CLINTON, NY — One of the challenges of talking coherently about Michael Rakowitz’s exhibition at the Wellin Museum is coming to an understanding of what the work is: Is it a memorial to lost cultural heritage, an act of historical recovery, a collective bereavement, or a model for survival? Perhaps this essay is my attempt at answering this question.
Another challenge is wanting to see the work made whole. Here, I’m thinking of a legal definition of this term. To paraphrase the Law.com website: To be made whole is to have the party who has been damaged be awarded, or paid enough, to return to the position they would’ve been in without the other’s destructive acts. My difficulty is that this doesn’t happen here. But I want it to. What Rakowitz has installed at the Wellin is only a partial reconstruction of what is known as “Room H” located in the Northwest Palace of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud (now Kalhu).
The sprawling palace was originally constructed by the ruler Ashurnasirpal II between 879 and 860 BCE and once featured 600 seven-foot-tall reliefs carved in stone depicting the king, members of his retinue, winged male figures (that may be some form of divinity), and an inscription detailing the Ashurnasirpal’s many achievements. But in the intervening millennia, in a process of slow, insidious attrition begun with the British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard in 1845, eventually 400 of the palace’s original 600 relief panels were stolen away. Many of them ended up in institutions in the West. One of them might be close to you. They are to be found at the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge; the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College; the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg; the Bristol Museum; the Minneapolis Institute of Art; and the Brooklyn Museum (which holds three panels), and elsewhere. Rakowitz acknowledges all of this, showing empty wall space where the reliefs should be, with explanatory captions above the aporia. “Room H” is like seeing a once-legendary champion at a press conference where he smiles an earnest, open grin that shows most of his teeth missing.