Berlin

Michael Rakowitz, The Ballad of Special Ops Cody, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 14 minutes 42 seconds.

Michael Rakowitz, The Ballad of Special Ops Cody, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 14 minutes 42 seconds.

Michael Rakowitz

Barbara Wien

Michael Rakowitz, The Ballad of Special Ops Cody, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 14 minutes 42 seconds.

If the literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky were alive today, Michael Rakowitz might be one of his star pupils. Over the years Rakowitz has received great acclaim for projects that push gestures of ostranenie, or estrangement, to operatic dimensions: In New York he once served an Iraqi-inspired dish on plates looted from Saddam Hussein’s palaces (Spoils, 2011), and for Documenta 13 he presented copies of books that were burned in the Fridericianum in Kassel during World War II; the copies were carved from travertine collected in the hills of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, where the Taliban blew up two massive sixth-century sandstone Buddhas in 2001 (What Dust Will Rise?, 2012). For Rakowitz, the practice of, lifting an object or material from its given context and embedding it in an unexpected setting or giving it an unwonted purpose lends itself to a multidimensional confrontation that is powerful not only for the highly politicized and controversial terms of this dislocation but also for foregrounding destruction as the defining motif in the history of civilizations.

The Assyrians returned to Nimrud (near modern-day Mosul, Iraq) after the fall of their empire at the end of the seventh century bce and lived among its ruins for a brief period of time. Rakowitz’s exhibition “The Ballad of Special Ops Cody and other stories” invited viewers to inhabit loss in a more recent chapter in the history of the same Mesopotamian city. The three large reliefs on view were replicas of panels lining the walls of Nimrud’s Northwest Palace, which was demolished by isis in 2015. Like some of the other works in Rakowitz’s series “The invisible enemy should not exist,” 2007–, they are meticulous reconstructions made from Arabic-language periodicals published in the US and Europe as well as from the packaging for various Middle Eastern foodstuffs, including tea, date-filled cookies, and chicken bouillon cubes. Despite the gravity of the subject matter, the boisterously bright hues of these designs were, in fact, not entirely out of place, since two of the panels depict winged deities thought to be wielding the spathe, or sheathing bract, of a male date palm and a bucket of water for the express purpose of fertilizing a female tree, while the third panel, showing a stylized sacred tree, denotes abundance and prosperity. Rakowitz appeared to have restored even their long-vanished colors to the reliefs, but he also “kept” both the cracks and the missing pieces by having black newsprint stand in for them. A museum-style label attached to one panel coolly informed us that the bottom part of the relief was destroyed by isis, whereas the missing head—a big black square made of advertising pages from Arabic-language weeklies—has long been in a private collection in New York. No matter how different the motivations of isis and a crafty nineteenth-century antiquities dealer may have been, the destruction of cultural heritage is an unfortunate constant across time and space.

Commissioned for the 2017–18 survey of Rakowitz’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the fourteen-minute-long stop-motion video The Ballad of Special Ops Cody, 2017, also draws a parallel—albeit more didactically—between modern warfare in the Middle East and the pillaging of ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. Special Ops Cody, a souvenir action figure whose photograph was in 2005 almost successfully passed off by Iraqi insurgents as that of a captive American soldier, finds himself at the entrance of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and launches into an existentialist monologue voiced by a real-life Iraq veteran, Gin McGill-Prather. On encountering a vitrine full of ancient Mesopotamian figurines and recognizing severely injured Iraqis in the idols’ damaged faces, he begins to question why they are there, quickly homing in on the hypocrisy at the heart of colonization: “They were broken, but we destroyed them. You were broken, so we keep you, locked up, fragile, temperature-controlled. . . .” While the material legacies of great civilizations are preserved with care and at a considerable cost, the generations that came after them can barely earn pity from the rest of the world.