Iraqi food for thought: Michael Rakowitz's Backstroke of the West
As his first career retrospective in the US opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Rakowitz tells Nick Leech how he uses art to overcome prejudice
In the first week of February, 2005, an Iraq-based terrorist group calling itself the Mujahideen Brigades released an image of a captured US soldier, who they named as John Adams.
Held at gunpoint in front of the kind of black flag now inextricably associated with ISIL, the group threatened to kill the African-American unless Iraqis held in US-run prisons were freed within 72 hours.
Responding to the news, the US military scoured the country for news of missing personnel – there was none – and within hours it became clear that the Adams case was not quite what it seemed.
The suspicion was confirmed when an American toy manufacturer, Dragon Models USA, released a statement that noted the facial similarity between Adams and one of their replica servicemen, “Cody”, an action toy designed to resemble a member of the US special forces.
The story blew over almost as quickly as it had come to light, one of the many stranger-than-
fiction episodes to emerge from the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, such as the case of Saddam Hussein’s son Uday, leader of the Fedayeen Saddam paramilitary unit and an avid Star Wars fan, who designed the helmet worn by his troops to resemble Darth Vader’s, or the fact that, on the eve of the first Gulf War, Saddam’s troops marched through the triumphal Hands of Victory arch in Baghdad to the Star Wars theme tune.
Such unexpected events and connections and the narratives that emerge from them have become something of a signature for Michael Rakowitz, an American artist of Iraqi-Jewish descent whose first US museum survey, Backstroke of the West, opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (MCA), this weekend.
Rakowitz is best known for food-based projects such as Spoils (2011) in which the artist collaborated with a New York chef to prepare a meal served on plates from Saddam’s personal dinner service, which Rakowitz bought on eBay, and his forthcoming commission for the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square.
Next year, Rakowitz will mount a four-metre statue on the empty pedestal. A reconstruction of a winged statue, part-bull and part-human, that guarded Nineveh for 2,700 years until it was destroyed by ISIL in 2015.
Like so many of Rakowitz’s recent projects, including his reconstruction of ancient Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, May the Arrogant Not Prevail (2010) that uses Arabic Pepsi cans and packets of Lipton Tea, the Fourth Plinth sculpture will be made from discarded packaging, in this case empty cans of Iraqi date syrup.
For Rakowitz, the use of discarded Middle Eastern food packaging is not only an attempt to highlight the invisibility of Middle Eastern culture in the United States, but also represents a commentary on the impossibility of recreating the past at a time when so much and so many lives have been lost.
“It’s about telegraphing the fact that these reproductions can never be the original. I can understand the impulse. There’s an impulse that drives me to recreate these objects that went missing, but there’s also the knowledge that history cannot be reconstructed,” the artist says, referring to the efforts that have been made using 3-D printing to reconstruct the lost heritage of Syria and Iraq.
“I wanted to choose a material that was rich in terms of the idea of the waste of history, which is also being left behind in contemporary times but also to choose a material that conveyed the urgency and impossibility of building these things,” Rakowitz explains.
“So when I think about those 3-D printing efforts, I see it being driven in part by this western glance looking towards the East, that says ‘Oh my god, they are destroying history!’” he adds.
“So the idea of recording artefacts so that they can be rebuilt, in some cases in these western environments, also contains the idea of possession, it’s like a form of digital colonialism, but you can’t 3-D print the DNA of all the people whose lives have been lost.”
One of those lives belonged to Donny George Youkhanna, an Iraqi archaeologist and former director of the Iraq National Museum who, despite his best efforts to protect the museum’s collection from looters, was forced into exile in the US because of death threats.
“The horribly poetic thing is that he ends up dying of a heart attack in between two countries, he was on his way from New York to Toronto where he was going to give a lecture,” Rakowitz laments.
“What I’m trying to communicate is that the story of the artefacts is often very much the story of the refugees in the way that countries like Italy, the USA, Japan and Kuwait – places where many of the looted artefacts from the Iraq Museum ended up – ended up keeping those objects, even after they were rediscovered, because it was too dangerous for them to go back [to Iraq],” he says.
“It’s these stories that I think are really important. If you think about a votive statue and what a votive statue does, it stands as a surrogate for the person praying, but I think about votive statues now as surrogates for the people who perished alongside them.”
In using Iraq’s invasion and occupation as his main source material, Rakowitz treads a fine line between mining one of the most traumatic episodes in recent US and Middle Eastern history – for which he has received criticism – and producing work that operates as a form of real world activism that engages with Iraqi refugees in the US and US veterans of the wars in Iraq.
Enemy Kitchen, a project that has been revived for the new show at the MCA thanks to a Kickstarter fundraising campaign, is a case in point.
