” says Iwona Blazwick, director of the Whitechape­l Gallery, who is curating the show. She describes Rakowitz as “a consummate storytelle­r” who “turns the disasters of war into beacons of knowledge and hope.”

There are moral uncertaint­ies around making valuable art objects to honour doomed structures and monuments and artefacts. It’s exactly this kind of tension Rakowitz likes to explore. “It’s the existence of a contempora­ry art market that allows for a gallery to exist in the first place. And it was the existence of an antiquitie­s market that allowed the looting of the Iraq Museum to happen, right? I wanted to mirror that fragmentat­ion through desire, to use vulnerable materials that could never be the actual object but can only ever be an effigy looking back at the person.”

He looks out towards the window. “The work I make, I hope, is an apparition that haunts this space.”

○ Michael Rakowitz, 4 June to 25 August, Whitechape­l Gallery, London E1; whitechape­lgallery.org

 ??  ?? Michael Rakowitz photograph­ed for Esquire at the Whitechape­l Gallery, January 2019
Michael Rakowitz photograph­ed for Esquire at the Whitechape­l Gallery, January 2019
 ??  ?? May the Obdurate Foe Not Stay in Good Health, 2007 – ongoing
May the Obdurate Foe Not Stay in Good Health, 2007 – ongoing
 ??  ?? The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (Northwest Palace of Nimrud), 2018
The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (Northwest Palace of Nimrud), 2018

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