Sculptor Michael Rakowitz
Strange Connections, Fascinating Exhibitions
by Lisa Stein
When U.S. soldiers stationed in Mosul, Iraq, met with fierce resistance in 2003 from the Fedayeen Saddam, Uday Hussein’s paramilitary organization and the last Iraqi soldiers to fall, they might have imagined they had stumbled onto a Star Wars movie set circa 1976.
The fighters shooting at them wore what appeared to be Darth Vader costumes, complete with the familiar black helmets, capes, and uniforms. None of the news reports of the Mosul battle, however, mentioned the uniforms and the Husseins’ obsession with Hollywood’s most legendary villain.
Not until Michael Rakowitz, associate professor of art theory and practice, came across a Fedayeen helmet for sale on eBay a few years ago did anyone make the connection. “A man from the 101st Airborne Division was selling the helmet,” Rakowitz reports. “The helmets didn’t even protect against bullets. They were made of cheap fiberglass. It was all about what they looked like.”
This was just one of the bizarre connections between Star Wars and the Hussein family that Rakowitz unearthed, many of which stem from the fact that Saddam Hussein was a really, really big fan. For instance, while still an undergrad studying public art, Rakowitz found a book about modern Iraqi monuments whose cover depicted the Swords of Qãdisiyyah, a triumphal arch in Baghdad commissioned by Saddam in 1989 to commemorate Iraq’s victory over Iran. The arch, which comprised a pair of hands holding two enormous crossed swords, instantly set off bells for Rakowitz, who recalled a poster of Darth Vader wielding crossed lightsabers for the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back that had hung in his boyhood room.
These strange connections resonated personally for Rakowitz, an ardent childhood fan of Star Wars, whose Iraqi-Jewish grandfather had fled Baghdad with his family for New York in 1946. “I thought, ‘My cultural heritage and my pop cultural affection are going to intersect? No way!’” Rakowitz recalls. “If I were to make up this story it would be the dumbest exhibition I’d ever done.”
Instead, the fascinating exhibition that he created—titled The Worst Condition Is To Pass Under a Sword Which Is Not One’s Own after a phrase proclaimed by Hussein at the arch’s inauguration—highlighted many fact-is-stranger-than-fiction connections that went unreported by news outlets. Supported in part by a grant from Northwestern, the exhibition appeared at the Tate Modern Museum in London from January to May 2010 and garnered critical acclaim from The Guardian and the BBC. Spread throughout five galleries, the exhibition combined Rakowitz’s drawings, sculpture, and text with actual photo- graphs and videos, intertwining historical facts with Hollywood fantasy. For instance, one real-life video showed footage of Iraqi troops marching under the arch on the eve of the Persian Gulf War in 1990 to the Star Wars theme song composed by John Williams. Rakowitz’s cartoon-style drawing explained that Saddam’s son, Uday, a longtime fan of Star Wars, had personally designed the Fedayeen Saddam uniforms in the image of Darth Vader.
“Uday was born eight years before me, so we were reared in the same generation that was influenced by this cosmology of good and evil,” Rakowitz says.
In creating this installation, Rakowitz collected bits of pop culture ephemera and followed odd connections to build a fantastic, dizzying narrative. He discovered that Rowena Morrill, the fantasy artist who created the erotic sci-fi paintings that were found on the walls of Hussein’s home, was a close friend of Boris Vallejo, the artist responsible for The Empire Strikes Back poster that had served as a model for the massive arches. Rakowitz points out that Vallejo even wrote an essay for the monograph The Art of Rowena.
Such careful excavation prompts Rachael Taylor, who co-curated The Worst Condition, to call Rakowitz a “cultural archeologist.” According to Taylor, “Michael explores how powerful contemporary mythologies derived from popular culture have informed the collective unconscious.”
Lining a wall in the first gallery were photographs of U.S. soldiers posing in front of the arch, which became a popular photo op after the invasion, while a display case held various models of Iraqi helmets and the Darth Vader version that they were modeled after. At the center of another gallery stood Rakowitz’s somewhat smaller copy of the arch itself, with the hands holding bright green and red swords that resembled light sabers. Helmets made from deconstructed GI Joe figures were piled at the base.
Text from Hussein’s novels, among which the most prominent was Zabiba and the King, which he wrote in 2000, covered the hands. “The CIA believed this fictional work was an allegory of succession in Iraq and pored over it. It was later published in English. For the Arabic version published in Iraq, Saddam illustrated the book with images from the website of Canadian sci-fi and fantasy artist Jonathon Earl Bowser. Bowser tried to sue Saddam but was told that unless the book was published in Canada or the United States he had no claim,” Rakowitz explains.
