The artwork of American Iraqi artist Michael Rakowitz, his conceptual sculptures and interventions, can be seen to be one of re-discovering his Iraqi cultural roots and thus a determination of his own identity. His ‘interventions’ are more like gatherings, and in 2011 he collaborated with a posh New York restaurant to create a signature Venison dish with an Iraqi flavour to it by serving it on a bed of ‘Debes Wa Rashi’ – a traditional Iraqi dessert with Tahini and date syrup, together with nuts, scallions and pomegranate seeds.
Entitled Spoils (2011) this would prove to be more than just a gourmet fusion dish that would make everyone happy for the night, for they were served on Saddam Hussein’s own dinner plates, which bear his seal, and taken from his Royal Palace during the fall of Baghdad in 2003.
Rakowitz also managed to provide dinner plates which used to belong to King Faisal II, the handsome last king of Iraq, who was killed in a military coup at the age of 23.
What happens when one is served such delicious meat on a sweet sauce, but on Saddam’s own dinner plates? For the average person, it might be cause for momentary reflection, but for an Iraqi person who suffered under his rule it might be a bit too much to swallow, as evidenced by Rakowitz himself who couldn’t do it. Perhaps it is a socio-biological experiment to see whether which is stronger; the pain of the past or the desire/temptation of the present.
The other alternative would be to eat off of King Faisal II’s dinner plates, which would produce another mixture of feelings (for those who know him); killed at the age of 23 by army commanders gone rogue, the young and handsome king hadn’t been on the throne long enough to have done anything wrong, except be related to his uncle who held ultimate power and who was hated by the populace.
Judging by the public mourning over his death, I would guess he was killed ‘by mistake’, by soldiers in a fit of rage, whose main target was his uncle Prince Abdullah. But whats more interesting is Saddam’s obsession with Faisal II, spending hours at his grave, building a new tomb and digging his corpse up for inspection during his reign. There is no evidence linking Faisal II’s death with Saddam directly, but the fact that he became the direct beneficiary of his murder and the subsequent obsession displayed leads one to wonder – did he have anything to do with it?
Originally planned for just the autumn of 2011, this dish and intervention was subsequently banned by the US State Department about 2 months after it started, who asked that the plates be returned to Iraq, through their US embassy, which Rakowitz did and is a fitting end. As these plates travel back to where they came from, they have become a little bit different from before; they bear another history, a short stint of being served to ‘common’ people in America, and for any of these lucky souls to see these plates again, in a museum in Iraq, it would bring an alternate feeling.
The looting of historical artifacts from the National Museum of Iraq during the Battle of Bagdhad in 2003 by allied troops, had already been a topic of exploration for Rakowitz in The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (2006) which was a replication of these treasures using disposable materials such as Arabic newspapers and packaging material from Iraqi food products.
These replicas were made according to pictures in a database kept by the University of Chicago which provided the size and shape of each object in the Iraq Museum, and after 2003, their current status – whether they are missing (incl. blown to bits), stolen (in someone’s possession) while the ones that have been recovered are not shown here. The old newspapers and discarded food packaging materials that clothe these sculptures provide a brief moment of abstract ephemerality, which alludes to their current status of either being lost or stolen.
The title comes from a translation of ‘Aj-ibur-shapu’, an ancient processional way to the Gate Of Ishtar, built by King Nebuchadnezzar II which was used in religious festivities during the new year to worship gods within the temple inside city of Babylon, and the display table is custom made according to the route and slope of this processional way.
An alternate translation of ‘Aj-ibur-shapu’ is, ‘May The Arrogant Not Prevail’, the title of another exhibition by Rakowitz, this time about the Ishtar Gate itself at the end of the processional way; a bright blue gateway entrance to the city of Babylon, which was dug up, transported brick by brick, and eventually reconstructed in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum in the 1930s.
Instead of getting it back from the Germans somehow, Faisal II’s government decided to build a replica, at a reduced scale, at the site of ancient Babylon. Its bright blue plastery wall and its smaller size has a surreal quality to it; in a country devastated by war, with most buildings in Bagdhad reduced to a partial ruin in some shade of grey or black from bombs and fires, this monument looks more like a stage set backdrop. At over 50 years old, how does it look so bright? Does someone come by and paint over it every year or two?
May The Arrogant Not Prevail seems also to be an adept name, for this place instills a sort of reverence in people such that even battle hardened soldiers suddenly become tourists.
So it is fitting that Rakowitz made May The Arrogant Not Prevail as a replica of the replica, out of plywood and clad with newspaper and disposable food packaging materials, a staged backdrop depicting the surreal situation on show at the ancient site of Babylon. It is in this historical place, that Saddam built a monument in the 1980s declaring that he was in fact, Nebuchadnezzar’s son. And the US Army has since 2003 located one of their forward bases nearby, their military helicopters thundering by everyday.
Even more startling is the obsession Saddam and his son Uday had with Star Wars as Rackowitz has asserted, with convincing evidence, that the Victory Arch in Iraq was modeled after Darth Vader holding 2 light sabres in the original Empire Strikes Back poster, that Saddam had the Iraqi army march through the Victory Arch with the Star Wars theme song blaring in the background on the eve of the first Gulf War and that the Fedayeen Saddam helmet was modeled according to Darth Vader’s helmet. And Darth Vader’s helmet was partly modeled after the helmet of the Japanese samurai.
Perhaps the image of an all-conquering Darth Vader systematically beating the rebel forces at every turn with huge, advanced weaponery (never mind that the rebels won in the final encounter) was so enticing to Saddam, that he thought an army of Darth Vaders on his side would be most glorious and defeat anyone who crossed his path.
And perhaps Rakowitz saw this kind of statesmanship a type of artistic performance so self-absorbed and detached from reality that it is surreal, just like in the Russian classic tale Petrushka where the magician brings the puppet to life, so an enamored Saddam brings Darth Vader to life, thinking it would bring some power or protection.