Ian Forster – Could you tell me how this project began and how this particular installation is a part of that?
Michael Rakowitz –The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist began in 2006, but it’s a project, I think, that began before that in 2003. In the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq, the National Museum of Iraq was looted in Baghdad from the 10th until the 12th of April of that year. In that museum, you have some of the earliest examples of writing, of urban planning. It’s a primal scene of human history.
And when the outrage about lost artifacts did not turn into an outrage about lost lives, I started to think about a project with those artifacts that were listed as missing, stolen, destroyed, or status unknown on the various databases that look to inventory what had been lost from the Iraq Museum. I decided that it would be interesting to, not reconstruct, but reappear those artifacts as a spectral presence. As a ghost of what once was. And so it began as a project where I focused entirely on the 8,000-plus artifacts that are still at large in the aftermath of the looting of the Iraq Museum, but it’s also unfortunately grown to include the archeological sites that have been devastated by groups like ISIS in the wake of the Iraq War.
When that initial looting occurred, what was the international reaction?
The reaction at the moment of the looting was one where the ability for humans to focus on the direct tragedy may have been redirected through these objects. This is something that often happens through trauma—we focus on something that becomes a vessel for other forms of grief and rage. But it also is a telling moment in that it aligns with other historical moments of iconoclasm or vandalism or libricide, and the burning of books, as we know, is accompanied by the burning of people. So when we see the cultural heritage of a place being destroyed or being looted in the aftermath of a violent invasion, we start to see the ways in which that culture reflects on what’s happening. I think that the project as a whole, even with the works that are destroyed by ISIS, points to the fact that the West assigns value to the objects from that part of the world. But it’s not at all symmetrical when you consider the way in which there’s been this devaluation and dehumanization of the people that are from those places.