Interview published in May 2018 issue of Art Monthly.
Michael Rakowitz interviewed by George Vasey
George Vasey: Let’s start at the beginning with paraSITE, which you began in 1997-. As part of this continuing project you have worked with homeless people to make shelters from very simple materials. This work combines two core themes that have become central to your practice – namely, the issue of visibility while utilising the idea of hosting.
Michael Rakowitz: I’m interested in approaching design from an artistic space and projects that solve problems but also make trouble in some way. One my of artistic mentors, Kryzsztof Wodiczko (Interview AM409), talked about the idea of the bandage, something that heals a wound while also enabling people to see the wounded. This project was about providing shelter for the homeless while also making them visible as most cities try to make their homeless disappear from view. The title refers to the fact that I wanted the shelters to act as a parasite on the existing buildings in a positive way, by using the air vents to keep these structures warm, to literally use the building as a type of body. Of course, homeless people are often seen as parasites and I wanted to shift this term and think of it in a more positive light. You know, in ancient Greece, the parasite was someone who would trade amusing stories for board and food. And in French, the prefix para means “to guard against,” so parachute means to guard against falling, and parapluie to guard against rain. It utilizes the language of rescue devices while also guarding against becoming a permanent site or situation.
GV: What was the genesis of the work?
MR: I was looking at nomadic housing in the Middle East. I was interested in the way that the Bedouin would change the shape of their tents to fit the shifting wind patterns that they encountered in the desert. I had been doing all this research while on a residency in Jordan and I came back to Boston in 1997 and saw a homeless person sleeping under an air vent in the dead of winter using the air that was coming out of the building to keep warm. I saw homelessness as a type of urban nomadism and the project unfolded very rapidly from there after I realised that you could recycle this air from the vent. It is a project that I return to every winter.
GV: What have you learned through the process of making this work?
MR: It is different in every city. For instance, in Boston the homeless community I was working with pointed out that the black trash bags I used were ridiculous because they were opaque. Their main issue was security rather than privacy, they needed to be able to see potential attackers and be seen themselves, so we switched to using clear plastic. It was very interesting in New York because I worked with one homeless person, a guy called Michael McGee who had read about the project in the New York Times. He had done some research into anti-camping laws in the city and realised that a tent was defined as a structure over a certain height. So we designed his shelter to be more like an inflatable sleeping bag to make it legal and the police would constantly pass by it and measure it – they couldn’t really do anything because it was under the specified height.
GV: Who are you meeting on the streets? What are their stories?
MR: Recently in Chicago many of the homeless people are veterans. There is a lot of intersection in my projects between refugees and veterans coming back from war. The system is not set up to re-absorb people who have gone through traumas and they end up on the margins of society. There is a strong connection between hyper-capitalism and militarism, and in the past 20 years of doing this project I see this looping. History just isn’t being interrupted.
GV: Do you think being an artist enables you to ask a different set of questions?
MR: paraSITE for me is a project that should not exist because the problem should not exist. I’m interested in how one building can support another, literally breathing CPR into it, the last breath of a building being recycled to keep people alive during harsh conditions. Of course, there is much better way of dealing with all this, the policy makers can design the social apparatus for veterans that are coming back and radically revamp affordable housing initiatives. As an artist I’m not an expert, I look for the poetic. Having said that, I’m also pragmatic because I was originally educated as a graphic designer before becoming widely interested in architecture. How do you work in a field without training? Tony Fry, the sustainable architect, talks about this in relation to redirective practice, the idea of someone who doesn’t fit with an orthodoxy, a person who can make mistakes but whose ideas can also lead to directional changes in a field.
GV: You often use the artefact as a proxy for the refugee and talk about architecture as a metaphor for the body. The object becomes a stand-in for the subject in your work.
MR: Certainly in the later work, I often use lost objects as a stand in for lost Iraqi lives that are not being reacted to in the West. With the work paraSITE it was Joan Jonas, who was my tutor at MIT, who pointed out to me that I had started a project about architecture that had become a project about portraiture. Each person is living in the shelter that they have designed and these temporary structures house bodies but also become a type of body.
GV: The work Spoils, 2011, took the form of a culinary intervention where you served a traditional Iraqi dish on plates that had been looted from Saddam Hussain’s palace in an upmarket restaurant in New York. During the project you ended up getting a ‘cease and desist’ letter from the State Department asking for them to be returned to Iraq.
MR: Yes, they ended up giving these plates a ceremonial trip back to Iraq on the same plane as the Iraqi prime minister.
