In February 2015, Isis militants videoed themselves drilling the face off one of the commanding stone statues that had guarded the gates of the ancient city of Nineveh for more than a thousand years. The lamassu – winged bulls with serene human faces – were among the most monumental casualties of a spree of destruction that over just a few days reduced many of Iraq’s most precious artefacts to pebbles.
On 28 March, 2018, the life-sized “ghost” of one of these fabulous Assyrian creatures will be unveiled atop the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, where it will stand with its back to the National Gallery, gazing south-east past the Foreign Office and the Houses of Parliament towards its spiritual home in the Middle East.
The 14ft-long statue is both a one-off statement and part of an ambitious long-term project by Michael Rakowitz, a 44-year-old Iraqi-American who has become one of the world’s most political – and powerful – artist-provocateurs. The aim of The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist is no less than to reconstruct all 7,000 objects known to have been looted from the National Museum of Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion by the US-led coalition.
The idea was born as Rakowitz watched flickering green images of surgical strikes on Baghdad by the coalition – the invisible enemy – shortly after which the looting began. Until that moment, the suffering of the Iraqi people had been objectified, he explains. This was “the first moment of pathos, in that it didn’t matter if you were for or against the war, we could all agree that this was a catastrophe. It wasn’t simply a local Iraqi loss but one for the whole of humanity.”
However, this pathos didn’t play out as expected. “As the artefacts disappeared, I was waiting for the loss to translate into outrage and grief for lost lives, but it didn’t happen. So I had the idea of these lost artefacts coming back as ghosts to haunt us.”
The aim was not to replicate the looted objects, but to make them cheaply from papier mache or plaster and cover them with food packaging or Arabic newsprint to reflect their relationship with day-to-day life. The Trafalgar Square lamassu is “armoured” with brightly coloured tin from 10,500 cans of date syrup, which Rakowitz quality tested by nailing them to the walls of the Chicago house where he lives with his wife and two children, to see if they would fade or rust in a climate not so dissimilar to London’s.