Keen-eyed visitors to London will notice an unusual artwork in London’s Trafalgar Square. ‘The invisible enemy should not exist’ is a recreation of a sculpture of a winged bull that stood in the ancient city of Nineveh, Iraq, for 2,700 years before being destroyed by Isis in 2015. The artist, Michael Rakowitz, created it using over 10,000 tins of date syrup.
Rakowitz, an Iraqi-American, now has a show at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, and if you are not interested in his ongoing project to reconstruct the 15,000 archaeological artefacts looted from the national Museum in Baghdad after the US invasion in 2003 you will be when you leave.
Recording what has been lost from our societies – and here you can glimpse Australia, the US, Turkey, Hungary, as well as Iraq – comes naturally to Rakowitz. And with his creations, he is careful to add the narrative. With the Iraq sculptures, you can read details of their destruction, as well as the efforts of the museum director in Baghdad to recover as many pieces as possible before his death in 2011. He was a drummer in a Deep Purple tribute band, so this explains Smoke on the Water playing in the background and adds another facet of humanity.
Rubbings, bones and plaster-casts form the centre of the 2015 commission ‘The flesh is your, the bones are ours.’ Around this expansive piece flit the shadows of the Armenian artisans engaged to create the Art Nouveau facades of modern Istanbul. Many of these craftsmen were to disappear in what became known – except within Turkey – as the Armenian Genocide.
Another room reveals medieval bibles, carved from stone, reflecting the contents of a library in Kassel, Germany, bombed by the British during WWII. With poignancy you learn that the carvings were made by craftsmen from the Hazara region of Afghanistan, near the site of the destroyed Bamiya Buddhas. There Rakowitz worked with locals to revive an art form that had been suppressed by the Taliban, using tools fashioned from old Soviet military vehicles.
And why date syrup cans? They too are a memorial, to the declining date industry in Iraq caused by decades of war, to his exiled grandfather, to the uprooting of date palms in conflict zones - and perhaps to our civilisation, if we lose the ability to think across cultural boundaries.
A book of recipes, A House With A Date Palm Will Never Starve, is published in conjunction with the exhibition, which runs until August 25th.