The Traps of History
You have to be quite cunning if you want to escape the traps of history. Popular heroes of movies and comics know this, and so does the American artist Michael Rakowitz. His artwork is cunning and for that reason, it shrewdly evokes the very dangers it seeks to circumvent. This delicate balance can be seen in all his projects, whether he is dealing with the fear of being cast from society and ending up on the street (his ongoing project paraSITE seeks to give the homeless concrete help by providing them with heat), or showing the dangers of submitting to biased ascriptions of national identity.
Since the first Gulf war, Rakowitz has been examining how the West views Iraq and how Iraq views the West, and his findings continue to be nothing short of amazing. He discovers not only striking similarities between the self-professed opponents, but in many ways they are mirror images of each other.
Michael Rakowitz, son of Iraqi-Jewish immigrants to the U.S, was born 1973 in New York and lives in Chicago. He first learned about Iraq, the country his Jewish grandparents had fled from in 1946, through news reports on CNN. While a high school student on Long Island, he saw the strange green-tinted images from the bombers attacking Iraq. “The country my grandparents had fled to was now at war with the country they had fled from.”
But it would be far too easy to interpret his politically nuanced art through the lens of his biography and heritage. „Any American could have created these projects,“ says Michael Rakowitz, „it’s a very American story.“ According to Rakowitz, though many immigrants were living in the U.S., there was virtually no evidence of everyday Iraqi culture to be seen there, and this made him wonder. " In Paris today you can find, for example, many North African restaurants. This is a consequence of the colonial occupation of North Africa, but also a reversal, a movement in the other direction. In New York, on the other hand, you can’t find a single Iraqi Restaurant," says Rakowitz. This gave him the idea for "Enemy Kitchen," a project launched in 2006, in which he offered schools and American veterans an introductory course on Iraqi cuisine. He used his mother’s recipes.
Rakowitz talks about a cooking class he gave at a school in New York. “Of the children who participated, most had some sort of familial relationship to a soldier in the Gulf War. The teachers had decided we should not talk about the war. But during the eight weeks in which I rolled kebab meatballs and stirred sauces with them, of course, their ideas about the war came out. ‘Saddam Hussein destroyed the Twin Towers´ said one, ‘no, that was Bin Laden,’ said another and a third talked about the conspiracy theory that it was actually the U.S. military who was behind it.” Rakowitz loves the social interactions his projects provoke.
He became famous for paraSITE, a project that began in 1989, while he was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He created a double-membraned structure out of transparent foil which he connected to the heating system of a building, thus providing warmth and shelter for the homeless. In an interview with the individual tenants of his structure, 40 so far, he had them explain what they needed, for example a window to see potential attackers, or they told him where they wanted him to build fitted pockets to stow their personal belongings. The paraSITES are not only sculptures that point to increasing privatization in public spaces, they are also portraits of their tenants.
They, too, are an instrument of cunning. To circumvent former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s anti-homeless laws, prohibiting the use of any structure higher than 3.5 feet, Rakowitz’s design for parSITE fit the body like a sleeping bag, and was lower in height than the legal limit. Of course, the project primarily serves a symbolic function in that it was viewed and discussed within the context of art and politics much more than it was actually used. Its mobile structure not only gives a face to the social problem of homelessness, but also demonstrates the price a society which increasingly depends on being mobile and flexible will one day have to pay. It’s no coincidence that homelessness has gotten worse in the U.S. since the financial and real estate crisis.
Rakowitz’s installation at the Tate Modern in London (2010) is closely related in theme to his work for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. Aside from his drawings and texts that are connected in comic form, he also utilizes simple materials like Arabic food packages to construct his objects. The London installation entitled, "The worst condition is to pass under sword which is not one´s own" reveals surprising connections between American science fiction and fantasy culture, and forms of representation during Saddam Hussein’s regime. In fact, not only was Hussein’s son Uday a fan of “Star Wars”, he designed a completely impractical uniform for an elite military unit which was inspired by Darth Vader’s costume. The dictator himself based the construction of a triumphal arch, consisting of two crossed swords, on a poster for "The Empire Strikes Back."
This transfer of images which takes place not only between two ideologically hostile powers, but also between trash and the desire for high culture, seems like a genuine caricature of the situation. Rakowitz discovered that American soldiers were selling Iraqi helmets on Ebay, and though they were useless for protecting the soldier’s heads, they possessed an undeniable aura of sci-fi chic. Rakowitz´s work for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, "May the Arrogant not Prevail “ also deals with the U.S. soldiers in Baghdad, showing them happily posing for photos in front of a 1:3 model of the Ishtar Gate.
The original gate has been in Berlin´s Pergamon Museum since the 1920s. Saddam Hussein had a copy built for the National Museum of Iraq. Rakowitz bases his model of the Gate on Hussein’s copy. It greets visitors as a backdrop to the exhibition "On Rage," with its backside facing the stairs. It could hardly be more disenchanting. The famous blue on the ancient, thousands-year-old glazed ceramics is decorated with Arabic Pepsi packaging, the yellow stripes made of Lipton Tea. The packaging can be considered symbolic of the goods that had been there even before the military invasion, and which had been forced upon the previous civilization. They imitate the past, mimicking what they have replaced.
