wed 21/02/2024

Michael Rakowitz: The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, Fourth Plinth review - London's new guardian | reviews, news & interviews

Michael Rakowitz: The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, Fourth Plinth review - London's new guardian

Michael Rakowitz: The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, Fourth Plinth review - London's new guardian

Mythical Assyrian guardian deity occupies square commemorating battle

'The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist' by Michael Rakowitz© Caroline Teo

Fifteen years ago on a cold grey Saturday in mid-February, Trafalgar Square was filled with people marching to Hyde Park in opposition to the proposed invasion of Iraq. A million people gathered in London. Three times that number turned out in Rome.

That day, across Europe and the rest of the world, between six to eleven million people participated in the largest coordinated anti-war rally in history. The scale of the movement was unprecedented. Protest globalised. Just over a month later air strikes took out Iraqi observation posts and troops crossed over the borders. The invasion of Iraq had begun.

Our present moment is deeply marked by those events and the 12th artwork to occupy the Fourth Plinth, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, is a direct result of that tumultuous time. In the looting that followed the invasion, thousands of artefacts were stolen from archaeological sites and museums around the country including the National Museum of Iraq. In response, in 2007 American-Iraqi artist Michael Rakowitz began a project to reconstruct 7,000 of the missing artefacts from recycled Iraqi food packaging and newspapers, creating “ghosts” of the original works from throwaway items used every day in Iraqi households which provide “moments of cultural visibility” in America.The Lamassu being constructed in the workshop © Gautier DeBlondeThe sculpture that was unveiled on Wednesday is a part of the same project but has a slightly different genesis. It is a reconstruction of the stone Lamassu, a mythological part-man, part-bull, part-eagle guardian that stood at the entrance to the Nergal Gate of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Nineveh, close to modern day Mosul. Until 2015 it was housed in the Mosul Museum but after Islamic State overran the city it was defaced with a pneumatic drill and destroyed along with hundreds of other artefacts which didn’t adhere to its extreme version of Islam. While IS’s destruction of these cultural treasures was in part religious fanaticisim, along with the looting that followed the 2003 invasion it shared an economic impulse. Illicit trade in antiquities has generated hundreds of millions of dollars for Islamic State’s coffers and by destroying some artefacts for publicity purposes and threatening the remaining ones, IS managed to buttress its religious credibility, while simultaneously restricting supply and leveraging prices to their financial advantage. Ironically, when Mosul was recaptured by Iraqi forces last year the museum was found to have been used as a tax department.

Buyers of these blood antiquities are of all nationalities, but a large concentration have been sold in London along the slips of road by the British Museum — where a pair of lion-footed Lamassu from the Ishtar gate of the Assyrian city of Nimrud are housed. In reference to the millions of Iraqis displaced within their own country and spread out across the world, the Trafalgar Square Lamassu faces south-east towards its past home of Nineveh. This is also down Whitehall along which protesters thronged a decade and a half ago, but what proportion of the estimated 20 million people who will see this sculpture would be able to place Mosul on a map? That said, its 1:1 scale matches the Fourth Plinth footprint precisely and is a fit reminder of how entwined the two countries are in each other’s histories.Detail of the date syrup cans making up the Lamassu © Gautier DeBlondeOf course, it’s easy to feel slightly uneasy about this kind of gilded art world pop commodification. Despite its semi-stern, semi-beatific expression, this particular Lamassu is a flamboyantly kitsch version of the serious and ongoing work being undertaken by architects, archeologists, curators, artists and amateurs in reconstructing destroyed or stolen artefacts. But that’s not to say Rakowitz’s Lamassu isn’t also deeply serious. It is constructed of 10,500 empty cans which held date syrup, a staple in Iraqi cuisine. On the one hand, this represents the resilience and beauty of Iraqi culture  one tradition has it that newborns have a date placed in their mouth so their first taste of life is sweet, and a proverb proclaims that a house with a date palm will never go hungry. On the other hand, it’s a devastating reminder of the economic and ecological devastation wreaked upon the country by a series of vicious wars that obliterated millions of livelihoods, and destroyed a flourishing international industry  dates having previously been Iraq's second biggest export after oil.

In the years since the invasion of Iraq and the wave of popular uprisings since 2011 there’s been a distinct rise in appreciation of Middle Eastern culture  and if the art, food and music are becoming cool and lucrative, as the economic opportunities open up, Rakowitz’s injunction that “We must enjoy our culture and never ever take it for granted,” becomes easier to stick to. More immediately, the sculpture’s glorious ostentation renders hundreds of years of Iraqi culture unavoidably and excitably visible while also serving as a stark memorial for all the lives which, unlike many of the destroyed artefacts, simply "cannot be reconstructed".

In the days since its unveiling, London has been decidedly dour but just imagine how brighly its hammered metal message will shine in the sun.


The sculpture’s glorious goldness and chromatic ostentation render hundreds of years of Iraqi culture unavoidably and excitably visible


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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