Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz uses his practice to explore the nuanced and often convoluted ways in which people and nations interact with one another. He deals with the complexities of social, political and cultural identity in contemporary society, often drawing upon his background of growing up with an Iraqi-Jewish mother and an American father. In Backstroke of the West, the artist’s first major museum exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Rakowitz presents a series of conceptual exercises in which blessings are curses in disguise and hospitality is nothing more than a veil for underlying hostilities.
Food plays an interesting role in Rakowitz’s work, existing as a symbol for hospitality, while also carrying an intricate history of trade, travel and economic motives. Whether we bless food before eating it, share it as a peace offering or metaphorically break bread with friends and enemies alike, we traditionally characterize food as an emblem of national and cultural identity, as well as a means for coming together. In today’s environment, however, where policed borders, cultural exchange, outsourced labor and politically charged sanctions have become the norm, food has taken a much more complicated shape, as seen throughout Backstroke of the West.
Where did your food come from? How far did it have to travel to get to your plate? If products could speak, what stories would they have to tell? These are the questions at the core of many works in the exhibition, including May The Arrogant Not Prevail, a replica of ancient Babylon‘s towering Ishtar Gate, which Rakowitz transforms into a vision of glorified trash. Made entirely of recycled Arabic newspapers and food products, the structure is held together by the ubiquitous Western logos of Pepsi and Lipton—no doubt an allusion to the fact that the original gate is now housed in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. In their dominating repetition, the brands surpass their functions as popular beverages, opening up debates surrounding the ownership and display of looted historical objects and landmarks; they serve as manifestations of the economic power struggles that are continuously at play in the Middle East.