According to Rakowitz, the copy of a copy is also a ghost roaming around homelessly, while the original stands secure in a museum. This is not a political demand for restitution, but certainly a cunning invitation to take into account the origin of cultural wealth.
From an interview of the author with the artist in March, 2010.
Author: Katrin Bettina Müller
Exhibition / Installation
2008 16th Biennial of Sydney, Sydney, Australia;
2007 Instant Urbanism, S AM- Swiss Architecture Museum, Basel, Switzerland;
10th International Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul, Turkey;
Sharjah Biennial 8: Between The Desert And The Sea, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates;
2006 Civic Performance, Stony Brook University, Staller Center for the Arts, Stony Brook, New York, USA;
Revisiting Home, NGBK, Berlin, Germany;
Who Cares, Creative Time, New York, USA;
LESS – Alternative Living Strategies, PAC, Milano, Italy;
Mind the Gap, Smack Mellon, Brooklyn, New York, USA;
Art in the Contested City, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York, USA;
2005 SAFE: Design Takes On Risk, Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA;
Tirana Biennale, Tirana, Albania;
TI The Pantagruel Syndrome, Torino, Italy;
ATOMICA, Lombard-Freid Fine Arts and Esso Gallery, New York, USA;
Royal College of Art Curatorial Studies exhibition Don’t Interrupt Your Activities, London, UK;
Inhabituel, Milano, Italy;
Transmediale, Berlin, Germany;
2004 Gonflables, Inflatables, Gonfiabli Tripostal, Lille, France;
Living In Motion, Vitra Design Museum/Z33 Hasselt, Belgium;
Parasites: When Spaces Come Into Play, Museum of Modern Art Foundation Ludwig, Vienna;
Jamaica Flux, Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, New York, USA;
Ars Electronica, Linz, Austria;
Subway Series, Queens Museum of Art, Queens, New York, USA;
The Interventionists, MassMOCA, North Adams, USA;
X Treme Houses, Lothinger Dreizehn, Munich, Germany;
Adaptations, Apex Art, New York City, and Friedricianum, Kassel, Germany;
Borne of Necessity, Weatherspoon Museum of Art, Greensboro, North Carolina; USA;
Global Priority, UMass Amherst, MA;
2003 24/7, Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius, Lithuania;
BQE, White Box, New York, USA;
Get Rid of Yourself, ACC Gallery Weimar & Leipzig, Germany;
Homeland, Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Curatorial Study Program, CUNY Graduate Center, New York, USA;
Inside Design Now: 2003 National Design Triennial, The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York, USA;
Queens International, The Queens Museum of Art, Queens, New York, USA;
2002 Design 21: Continuous Connection, UNESCO Paris, France;
Und Ab Die Poste-Inside Out: 5th Annual Festival of New Art, Berlin, Germany;
Submerge, Kunstbunker, Nuremberg, Germany;
Architecture of Emergency, FRI-ART Friburg, Switzerland, three person show with Shigeru Ban and Samuel Mockbee & Rural Studio
AIR, Dorsky Gallery, Queens, New York, USA;
Utopia Now!, Sonoma Museum of Contemporary Art, California, USA;
Comfort Zone: Portable Living Spaces,The Fabric Workshop Museum, Philadelphia, USA;
Utopia Now!, CCAC Wattis Institute, Oakland, USA;
2001 Back and Forth, Vacancy Gallery, New York, USA;
GZ:01, 129 Lafayette Street, New York, USA;
Building Codes, Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York, USA;
Elsewhere, HEREart, New York, USA;
2000 Concerted Compassionism, White Columns, New York, USA;
1998 A Skowhegan Decade, David Beitzel Gallery, New York, USA;
1997 Repeat Reverse, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, USA;
Blast Box 1993: Remaking Civilization, X Art Foundation, New York, USA;
Exhibition / Installation
2007 The invisible enemy should not exist, Lombard-Freid Projects, New York, USA;
2006 Return, Creative Time, New York, New York, USA;
Enemy Kitchen, More Art, New York, New York, USA;
The Visionaries, Trafo Gallery, Budapest, Hungary;
Endgames, Galleria Alberto Peola, Torino, Italy;
Percent for Art Program Commission, Department of Cultural Affairs, New York, USA;
2005 Dull Roar, Lombard-Freid Fine Arts, New York, USA;
Return, Longwood Art Gallery, Bronx, USA;
2004 Greeting from Stowe, Vermont Kunstraum Innsbruck/Stadtturmgalerie, Austria;
Test Ballot, (public project) Kunstraum Innsbruck/Stadtturmgalerie, Austria;
2003 Romanticized All Out of Proportion, Special Project, Queens Museum of Art Queens, New York, USA;
2002 Breach, Lower East Side Tenement Museum New York, USA;
2001 Minaret, (Ongoing performance, Leipzig, Germany 2003/ Station
Building, Baltimore 2003/ Clocktower Gallery, New York City 2003 & 2001);
2000 Climate Control, Special Project, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Queens, New York, USA;
Guard, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York, USA;
Postcard Views, Queens, New York, USA;
1998 paraSITE (ongoing performance) various urban sites in Boston, New York City, Baltimore & Berlin);
1997 Hubuz, Amman, Jordan