Optimism Interrupted

Michael Rakowitz’s exhibition in Malmö deepens the narrative of the Middle East’s lost cultural heritage.

Michael Rakowitz, The invisible enemy should not exist (Room G, Northwest Palace of Nimrud, Panel 21) (detail), 2018. Photo: Nick Ash.

I recently learned from an essay by author Roy Scranton that ‘hadji’ was used as a disparaging term by American soldiers for Iraqis. Scranton, who was stationed in Iraq, writes that it took him years of practice to stop using the word. It appears again in the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz’s sparse exhibition at Malmö Konsthall: a former soldier talks about returning to Iraq after the war, breaking down in tears after giving a conference talk, and being offered a glass of tea. As a soldier, he had been offered tea countless times, but had always declined what he and his colleagues dubbed “hadji water.”

This tale of reconciliation is nestled deep in the exhibition. In a corner of the konsthall is a listening station for the podcast Radio Silence (2018), produced by Rakowitz in collaboration with American veterans. The average visitor will probably not spend much time, if any, on the 30-minute episodes, but the work’s inclusion here exemplifies the artist’s faith in storytelling, despite the exhibition theme’s general emphasis on objects and artefacts.

The exhibition takes its name from the sculpture series The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (2007–ongoing), in which Rakowitz recreates artefacts that have been destroyed or lost during the wars in Iraq and Syria. His winged bull currently installed atop the fourth plinth on Trafalgar Square, a few blocks from the British Museum, borrows the monumental sculptural language of the setting in a gesture that is both impertinent and restitutive. For the exhibition in Malmö, he has produced a new chapter, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (Room G) (2018), installed in the centre of the large gallery space. Room G is what archaeologists designated this small banquet hall in the Assyrian palace at Nimrud, in present-day Iraq, completed in 879 BC. The palace was destroyed by ISIS in 2015, and the reliefs that were in situ the day before the bulldozers came have been recreated using newspaper and colourful packaging from the Middle East. The images are of demigods and guardians, agricultural rituals and ornament. The impact, however, is not one of wonder at the marvels of history, but rather an interrupted or half-hearted celebration. The wall texts don’t detail the significance of the reliefs, only their status and provenance. Following each listing is a quote about the destruction, or just matter-of-fact statements: “The trade of antiquities ranks third in international monetary terms, behind drug smuggling and weapons sales.”

Rakowitz has described himself as a “site-specific sculptor,” and the exhibition’s emphasis on exile and Iraqi heritage can be directly linked to the context of Malmö. The city is home to a large Iraqi diaspora, and the exhibition’s public programme includes several events in collaboration with the Iraqi Cultural Association of Malmö. The presentation’s distinctly communicative qualities I see as a part of the site-specificity. This exhibition isn’t about an artistic practice – historicising and context, drawings and process – but about how objects and events, such as meals, can foster understanding of common predicaments and cultural heritage.

Michael Rakowitz, The invisible enemy should not exist, (Room G, Northwest Palace of Nimrud, Room G-24) (detail), 2019. Photo: Robert Chase Heishman.

Despite this, the artist is decidedly present. His voice and phrases infuse the presentation, like a chorus giving resonance to the works. Of Enemy Kitchen (2006), a series of cooking events where Iraqi refugees were chefs and American veterans servers, Rakowitz remarks: “Finally the Americans are taking orders from the Iraqis.” Of Spoils (2011), where food was served on china from Saddam Hussein’s palace, which the artist found on eBay, he declares: “I believe in turning the stomach while simultaneously filling it.” These phrases aren’t, I think, only invitations to laugh in the midst of all the misery. They appear more as crafted strategies for enticing viewers and holding their attention. They also counteract the exhibition context’s tendency to peel away the specificity of the artefacts. Narration – phrases, refrains, unexpected links between times, materials, and places – is used to extract meaning, not to apply it as a varnish. Rakowitz’s work is a reminder of Walter Benjamin’s defence of storytelling as generative of knowledge, a contrast to the abstraction of information.

In the stop-motion film The Ballad of Special Ops Cody (2017), an action figure breaks into a museum vitrine and talks to small votive statues from Mesopotamia. It is almost therapeutic, the scene reminiscent of a child using dolls to work through a real-life conflict. The narrator, also an American veteran, urges the statues: “What’s your story? Why are you here? Don’t y’all wanna go home? Be free?” Their stone faces stare back in silence.

Michael Rakowitz, The Ballad of Special Ops Cody (film still),2017.

A few days before the opening of this exhibition, Rakowitz was announced as the winner of the 2020 Nasher Prize for excellence in contemporary sculpture. One of the jurors stated: “Michael’s work is about healing and about how to take the problem of cultural destruction and transform that into a resource for a very optimistic vision of the reconstruction of our society.” But what is suggested in Malmö is not so much optimism that all will end well (i.e. thank god art can be mobilised for reconstruction), but rather a model for care and dignity. What Rakowitz wants to reconstruct is meaning and human relationships. And if it were ever a competition between the thing and the story, in this scenario the latter prevails.

The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist also includes a number of small objectsmodelled on artefacts lost when the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad was looted following the American invasion in 2003. This is the only instance which successfully stages coming face-to-face with what has been lost. The exhibition’s undercurrent of reconciliation and conviviality is washed away and what is left is sadness. I don’t think this feeble little emotion is what the exhibition seeks to mobilise. But that the artefact gets final say, in a presentation that does not principally rely on spatial interventions, stands as a testament to Rakowitz the sculptor.

Michael Rakowitz, The invisible enemy should not exist (Room G, Northwest Palace of Nimrud, Panel 21) (installation view), 2018. Photo: Nick Ash.