Bringing back a civilization: Michael Rakowitz at Pi Artworks

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Fourteen years ago, Michael Rakowitz was struck by a flash of inspiration that sprang from the ground like the tree of life, like from the hand of Zeus. He started a project of biblical proportions, one to rival Noah’s mythical ambitions. The only difference is that Rakowitz was fully supported in his efforts, achieving singular fame in the international art world as a man praised for fighting the wrongs of Daesh and the colonialists who, over the past decades and over the centuries have destroyed much of Iraq’s tangible cultural heritage.

“Panel Cb-1”, 2021, newspapers, food packaging, cardboard relief sculptures on wood panel, 225 by 193 by 10 centimeters. (Courtesy of Pi Artworks)

All the while, Rakowitz carries the burden of his seemingly conflicting identities, as an Iraqi American, Arab Jew. He refers to his family, the Baghdadi Jews who emigrated from Iraq and India in the mid-20th century, as the first “installation artists” he ever met. Their house on Long Island was filled with Iraqi food, merchandise, and music. It’s the food, especially their packaging, that caught his eye for the ongoing series, “The Invisible Enemy Shouldn’t Exist,” which is the title of his solo exhibition at Pi Artworks.

For Istanbul’s contemporary art scene, showing pieces of Rakowitz’s gigantic works in the white cube gallery in the Karaköy district is a happy boon of immediate and regional significance. As an artist participating in the 2015 Istanbul Biennale, he made waves from the Bosphorus to Anatolia with his installation “The Flesh is Yours, The Bones Are Ours” (2015), and has attracted personalities like Jade YeÅŸim Turanlı, founder and director. works of art by Pi. She promised him a show and has since delivered.


“The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist” by Michael Rakowitz.  (Courtesy of Pi Artworks)
Michael Rakowitz’s “Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist”. (Courtesy of Pi Artworks)

Essentially an excerpt from the nearly 1,000 artifacts and reliefs that Rakowitz ‘reappeared’ with his apprenticeship workshop, the Pi Artworks exhibit features a single panel of reliefs from the Assyrian palace of Kalhu, also known as Nimrud. At its current rate, it would take another 84 years for Rakowitz to craft his plan to “reappear” more than 7,000 lost artifacts from the collections of the National Museum of Iraq. But, as he puts it, the idea of ​​continuing a series that will survive him is the gist. This is part of his philosophy of period cultural reconstruction.

In retrospect

Against the back wall of Pi Artworks is Section 1 of Room C in Nimrud, which unfortunately was demolished by Daesh. Their militants are said to have smashed the priceless Assyrian landforms with masses and smashed them to the ground because they were just too big for them to take them away and sell on the black market. Rakowitz’s intervention rebuilt, or reappeared, the structures as they would have been for a lotcal marveling at what was left of the National Museum before the Daesh takeover.


Paper object by Michael Rakowitz, cardboard, food packaging and newspapers, glue, 15 centimeters.  (Courtesy of Pi Artworks)
Paper object by Michael Rakowitz, cardboard, food packaging and newspapers, glue, 15 centimeters. (Courtesy of Pi Artworks)

Using Arabic-language newspapers and food wrappers gleaned from Arab grocery stores, Rakowitz worked with other artisans in his Chicago studio to create a dramatic comparison of the upturned reliefs. The packaging was especially emotional for him to work, as he kicked off the initiative while shopping at Charlie Sahadi’s grocery store in Brooklyn, which still had the Iraqi date syrup his family had in their kitchen for sweeten their food. In a multi-layered sense, he learned that although their brands noted that their products were from Lebanon, they were produced in Iraq and intentionally mislabeled to escape sanctions.

By reproducing the vanished Assyrian reliefs with the expertly detailed Iraqi wrappers, he came closer to his bizarre relationship to objects as a contemporary installation sculptor, seeing the food wrapping as a metaphor for the fear of Middle Eastern migrants. in America to be exposed as to their true origins in the face of the xenophobic politicization that has demonized the Iraqis as an evil enemy to be subdued and at best tolerated once subdued. Looking at his work, which includes object-based artifacts, the inanimate pieces come to life.

“CB-1 Panel” (2021) continues from Section 1 to Sections 9 and 10, where the relief images are cut into an erratic line that intersects the figures as high as the waistline, but towards the end of the wood panels. reveal only the feet. The Assyrian deities, winged men in high attire of the palace elites are reduced to their legs. This is, as Rakowitz confirms, what would remain of the reliefs of colonial antique dealers whose moral compass was about as sophisticated as the Daesh leadership in terms of their respect for the cultural history of the country. ‘Iraq.


Paper object by Michael Rakowitz, cardboard, food packaging and newspapers, glue, 21 by 19 centimeters.  (Courtesy of Pi Artworks)
Paper object by Michael Rakowitz, cardboard, food packaging and newspapers, glue, 21 by 19 centimeters. (Courtesy of Pi Artworks)

After the facts

Rakowitz shies away from certain popular uses, such as calling Assyrian art “ancient” in the interest of revitalizing a more urgent claim among the multicultural Iraqi communities of the diaspora, of which he has become a vocal and active member. While he has yet to be in Iraq and remains ambivalent about it, his relationship to his past is clear. His work is an expression of Iraqi resilience on behalf of a people who have survived countless invasions. He uses the fine arts to publicize the Iraqi presence, and seen, living dead, but in color.

In small print in the shade of his Assyrian reliefs, which, overflowing with vivid specters of advertising material, have a resolutely pop art effect. A handbag worn by the beefy figure in Section 1 of “Panel CB-1” has an almost effeminate palette. The piece’s meticulously intricate craftsmanship is straightforward, reviving the golden sandaled “apkallu” demigods, who, though acephalous, retain their wise composure. To add emotion to the installation, Rakowitz included quotes that contextualize the disappearance of the originals.


Paper object by Michael Rakowitz, 2021, cardboard, food packaging and newspapers, glue, 31 centimeters.  (Courtesy of Pi Artworks)
Paper object by Michael Rakowitz, 2021, cardboard, food packaging and newspapers, glue, 31 centimeters. (Courtesy of Pi Artworks)

The words of an interview subject named Amar adorn the cold, bare concrete floor of Pi Artworks. He said: “We are sad because a lot of people in the villages were working in Nimrud. People used to come from all over Iraq to visit this place and now there are no more. The text notes that Daesh destroyed the relief in 2015. A year later, when Nimrud was taken over by the Iraqi army, 90% of its excavated sites had been razed. The unspeakable loss of which Rakowitz speaks is, however, not material, but human.

A quote under sections 9 and 10 of the panels, which the colonialists left less intact, Rakowitz placed a quote from an Iraqi named Mohammed Sayeed, who said: “After the explosion I did not come out of my house for three days. I couldn’t look at it, I couldn’t accept it. I felt very, very bad. The feeling that the Pi Artworks exhibition “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist” in Istanbul gives is that, while the world is deprived of much of its artistic birthright, those who have lived closest desecrated palaces have suffered the most.

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