On Michael Rakowitz

‘Bones dreaming of becoming shells, becoming Art Nouveau, becoming Istanbul …’

Michael Rakowitz, ‘The flesh is yours, the bones are ours’, 2019

Sometimes really fun and interesting things happen in my otherwise pretty grim London life, and an example of this occurred at work on Monday. I am a gallery assistant at Whitechapel Gallery and I had a shift covering the media preview and VIP opening party for the new exhibition, a retrospective of Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz (link to show here).

While being a very long day that involved the Monday rush hour (and generally having to be alive in the morning) led me to not be in the highest of spirits, I actually had a good time listening to the artist being interviewed, being photographed for the press shots (see below for my cameo in the Guardian), celebrity-spotting and also having a really in-depth poke-about of the show. I think it’s one of the best, if not the best, exhibitions I’ve seen in London since I moved here.

I was immediately struck with the sheer beauty of the drawings, sculptures and objects included in the show, such as the stone books hand-carved by Afghanistani and Italian artisans, or the papier-mâché ‘ghosts’ of lost, ancient artifacts. The satisfying gorgeousness of the artworks lured you in, seduced you, and through your eyes feasting on their forms the narrative was slowly revealed, in the details, the captions, the juxtapositions; over time the story of the objects overpowered their aesthetic value, and the stories became the most poignant, memorable, beautiful aspects of the experience, chewed over and examined in the mind long after leaving the show. I was very intrigued by this use of beautiful objects to tell, or suggest, tragic, complex and melancholy stories.

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Michael Rakowitz: details of ‘What dust will rise?’, 2012

In one way, the objects included in the exhibition are not of any value, their materials being paper, food packaging, plaster, dog bones. But their material worthlessness only serves to heighten the pathos of what they represent, what has been lost: books that have burned, buildings that have been destroyed, treasures that have been looted. This tension between their physical form and their symbolic meaning leads the works to take on an eery doppelganger double-ness; an object that exists in many different worlds at the same time: in reality, in the imagination, in symbolism. In addition, the incredible craftsmanship of the objects – even when the material used is actual trash – places an interesting contrast between the value of time and talent of the maker, and the pointlessness of the object.

The monetary worthlessness of the Middle Eastern food packaging and the care with which it has been used to replicate lost treasures also make me think of other types of value humans assign objects: emotional value, the value of memories, the sadness of places and moments that have been lost, the value of shared culture, and of history, and of food; sharing meals with loved ones. The food of a culture binds individuals tightly together into communities, even when isolated and outcast from its origin. In this way food packaging even as waste product can become loaded with emotional significance.

Michael Rakowitz: detail of ‘The Invisible enemy should not exist’, 2007 – ongoing

The duality of the imagery used in the different projects on show is particularly visible in the ‘Beatles room’; an installation comparing the rise and fall of the Beatles with pan-Arabism and Middle Eastern conflicts. In this space, the figure of Paul McCartney for example is split into different functions for narrative purposes: Paul as real person, Paul as a Beatle and celebrity, Paul as a metaphorical Israel showing parallel tensions in his and the band-members’ personal histories. This interests me because of its relationship with Lacan’s concept of the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary: Paul as an individual human being (the Real), Paul as celebrity, existing outside of his physical body in the minds of the world (the Imaginary), and Paul as Israel (the Symbolic). The photos, memorabilia, objects and texts in this installation constantly flip between real and imagined, personal and social, and the stories that are told have varying emphases: is the artist using the history of Middle Eastern conflict to tell a story about the Beatles, or is he using the Beatles to tell a story about Middle Eastern politics? Is the story a private, personal narrative of fandom and celebrity, or a universal one of warfare and power?

Indeed, throughout the exhibition there is a labyrinth of references, trivia and snippets of stories that link together in a web of connections. We move swiftly through Utopian architecture to boxing to Aboriginal land rights to the Russian Revolution to Deep Purple to Istanbul’s stray dog cull. The narrator’s voice of this complex network of information is represented visually as the artist’s handwriting, scrawled in marker pen or pencil across drawings, glass cases, tables, picture frames. The distinctive hand-made marks convey a frenzy of information made digestible, a feeling of being taken on a treasure hunt as you follow the links between the ideas through the spaces. The handwritten captions for the objects provide a unifying force encompassing the entire exhibition, bringing everything together; a very necessary curatorial decision that humanises an almost unbearable sea of information.

Why do you look at me like that? Like … like we’re different? Look, I said I was sorry. We’re not different. I mean, we are, but we’re also the same. Because both of us, all of us, we were created. We were sold and stolen – or stolen and sold – to a destination unknown that’s not our home. We shouldn’t be here. We have stories to tell, to our friends, our families, in our native tongue. What about you? What’s your story?

Michael Rakowitz, The Ballad of Special Ops Cody, 2007

As well as the handwriting, another constant throughout the exhibition, thematically, is the images of Utopia contrasted with images of destruction, despair and desolation. This juxtaposition could be cynical; for every aspirational skyscraper built there is a 9/11; for every National Museum constructed to house priceless artefacts, there is a mob of looters decimating the collection. Though many of the historical references are highly depressing ones of war, corruption and hate, which could make the Utopian ideals look pathetic in comparison, the result is actually something quite different – and I think this is down to the physical presence of the projects themselves.

The fact of the existence of the objects Rakowitz has made (or enabled the making of) exerts a muscular defiance in the face of the loss, grief, and hopelessness which result from the catastrophes and controversies detailed in the captions. The projects themselves allow a catharsis, a regeneration, simply hope, to arise from the trauma of their origins; the fact that such beautiful and carefully made things as the sculptures, models and drawings exist represent a slow and careful project of engagement, intimacy and sharing with affected social groups and communities; the artworks symbolise growth and possible futures following devastation of the racism, war or looting that these people have experienced. The attempt is to bring the wound of past traumas into the present, to begin healing, growing new skin; and to reveal unexpected connections between times, places and peoples that only a very wide lens could discern.

Rakowitz’s considered, gentle process shines a light on the vital importance of the object as a vehicle for cultural memory and historical identity; his work articulates the brutality of the crime of their destruction, and his process of making attempts the replacement of these lost artefacts, homes or knowledge with new skills, experiences and treasures. The exhibition is an emotional, layered and seductive exploration of the relationship between the objects we create or destroy, and the successes and tragedies of our global history as a race.

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