Born in 1973, Great Neck, NY
1998 - Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, Cambridge MA
Shows at Lombard-Fried, 531 West 26th
Street, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10001
***All images are from the exhibition: Recovered, missing, stolen; made in Middle Eastern packaging and newspaper, glue.***
On 17 May 2003, two months after the United States led the 'coalition of the willing' into Iraq, the New York-based collective Artists Against the War staged a nationwide 'Erase In' to draw attention to the cultural implications of the invasion, if not also war more generally. In Manhattan, several hundred artists - including Michael Rakowitz, a Chicago-based installation and public artist whose work eschews the savvy of cool and intellectual detachment for the more visceral and certainly more vulnerable engagement of sincerity - congregated in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum's just mounted exhibition, 'Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium BC from the Mediterranean to the Indus'.
There, they positioned themselves in front of such 'masterpieces' as the Standard of Ur, 2550- 2400 BC, a small, ornately inlaid box depicting the Sumerian kingship in its most militaristic aspect that was on loan from the British Museum, London, where it had been deposited after having been excavated by archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley during the British Mandate in Iraq, 1918-1932.
Determined to make visible and concrete their opposition to the United States government's wanton 'contempt for Iraqi life, culture, and history', the artists very solemnly and deliberately sketched these antiquities, only to erase them hours later in a gesture as creative as it was destructive. In so doing, they protested as artists, making of their labour a performance that would exceed partisan politics. They eschewed specific demands on any one institution in favor of a quiet protest that spoke to issues of repatriating cultural heritage while also elegantly alluding to what many felt at the time to be the silencing of dissent.
I begin this introduction to Michael Rakowitz's body of work with this action (even though it was not exclusively his own) performed, as it were, in art and in the space of art's circulation, because it is in the interstitial spaces generated precisely by the kinds of layering and contradictions mobilised by the 'Erase in' - between erasure and presence, present and past, here and there, universal and specific, poetry and polemic, art and action - that Michael Rakowitz has long conducted his own, properly speaking, aesthetic practice.
A longstanding focus within this work has also been the war that 'Erase In' meant to question: the war, that is, and how we might possibly come to see, if only to oppose, its place in our own culture.
Until last year, when the hand-crafted 'copies' of artifacts stolen from the National Museum of Iraq that he exhibits as the central component of his The invisible enemy should not exist, 2007, won him the Jury prize at the 8th Sharjah Biennial, Rakowitz was best known for his ongoing paraSITE (1997-present), in which he draws upon lessons gleaned from techniques and tactics employed by Bedouin nomads to build custom designed, inflatable homeless shelters in - and this is crucial - collaboration with their potential inhabitants.
While the fruits of this collaboration have now been exhibited in a number of museum exhibitions, including 'SAFE: Design Takes on Risk' at New York's Museum of Modern Art and 'Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art' at Chicago's Smart Museum of Art (both 2005, and both at institutions which now boast original paraSITE structures in their permanent collections, which does make one wonder about whether or not the collaboration with the homeless went so far as to include remuneration), much of the attention it first garnered came from outside the white walls of the art world.
As Rakowitz tells it, his best and earliest critics were the homeless (or 'houseless' as he notes several men with whom he's worked prefer to be called), anxious to collaborate on their own shelters; police desperate to thank him for his efforts while also intent on decrying the administrative logic that had made police policy of arresting the homeless for the simple crime of so being; and reporters who sensationalised the likelihood of a future cityscape in which tents like those of Rakowitz's design might ever more regularly dot the horizon.
In his review of 'Dull Roar', 2005, Rakowitz's first solo exhibition at Lombard-Freid Projects in New York, Holland Cotter, writing in The New York Times, was undoubtedly thinking of ParaSITE when he impugned that Rakowitz was at his best, so to speak, on the street and out in the real world. I have heard this claim parroted on more than one occasion in relationship to what some insist on calling the artist's 'gallery work', a phrase that misses the point, about both sites of production - street and art world - and their relationship to each other. As opposed to this vein of thinking, one that wants to separate works like paraSITE from those Rakowitz makes explicitly for display and for sale within the space of the gallery, it is actually the same determination to make visible and present that animates all his projects, commissioned or not, salable or not, including 'Dull Roar'.
In cataloguing a history of failed utopian invention through a series of drawings hung to frame an eternally collapsing and re-inflating balloon model of one of architect Minoru Yamasaki's other famously destroyed towers, those of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis, Missouri, Rakowitz makes of our fascination with the demise of visionary architecture an allegory to describe our most compulsive consumptions and our most prurient investments in spectacularity. At the same time, he also suggests the regenerative ambition of hope, even as it remains tainted by the commercialisation to which it is put. In moving the site of the street into that of the gallery, Rakowitz transforms the variable conditions of spectatorship into their own medium - to be shaped, formed, and molded, just as if so much clay.
In the more recent The invisible enemy should not exist (recovered, missing, stolen series), 2007, Rakowitz takes this strategy one step further, shifting the conditions of our spectatorship within the gallery to exceed the viewing platform that surrounds the ever-collapsing tower of 'Dull Roar', and which explicitly references the four that Mayor Rudy Giuliani had built around 'Ground Zero' in 2001-02 to satiate the public's desire to see the evidence of the Twin Towers' collapse. No longer just a voyeur onto a scene of disaster, the spectator now enjoys and looks upon a space of culture made possible by a long history of war and occupation.
For this extensive installation, which also includes an aural component, a series of drawings, and a wall-based timeline, the artist displays copies of objects missing or stolen from the Baghdad museum that he and an assistant have fabricated to scale out of packaging materials used to wrap Middle Eastern foods and Arabic-language community newspapers in the United States, items the artist describes as brief 'moments of cultural visibility' within a culture - North American - that otherwise endeavors to impose a sheen of invisibility on the populations that consume them.
These replicas are arranged on a long table constructed from the same rough-hewn plywood as the viewing platform in 'Dull Roar', making clear the correlation and connectedness between these two projects as the mechanism of spectatorship shifts focus from one cultural disaster to another. The table's crooked form and its position within the gallery are derived from the angled course of Baghdad's boulevard Aj-ibur-shapu, from which the exhibition title takes its name, and which otherwise cuts a monumental swath up to the famous Ishtar Gate in Baghdad. The drawn component of the work completes the network of connections that the artist harnesses from otherwise un-extraordinary collisions of coincidence and confluence to give this installation both its poignant humor and its uncanny seriousness.
Through the 'ballad' of the former Director of the Iraq National Museum, Dr Donny George, Rakowitz reminds us that this gate, as it stands now in the Iraqi capital, is already a fake. The original gate, excavated by Robert Koldewey, a German archaeologist, stands in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin. Ours, of course, is not the first invasion that has robbed a culture of its past, and the vistas that Rakowitz provides onto what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has named 'the social life of things' strips us of any pretence of our innocence.
Having conjured the war and the streets on which it is fought as well as the objects to which it has given 'life', (and which it also threatens to destroy) within the middle of the gallery, Rakowitz, however, refuses to stay there. Instead, his work hovers above both sites, moving back and forth so that his work is not only in-between, but also everywhere, and all the time.
This article appears in excerpted