Michael Rakowitz is a connoisseur of ghosts. He is also a teacher, a stone carver, a radio broadcaster, a chef. His work often refers in various ways to things and people that are dead, gone, lost, or on their way out. He creates charming funerary objects and souvenirs; his art resurrects, ‘reappears’, rematerialises. His apparitions contain multiple political and historical meanings beneath the childlike wonder of their surface. He likes the words ‘hostility’ and ‘ghost’ because they both contain the word ‘host’ – you are very welcome! Until you are not. “I have often thought about the intersection of hospitality and hostility,” says the artist, whose career is the subject of a new exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.
Speaking of (g)hosting, in 2011 he acquired on eBay china dinner plates looted from Saddam Hussein’s palace in Iraq during the war that began in 2003, and mounted a ‘culinary performance’ he called Spoils in conjunction with the Manhattan restaurant Park Avenue Autumn. Venison on top of Iraqi date syrup and tahini was presented on the looted plates, in a high-dining style. Rakowitz was referring to the spoils of war, or possibly the spoilage of an unnecessary war, or perhaps the rot of Hussein’s despotism. One way or another, the dish can’t have been comfortable to swallow. “I believe in turning the stomach while simultaneously filling it,” he tells BBC Culture.
These challenging flavour combinations of aesthetics, politics, and culture are prefigured in Rakowitz’s own family background. He is an American of Jewish-Iraqi extraction on the one side and eastern European on the other. His maternal grandparents were forced to flee Baghdad in 1941. His mother was born in Bombay. The family came to rest in Long Island, New York, and put down new roots. Iraq, a place he has never visited, became a story and a culinary touchstone in his childhood.