In 1995, Uday Hussein, the son of Saddam Hussein, established the Fedayeen Saddam, a notorious paramilitary force. As a devoted fan of the Star Wars trilogy, Uday issued an exact replica of Darth Vader’s helmet as part of the Fedayeen’s official uniform—a bizarre and unsettling instance of life mimicking art. At Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, a Fedayeen helmet sits alongside a Darth Vader helmet as part of Chicago-based conceptual artist Michael Rakowitz’s mid-career retrospective, a show which calls attention to politically charged and revealing instances of cross-cultural exchanges between East and West.
Rakowitz’s socially conscious projects and performances are many and varied, and often assume a second life outside the confines of the gallery space. They include a food-cart run by American veterans which serves traditional Iraqi meals on paper-plate replicas of Saddam’s personal china, and functioning heated shelters for the homeless that can be assembled from five dollars’ worth of materials. At the MCA, Rakowitz’s retrospective Backstroke of the West (the title taken from a Chinese mistranslation of a bootleg DVD of The Revenge of the Sith) features twelve major projects spanning 20 years of work. It’s an impressive exhibition that never loses momentum.
An emphatically artificial reproduction of the Babylonian Ishtar Gate looms imposingly over the exhibition space. The original gate, over 2,500 years old, once admitted visitors into the gated city of Babylon. But between 1899 and 1912, the gate was excavated by a German archaeologist, disassembled, and re-assembled in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Damaged or missing bricks were replaced with replicas, rendering the restored gates largely inauthentic. Rakowitz’s reproduction mimics the characteristic blue glaze of the original gate with blue food packaging from Middle-eastern restaurants in Berlin, and the grandeur of the original now becomes something almost kitsch. It’s clearly inauthentic, but serves as an interesting metaphor for the original gate, now largely fitted with replica bricks and, situated in a museum in Berlin, entirely divorced from its original context.
Rakowitz’s cardboard and newspaper reproductions of artifacts from Bagdad’s National Museum of Iraq are both art and documentation. In the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the National Museum was pillaged by looters. With help from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute’s database, Rakowitz recreated exact-scale replicas of many of the 7,000 objects which still remain missing. The ongoing project will not be complete until all the missing artifacts are replicated. Though mere paper and cardboard surrogates, these objects are nevertheless displayed as if they’re original artifacts alongside identification cards giving the name, date, size, and media of the corresponding original object. In addition to documenting these missing artifacts as collateral damage, this work addresses a myriad of issues related to cultural preservation and cultural exchange; many artifacts in the world’s great museums, after all, might plausibly qualify as loot (the Elgin Marbles spring to mind as a particularly famous case in point).
His project What Dust Will Rise is conceptual art at its absolute finest. In 2012, the Taliban destroyed the centuries-old Buddhas of Bamiyan on the grounds that they were idolatrous. From the debris of these Buddhas, Rakowitz created stone replicas of famous books from the Hesse-Kassel state library that were destroyed in a British air raid during the Second World War. Though technically sculptures of books, they’re also reminiscent of cemetery headstones—monuments to things irretrievably lost. Surrounding the books are display cases holding small, tactfully chosen fragments of rubble: pieces from the Buddhas of Bamiyan, a brick from the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, a fragment of floor from the World Trade Center, and trinitite formed from liquid sand during an American nuclear bomb test in New Mexico. While avoiding moral equivalencies, it’s a fascinating, albeit sobering and perhaps incriminatory, visual essay on civilization’s capacity for destruction as well as creation.
Rakowitz’s ability to work across such varied media is impressive. Several of his projects are even supplemented with detailed graphic-novel style narratives and commentary. For this exhibition, Rakowitz wrote and illustrated the booklet Strike the Empire Back, which offers supplemental commentary and background on some of the show’s more unsettling instances of East/West cultural exchange, such as Uday Hussein’s choice to adopt Darth Vader’s helmet for the Fedayeen. “Backstroke of the West” is both conceptually interesting and visually satisfying, offering thought-provoking case studies revealing the inevitable messiness of cultural exchange that occurred (and continues to occur) between cultures during flashpoints of history.
“Backstroke of the West” is on view through March 4. More information on the show can be found here, including a PDF version of Rakowitz’s booklet Strike the Empire Back.