The Worst Condition wasn’t Rakowitz’s first exploration of the thorny relationship between the United States and Iraq. In 2006 he read “The Ghost in the Baghdad Museum,” a New York Times article about Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, the former director of the National Museum of Iraq, who was trying to rebuild the shuttered institution after roughly 15,000 artifacts were stolen or destroyed in looting in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. (Since that time, 7,000 have been recovered, but 8,000 remain unaccounted for.)
The plight of Dr. George (as he was known professionally) and the museum crystallized the pathos of the Iraqi war for Rakowitz. “Everybody felt what was lost. Everybody sensed that this was not an Iraqi problem but a human problem. Part of our shared cultural heritage had been wiped off the map and I wanted to do something in the face of that.”
A year later the New York gallery Lombard-Freid Projects presented The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, an ongoing multimedia project in which Rakowitz and his assistants create replicas of the looted artworks out of local Arabic newspapers and Middle Eastern food packaging. The title is a translation of the name of an ancient Babylonian street that led through the dazzling Ishtar Gate, built around 575 B.C., which was excavated by the German archeologist Robert Koldewey and now resides in a reconstructed form at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. The reference is meant to prompt a critique of the plunder of empires by various foreign nations.
In researching the stolen artifacts, Rakowitz found a valuable resource in The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, which has a website devoted to cataloguing items missing from the Iraqi museum. So far Rakowitz and his team have completed 300 replicas, some of which have been acquired by such major institutions as the British Museum and the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands.
“There’s no way I can complete all the replicas,” Rakowitz acknowledges. “This project will outlast me. And this is the point, underpinning the inevitable failure of recuperating history.”
In keeping with Rakowitz’s investigative techniques and penchant for narration, The Invisible Enemy tells a complex story of tracing the items and the people involved in the search. At the center is Dr. George, with whom Rakowitz formed a close friendship; one of Rakowitz’s drawings in the exhibition depicted Dr. George playing drums in his Deep Purple cover band named 99%. (Sadly, Dr. George, who moved to the United States in 2007 to teach at Stony Brook, State University of New York (SUNY), died unexpectedly in March at the age of 60.)
Motivating all of Rakowitz’s artworks is his desire to render the invisible visible, whether it is the extraordinary relationship between a dictator and Hollywood, thousands of stolen or destroyed artifacts, or, in the case of one of his earliest works, the space that a homeless person occupies on the street. In 1997 he launched the paraSITE project, in which he used trash bags, Ziploc bags, and clear waterproof packing tape to create portable, inflatable shelters that attach to the vents of HVAC systems of urban buildings. He custom-built thirty shelters for individuals living in New York City, Boston, and Cambridge, Mass., according to their preferences and needs.
Although Rakowitz’s projects and installations would seem to stem from the Conceptual vanguard of the 1960s and ’70s, he surprisingly names Michelangelo and the Renaissance writings of Giorgio Vasari as his earliest, most profound influences. When he was 16 and just starting to learn how to carve stone, his parents brought him and his brothers to Florence. Rakowitz still remembers being awestruck by Lorenzo Ghiberti’s bronze doors at the baptistery of Florence’s cathedral. Several years later, he earned a bachelor’s degree in sculpture at SUNY Purchase, where he learned from the minimalist sculptor Tal Streeter, among others. He went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study with Krzysztof Wodiczko, an artist highly regarded for his large-scale video projections on buildings and monuments.
Rakowitz says that stonecutting remains his favorite technique and still considers the Renaissance the most compelling period in art history. He likes to remember a story, perhaps apocryphal, about Michelangelo. After an unusually heavy snowfall in Florence in 1494, the haughty Piero de’ Medici summoned the artist to the Medici Palace and ordered him to build a sculpture of snow. A crowd gathered as Michelangelo worked in the cold for hours to create a figure, which some say was a faun, others Hercules, still others a seated Madonna.
As Rakowitz tells it, “When Michelangelo was shivering outside in the cold, holding his frozen hands, Piero said, ‘Look at you—you’re frostbitten and depleted of energy—and yet this sculpture will soon melt.’ Michelangelo replied, ‘But all these people have seen it, and when they tell of it, it will get better and better and better.”
It makes perfect sense that this anecdote appeals to Rakowitz—it combines his love of public art, the ephemeral, and the power of storytelling. “In other words,” he muses, “the myth of Michelangelo’s work becomes the artwork.”