New York

Michael Rakowitz

Lombard-Fried Projects

Michael Rakowitz is a Duchampian activist and an artist of détournement. In simple but dizzying interventions, he seduces viewers into contemplating global networks, while making space for reverie, rage, and humor. His readymades are often tangible things. But he also reframes received ideas and mistranslations. The work takes longer to explain than it does to absorb in the flesh. Nevertheless, while it does not stint on handmade visual richness, Rakowitz’s art is fundamentally discursive. His recent exhibition, which centered on replicas of vanished Iraqi antiquities and was titled “The invisible enemy should not exist,” communicated nuggets of information that included the following: (A) When the National Museum was looted in 2003, some seven thousand objects dating as far back as 4000 BC were stolen. Thousands (about half of the total number) have been located, but Baghdad is so unstable that the recovered items remain abroad. (B) The show’s title is a translation of Al-ibur-shapu, the name of the ancient processional way passing through Babylon’s Ishtar Gate. This blue-tile monument was erected by Nebuchadnezzar in 575 BC and excavated in 1914. It is now in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, while the original site has suffered some damage from vibrations from helicopters from an adjacent American air base (closed in 2004). (C) Bricks in the reconstructed city of Babylon are emblazoned with an inscription proclaiming, THIS WAS BUILT BY SADDAM HUSSEIN, SON OF NEBUCHADNEZZAR, TO GLORIFY IRAQ.

This, it would seem, is already too much data for one art project to bear. But Rakowitz’s fact-collage is yet more complex, and the eccentricity of his connections particularizes his critique: (D) The Deep Purple song “Smoke on the Water” was written in 1971, as band members watched from across Lake Geneva while a fire razed the Montreux casino where Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were playing. (E) Dr. Donny George—ex–director general of the National Museum and former president of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage—received a letter containing a bullet, and emigrated last year to the US. In Iraq, he had played in a cover band called 99%, specializing in the music of Deep Purple. (F) The Brooklyn-based band Ayyoub fuses Arabic folk with hip-hop, jazz, and Latino rhythms. Their cover of “Smoke on the Water”—commissioned by Rakowitz—is alleged by the artist to be at its best when vocalist Taoufiq Ben Amor launches into traditional wailing.

Rakowitz puts all this together, and the result speaks of destruction, persistence, and the labile nature of cultural value. Framed tracing-paper drawings describe the Ishtar Gate(s) and Dr. George, while fifty-three simulacra of the lost treasures of Ur and Nineveh, among other places, are displayed on a long wooden table. The artist constructed his replicas in consultation with the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, using recycled Arabic newspapers and packaging from imported Middle Eastern foods. Fashioned with such care and redolent of such absence, they project a surprisingly high quotient of that mystical quality called aura—quite an achievement for a bunch of obvious cheap fakes. As Ayyoub’s “Smoke on the Water” loops, one ponders a massive bull’s head in newsprint; bearded and skirted figurines constructed from date-cookie and dried-apricot wrappers; a dagger with a filigreed scabbard advertising, in English, pasteurized processed cheese spread. Labels list the National Museum registrar’s data for each artifact, along with quotations from relevant experts: Dr. George recalls, for example, how some Baghdadis “decided they would take things and bring them back when it was safe, and they did it.” Donald Rumsfeld shrugs, “Stuff happens”; such happenings are Rakowitz’s subject.

Frances Richard