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Michael Rakowitz: Dispute Between the Tamarisk and the Date Palm

Installation view at REDCAT, Los Angeles, 2019

The embattled intersection of Iraq and the United States is the conceptual space that Iraqi-American Michael Rakowitz occupies in his sculptural, installation and time-based performance works. Dispute Between the Tamarisk and the Date Palm at REDCAT Los Angeles brought together several of Rakowitz’s ongoing projects, initiated in the past 15 years. One small but important element ties them together—the date in its many forms. Iraq is one of the world’s largest producers of dates, a fruit that has special symbolic resonance for many Middle Eastern countries. Just as the date’s sweetness contrasts with its tough pit, Rakowitz’s poetic works strike a bittersweet tone, shedding light on the unfortunate circumstances of looting, sanctions, and the fractious relations between opposing countries. 

For The invisible enemy should not exist (2007– ), Rakowitz mined the University of Chicago’s Oriental Society databases and Interpol records to identify artifacts from the National Museum of Iraq that have been lost, looted, or destroyed since the outbreak of war in 2003, estimated at over 7,000 objects. Using spliced and cut up newsprint, magazines, and packaging for other everyday consumables from Iraq, Rakowitz recreates ancient vases, votive figures, jewelry and miniatures. Placed on a tabletop with accompanying labels, one inspects these objects as one would exhibits in a museum vitrine. Although made from what could be considered trash, these items are lovingly and meticulously crafted, as if they were spiritual stand-ins or effigies for the real objects. The most striking and heartrending examples are the smaller pieces, which require astute attention from both the maker and the viewer. A Hematite cylinder seal and impression from 2,000–1,190 BCE, for example, reaches no more than a couple of inches tall and could fit in the palm of a hand. Made from fastidiously manipulated paper, likely the pages of an Arabic book, the seal features tiny figures in relief. To its right is the stamped result, depicting a procession of humans and animals. Employing the method on a much larger scale, Rakowitz reimagines a series of towering wall friezes depicting Assyrian winged genies from the Palace of Nimrud—some destroyed by ISIS and others on display at the British Museum and other institutions—in their original resplendent polychrome. In one particular panel, magazine cutouts and food wrappers imitate the regalia of the winged beings. Gold Maggi bullion cube wrappers make for convincing gilded details in a flower branch, sandals and headdress. The vibrant genie stands against a backdrop of red, white and blue waxed bakery paper. 

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