Inspired by his mother’s comment, made during the first Gulf War, that there were no Iraqi restaurants in New York, Rakowitz decided to launch a series of cooking classes focused on traditional Iraqi and Iraqi-Jewish cuisine.
“The idea was to do something really poetic and simple, that might not make sense to people thinking of it as a work of art but which was to say ‘OK. We are at war with Iraq, here’s how you make kibbeh’,” the artist says. “It was a way to resist the disappearance of the people on the other side of the war who were also making this food.”
What started as an after-school cooking programme aimed at teenagers in New York who had grown up knowing nothing but a state of war in Iraq, morphed in 2006 when Rakowitz, now living in Chicago, kitted out a food truck so that he could take Enemy Kitchen out on the road.
The result, the artist quips, was a kind of dangerous-looking ice-cream van that specialised in creating a forum where Americans and Iraqis as well as refugees and veterans could meet, eat, talk and get to know one another.
This led, eventually, to a scenario where the refugees and veterans found themselves working alongside one another, Iraqis as head chefs and veterans as servers and sous-chefs, in a way that inverted the power relationships that had been established in Iraq.
For Rakowitz, this also led to one of the many “unforeseeable and unpredictable intangibles” that often emanate from his work, a meeting on the Enemy Kitchen food truck between a veteran turned artist, Greg Broseus, and an Iraqi woman, Sabah, both of whom had met, without realising it, while Broseus was serving as a gunner on a Humvee in Iraq.
“It was a crazy, crazy coincidence but the two of them then started doing work together,” Rakowitz explains. “Greg actually wrote a poem for Sabah, called I Danced For You, and then they did a photo series together.”
The latest version of Enemy Kitchen, in a fully-reconditioned food truck, will be the first thing that visitors to the MCA see when they arrive, parked as it will be on a plaza at the entrance to the museum.
They’ll then enter Backstroke of the West through Rakowitz’s reconstructed Babylonian gateway, May the Arrogant Not Prevail, but from behind in a way that reveals the crudeness and theatricality of its construction.
The intention is to draw attention, once again, to the many reconstructions that crop up in Iraq’s history, from the removal and reconstruction of the original Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, where it is housed now, to Saddam’s attempts to recreate ancient Babylon and more recent attempts to restore vandalised artefacts.
As Rakowitz explains, this was one of the many ideas of the show’s curator, the MCA’s Manilow senior curator and director of global initiatives, Omar Kholeif, who decided to exhibit all of the artist’s projects in the same room.
This includes The Ballad of Special Ops Cody, a specially commissioned animated short film that features a version of the doll that was used in 2005 fake hostage image.
For Rakowitz, the show presented the perfect opportunity to return to the episode and to a work he has been considering for more than a decade.
“I first saw this article [about the Cody doll] in February 2005 and I knew that it was such a weird story that I had to hold onto it and do something about it,” he remembers.
“I started hunting for the doll around 2008 or 2009. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it at the time, but once I had the doll I thought that somebody had to animate it.”
In the resulting film, Rakowitz has Special Ops Cody visit the galleries of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, a special place for the artist because it was from there that an international online project was launched in 2003, Lost Treasures of Iraq, that was designed to help trap antiquities smugglers while offering a virtual glimpse of the items that had been stolen from the National Museum of Iraq.
Rakowitz used the images on the Lost Treasures of Iraq website as the starting point for the sculptures that form The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, a decade-old and ongoing project that aims to fabricate every item looted from the Baghdad museum, including versions of the kind of votive statuettes that feature in The Ballad of Special Ops Cody.
“There’s some humour there, but there was also the question of what Cody would say and I wanted to ask all the people I was working with, like the veterans, what they would have Cody say in that situation,” the artist explains of a scene in which the doll engages the statuettes in a form of conversation.
Rakowitz eventually worked on the voiceover for the film with another Iraq veteran-turned artist, Gin McGill-Prather, who like many of Rakowitz’s collaborators is also a member of the advocacy group, Iraq Veterans Against the War.
“She spoke about the way the ancient votive statues looked with their eyes which had fallen out over time and then started to talk about how they made her think about an Iraqi detainee who had been killed while under her supervision,” Rakowitz says. “She had to fill out the medical report because everyone else was too squeamish because the man’s eyes were no longer there.”
Like so many of Rakowitz’s projects, The Ballad of Special Ops Cody raises questions about ethics, guilt and the proper role of the artist, but by foregrounding his work in very human stories and experiences and in a language of acceptance and forgiveness, Rakowitz manages to create works that are as humane as they are moral and as politically-committed as they are profound.
Michael Rakowitz: Backstroke Of The West runs at the MCA Chicago until March 4, 2018
Updated: September 17, 2017 10:34 AM