GV: I’m interested in the way that the plates become this conciliatory symbol, a kind of soft political gesture that countered the hard politics of the Iraq war.
MR: Exactly. I found the plates on eBay, which I tend to use as a search engine. I’m interested in objects that throw you right into the centre of a conversation. When the looting of the National Museum of Iraq happened in 2003, a lot of Mesopotamian artefacts ended up in auction houses but also some of the other stuff ended up on eBay. I became interested in the war trophies that weren’t being monitored, that were not wanted back in the country. So I was finding a lot of silverware and plates that had been taken from Suddam Hussein’s palaces. These were the vulgar conditions of how the plates ended up on this restaurant table in New York. I wanted the bitterness of the plate to counteract the sweetness of the Iraqi date syrup in the meal. I got the cease and desist letter after someone in the Iraq Mission to the UN had read about the project, and they were seized by the US State Department a few days before Barack Obama declared the end of the Iraq War. I think there is so much happening here, just as the US troops were going around toppling Saddam’s statues in this very choreographed act. I wonder why the Iraqi government wanted so badly to return these symbols of a regime that the US was so critical of, just as the war was declared over, and their sovereignty was restored? I saw it as a very powerful critique.
GV: I understand that the plates were originally gifts from Queen Elizabeth II.
MR: Certainly the Wedgwood ones. Much of the cutlery and crockery in Saddam’s palace had been gifted by ministers from around the world, including Italy and Japan etc. If you look at the plates you could probably trace where all the weapons came from.
GV: A common strategy through much of your work is a merging of conviviality and dissensus. This is particularly pertinent to a project like Enemy Kitchen from 2006 for which you invited Iraqi war veterans and refugees to cook together. I was taken by something you have previously said about the kitchen being the site of the best type of war because there isn’t much at stake and everybody can learn from their mistakes.
MR: In a work such as Enemy Kitchen I was interested in the idea of hospitality. If we trace the etymology of this term, hostis means an enemy or a stranger. We understand the conditions of hosting quite differently now but historically it was built around certain frictions. I have often understood debate to be most enriching when you are disarmed – Michel Foucault talks about a fearless listening that enables fearless speaking.
GV: The project also harnesses food to combat cultural invisibility.
MR: Enemy Kitchen was born out of a conversation with my mother. When the Gulf War happened in 1991, I was a teenager. My mother said to me that Iraqi culture was not visible beyond war and oil in the US. For instance, there are no Iraqi restaurants in New York and it was the first time I remember that pain, so the project was an attempt to redress this.
GV: What is the role of conflict in your practice?
MR: Its is integral. Too often we run into a culture of views and likes via social media. Ubiquity doesn’t equate to quality. Art should haunt us and create discomfort. I don’t want to fall into a trap of entertaining. I remember that it was difficult to have certain conversations in the US after 9/11 because there was only one narrative. It became very difficult to resist that.
GV: There is a wonderful anecdote you have mentioned previously about when you walked past a long queue of people outside an Afghan restaurant shortly after 9/11.
MR: Yes, at first I thought it was a blood bank or something.
GV: You talk about communities illustrating their empathy for a nation by eating their food.
MR: It was the only thing that those people could do. I found that so beautiful. It was an artwork that wasn’t art and it was a gesture filled with symbolism. Everybody knew the drums were beating towards war. It was a beautiful thing to see people saying that they were going to do their own thing and that is what got me started about Enemy Kitchen.
GV: Do you see the kitchen as a kind of model for public space?
MR: Yes, definitely. In his 2006 book Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan talks about the fact that cities started to form when people decided to cook and eat together. As someone who is interested in architecture, I often think about what happens when you remove the buildings and focus on the people that are inside them. I’m interested in how space is created by dialogue and this typically happens in the kitchen. When I have done these projects, it has been amazing to see the common denominator between veterans and the refugees. It is, ‘that’s too much lemon juice’ rather than ‘you occupied my neighbourhood’. The refugees are almost always unbelievably accommodating and they understand that the veterans were often put in impossible situations.
G: In projects like paraSITE and Spoils you have talked about the object as a proxy for the subject. This relates to the 2007 project The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist. In this you remake artefacts that have been looted and destroyed in Iraq since the war. For your current Fourth Plinth commission you have remade a Lamassu that had been destroyed by IS, what was the impetus for this project?
MR: For me it was important to think about where the ghost needs to appear. I often see the reconstructions in this project as ghosts. The project began around 12 years ago after the looting of the Iraq Museum happened but over the past few years it has expanded to encompass archaeological sites and the mosul Museum as well. The idea was not to make replicas but to think about these things that have disappeared and come back as a spectral presence or a mutant. The size is the same but its material culture is different.
