Over the course of six days in 2003 during the American invasion of Iraq, more than 3,000 artifacts on display at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad were looted or destroyed. For Michael Rakowitz, an American artist of Jewish-Iraqi heritage, the desecration was personal, and it inspired an ambitious sculptural project. He began making papier-mâché renditions of the missing works, which had all been previously photographed and catalogued by the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. Rakowitz acknowledges that The invisible enemy should not exist (2007–ongoing), which includes drawings, museum labels, and sound in addition to the sculptures, is an endeavor that will likely outlast his life. He thinks of these works not as re-creations or reproductions of the lost originals, but as “ghosts” that can haunt and also reassure. The same could be said about his entire body of work, which may vary in form but is always focused in intent.
It’s been a busy few years for his studio, beginning with Backstroke of the West, a mid-career retrospective at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (2017–18). Last summer, his sculptural tribute to the winged lamassu that protected Nineveh’s Nergal Gate from around 700 BCE until it was destroyed by ISIS in 2015 was unveiled at London’s Trafalgar Square, where it occupies the Fourth Plinth through March 2020. Rakowitz was also selected for this year’s Whitney Biennial but withdrew to protest the “toxic philanthropy” of museum trustee Warren Kanders, whose fortune derives from military products used against asylum seekers along the U.S. border with Mexico. When I met up with Rakowitz in his home and studio, a brownstone just north of the Chicago Loop, he was preparing for a survey exhibition, which debuted at London’s Whitechapel Gallery and opens at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin on October 8, 2019.