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Michael Rakowitz, Backstroke of the West

Installation view at Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2017

Photo by Nathan Keay, Courtesy of MCA Chicago

CHICAGO — In 2006, the artist Michael Rakowitz took on a complicated, seemingly impossible task. He opened a store in Brooklyn to sell dates, with the chief goal of importing the sweet fruit directly from Iraq, and packaged in boxes that advertised their true origin. Some Iraqi companies had successfully circumvented the United Nations-imposed sanctions and smuggled date syrup out of their country, but the labels of their final products on the shelves of foreign stores were typically tweaked. Rakowitz’s goods would be the first imports labeled “Product of Iraq” to enter the United States in over 25 years.

His enterprise, supported by Creative Time, was not one in which a savvy merchant would have engaged. The dates, driven to borders by truck, ended up following a difficult route that encountered many bureaucratic hurdles, and Rakowitz eventually had to settle on airlifting a small shipment from Syria, via DHL. The arduous but ultimately triumphant journey ended up telling a larger narrative: the dates, arriving from a war-damaged industry, represented environmental victims that were literally caught up in the same traffic as refugees; they were, like humans forced to move their lives, trapped in unfeasible transactions.

Titled Return, the project embodies a range of the ideas Rakowitz has contemplated throughout his career: the violent disruption or erasure of cultural identity caused by war, the complexities and obscurities of provenance, and the power of objects to stand as unassuming surrogates for large-scale human tragedies. These are clear patterns one sees in Backstroke of the West, Rakowitz’s first museum survey currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Its title alone alludes to Rakowitz’s interest in veiled or misunderstood meanings, standing as a machine’s mistranslation of the film title, Revenge of the Sith.

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