GV: Your Lamassu is armoured with Iraqi date syrup cans. Dates were, after oil, Iraq’s second largest export before the war but the economy has been ravaged, so how does this work reflect on ecological concerns?
MR: I became interested in date syrup in 2006 when I reopened by grandfather’s import/export business. The dates that I was trying to import kept getting caught up at the border, it was undergoing the same journey as the refugee. Often when you see Iraqi date syrup cans it says product of Lebanon or Syria or even ridiculously enough, the Netherlands or Sweden, but the dates are from Iraq –the companies would package them over the border to get around trade restrictions. The date syrup just kept coming back as this object that was suffering from xenophobia in a way. The reasons for using the date syrup cans were myriad. They have these beautiful graphics and strong colours but I also knew that they would be able to stand up to the British weather. When I was at the British Museum the other day researching another project I noticed that many of the friezes from Iraq have the date palms in the background with the fish in the river, a lush ecology that has been devastated by the war. I became interested in the non-human lives, plants and animals that can’t speak for themselves. It starts to fold in these different aspects – the cultural, human and natural tragedies.
GV: The Lamassu is facing in the direction of Nineveh, as if readied to return. Do you see it as existing in a type of purgatory?
MR: It is looking towards Nineveh but also to Downing Street and Parliament. It is ghosting these sites where the war was started. It is a monument but also an admonishment too. It would be amazing to have this thing that was made in the UK going to Iraq as apposed to what usually happens when something is excavated and put in a museum here. The question is where does the ghosting need to happen? It’s an open question. It would be great for it go back to Iraq, if it was wanted.
GV: You said that this project isn’t about rebuilding, so how do you see your work as amplifying the sense of loss?
MR: I see the Lamassu as pointing towards the absence of lost lives. The dreams that were destroyed and the lives that were interrupted. It comes back to the ground zero during the Iraq war. The looting of the museum was the first moment of pathos. It didn’t matter whether you were for or against the war, everyone agreed that it was a catastrophe and that this was a loss for the whole of the humanity. For me, this was a very angry project in that the outrage about lost artefacts didn’t translate into an outrage about lost lives. It is about making the absence of the Lamassu present rather than making the Lassamu present.
GV: Do you see your remade and mutated artefacts as at type of surrogate?
MR: Votive statues constitute a large part of what went missing during the looting. Archeologists believe that when people went to the temple they would leave this offering so that when they left it was still there to represent you and pray in your place. So I do often think of these objects as surrogates, as ghosts who represent the lost Iraqis. There is a narrative that accompanies the project that Donny George Youkhanna, the former director of Iraqi’s National Museum, ended up receiving a bullet in the mail from extremists after he spearheaded the recovery of about half of the looted objects. After a lot of these objects are sent to different countries they end up staying there because it is too dangerous for them to be sent back, much like the refugee. It is really important for me that the Lamassu is having that conversation with everything else in Trafalgar Square. For instance, the lions at the base of Nelson’s Column, which is actually made from melted down cannons from the HMS Royal George.
GV: The ISIS staged destruction of the original Lamassu was highly theatrical. They replaced the object with an image of its own destruction that is intended to circulate widely. Of course, you turn it back into an object. I was in Trafalgar Square just now and tourists were taking photographs of it, the object becoming an image again. You talked about looping before, I was wondering what your take on this was.
MR: Maybe it makes the video run in reverse. We can see the hammers and chisels as making the Lamassu rather than taking it away. Of course, that is kind of impossible too because you can’t just rewind and bring those lives back. When books burn, people burn, and we know this from history, it happens over and over again and you can’t just rewind these acts of destruction. Displaced communities can’t be placed back into Iraq so easily. Perhaps we can make another image, but perhaps we need to stop. When looking at the Lamassu on the fourth plinth, maybe for the first time in human history we are all seeing the same ghost.
GV: I was watching a series of vox pops in response to the work and among the general positivity was one response from an Iraqi refugee who seemed quite cross with it all and said, ‘this sculpture won’t bring back the dead’.
MR: That’s the perfect answer. He is absolutely right.
GV: 15 years ago, London saw the largest march in its history against the Iraq war. In the UK, barring the Chilcot Inquiry, the war has faded slightly from people’s attention. Your work feels like the reopening of a wound.
MR: Good, the news cycle has moved on but the war certainly hasn’t.
George Vasey is a curator and writer currently working on projects with Newcastle University and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.
Michael Rakowitz’s The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist will be on view at Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth till March 2020.