A few years ago, when Michael Rakowitz’s statue of a lamassu – a winged god from ancient Assyria, in what is now Iraq – sat on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, I would often stop by to see it. I liked how its reflective surface, made out of brightly coloured tin cans, layered along the body like scales and folded into feathery shapes, would change according to the weather. Unlike the monochrome monuments that make up the rest of Trafalgar Square, the lamassu, Rakowitz’s reconstruction of a statue originally from the palace of Nineveh that was destroyed by ISIS after the fundamentalist group took over much of Iraq in 2014, never quite seemed to sit still.
On a bright summer’s day in 2018, I was passing by when an Iraqi couple, obviously new to London and doing some sightseeing, asked me to take their picture in front of the lamassu. ‘This is from our country,’ one said, both of them looking delighted – and surprised – to find this interloper amid the imperial pomp of central London as they posed for the photo. The encounter was unplanned, of course, but it was the kind of thing that Rakowitz, who talks of his art as an ‘open system’, hopes for in his works, many of which make creative use of public space. ‘Those moments where people participate allow for the work to go on, beyond my own hands and beyond my own mind,’ he tells me when we speak over the phone in March this year.
The Iraqi-American artist’s newest work, a life-size cast of a British soldier who took part in the occupation of Basra after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, takes a similar approach to public space. After a year of delays due to the pandemic, April is the cruellest month is (at time of writing) to go on public view on 1 May. It will stand on the sea-front at Margate, facing off against the Surf Boat Memorial, a late 19th-century statue commemorating nine rescuers who lost their lives answering a distress call off the coast of this town in Kent. This new work continues Rakowitz’s long-running interest in reconstruction, using objects to explore issues such as war, trauma and cultural loss – but while he describes previous works such as the lamassu as ‘reappearances’, he wants this statue to feel more like ‘a kind of a haunting’.