The Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz has never traveled to Iraq, but on the day we first met, he was technically on Iraqi soil. He had just wrapped his project Spoils, a performative culinary work in which he served venison, tahini, and date syrup (in Arabic, debes wa’rashi) to Upper East Side restaurant-goers atop plates believed to have been looted from Saddam Hussein’s palace just after the 2003 invasion. The Iraqi mission to the United Nations got wind of the project—and of the embellished alabaster and translucent Wedgwood plates used—and contacted the US State and Justice Departments to request their return. Rakowitz, who had bought the plates on eBay, met the two marshals sent to confiscate them and then followed their car to the Iraqi mission, adjacent to Central Park, where they were formally repatriated. Looking around the ornate, dimly lit lobby of the embassy, Rakowitz told me at the time, “We are on Iraqi soil; this is the first time my family has been back.”
Currently standing on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth (an imposing granite pedestal pinned to the northwest corner and designated as a site for public art commissions since 1999), is one of Rakowitz’s largest public projects to date—The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist—a recreated version of the 700 BCE Lamassu, an Assyrian statue that was destroyed by ISIS in 2015. With a skin made from the eye-popping colors of more than 10,000 empty Iraqi date syrup cans, the winged bull underpins Rakowitz’s uncanny ability to evoke the sensual fragility of time. This arresting work, like much of his oeuvre, pushes us to reimagine ideas of community, ancestry, and the way larger political forces determine, or rewrite, our notions of self.