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Los Angeles Times

Michael Rakowitz: Dispute Between the Tamarisk and the Date Palm

Installation view at REDCAT, Los Angeles, 2019

A rudimentary plywood table at the entrance to the gallery at REDCAT holds an unassuming display of a couple dozen cultural artifacts, each one neatly labeled as hailing from Palmyra, Damascus, Aleppo or another archaic Middle East site. The forms represent ancient Mesopotamian objects — a column’s chunky capital, its shape reminiscent of a trimmed palm, or a Sumerian votive figure whose hands are prayerfully folded across its chest.

While the subjects are ancient and foreign, however, these artifacts are brand new and domestic. Rakowitz has been making surrogates for lost or destroyed sculptures, many looted from Baghdad’s irreplaceable Iraq National Museum. The epic destruction was one of countless disastrous results of the unconscionable American invasion in 2003.

These artifacts embody “us, today,” not “them, back then.”

Some sculptures are collaged with colorful pieces of snipped metal, most from industrially fabricated commercial products. The technique, similar to the one Tony Berlant began to develop for his “House” sculptures in the mid-1960s, likewise has a familial angle for the chosen material: Rakowitz clads many objects with metal from cans of date syrup — a common Iraqi kitchen item now transformed into a slyly pointed political critique, given the work’s context.

“A house with a date palm will never starve” goes an old Arabic proverb. Date seeds have been found deep inside regional cave dwellings occupied 50,000 years ago, while the tree’s leaves today still get woven into baskets, its wood is used for building and the natural fibers are woven into rope.

Industrial Age invaders of the Middle East, however, have been more interested in the oil pooled beneath the desert sand.

In 2003, the Bush administration prepared detailed plans for safeguarding Iraq’s oil ministry during the tumultuous six weeks of the invasion; but, despite advance pleas, the clueless American government made no arrangements for securing the museum, one of humanity’s most significant cultural institutions. Rakowitz binds his artifacts to a deep-rooted, more profound cultural history that sustains civilization across millennia.

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