2020/21 Nasher Prize Laureate Michael Rakowitz
by Catherine Craft, Nasher Sculpture Center Curator
The 2020/21 Nasher Prize Laureate Michael Rakowitz offers a deeply considered vision of sculpture’s possibilities in the face of political and humanitarian crises. Drawing upon his heritage as an American artist of Iraqi Jewish descent, he has confronted the complex legacies of centuries of conflict in the Middle East, most recently in the Iraq War and its aftermath. His ongoing reconstructions of the thousands of ancient artifacts looted or destroyed during the war not only turn a contemporary eye on objects commonly included among humanity’s oldest sculptures but bring our attention to vulnerable populations that have suffered violence and displacement in parallel to attacks on their cultural patrimony. Rakowitz’s “placeholders” for these disappeared objects—made from Arabic-language newspapers and the packaging for foods intrinsic to Iraqi cooking—are but the most visible elements of a body of work that the artist has characterized as site specific,1 existing in the midst of social exchanges that include collaborative workshops, shipping services, musical performances, and communal dinners. The resulting projects are correspondingly open-ended and ongoing, based on the artist’s conviction that “a project shouldn’t disappear until the problem it addresses disappears.”2 For over two decades, Rakowitz has addressed some of the most urgent issues of our time with works formed from unlikely correspondences and intersections, often across great temporal and geographical distances, that endow remote geopolitical situations with a humane immediacy and foster impulses toward healing and activism.
“In Michael Rakowitz, the Nasher Prize jury has selected a laureate whose work wrestles in unique and revelatory ways with many of the complex questions of history, heritage, and identity that are so much at the forefront of contemporary culture and politics,” says Director Jeremy Strick. “Interrogating objects and materials—their history and associations—Rakowitz weaves dense webs of meaning in distinct bodies of work rich with insight and surprise.”
The concerns of Rakowitz’s work took form early on, as did his proclivity for creating art inspired by unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated concepts or situations. After learning stone carving in high school and receiving a BFA from SUNY (State University of New York) at Purchase, where he studied sculpture and graphic design, with a focus on minimalism and public art, he attended MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). In the course of attaining a Master of Science degree in Visual Studies, he studied with Krzysztof Wodiczko, Dennis Adams, and Joan Jonas—artists who have addressed social and political issues in their work through institutional critique, installation, performance, storytelling, and non-traditional materials. He became increasingly interested in the role buildings play in shaping human interactions and their potential as “a surface upon which site-specific artworks could live.”3 From these concerns emerged paraSITE (1998–ongoing), a project involving custom-made, portable shelters for the homeless. Begun while Rakowitz was still a student and continuing today, paraSITE constitutes in many ways the foundation of his work. Formed from readily available plastic bags and tape, the small structures attach to the exterior outtake vents of a building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, allowing the warm air leaving the building to simultaneously inflate and heat the personal shelter. Each paraSITE is specific to a homeless individual who collaborated with Rakowitz to determine its design and appearance; the combination of durability and adaptability was inspired by how Bedouins Rakowitz had seen in Jordan set up their tents differently each evening to accommodate changing winds. While taking their inhabitants’ needs and wishes to heart—a characteristic that has persisted in Rakowitz’s art—paraSITE also made visible the enduring presence of homelessness; since 1998, more than 90 paraSITE structures have been made and distributed in cities including Boston and Cambridge, New York City, Baltimore, Ljubljana, Berlin and Chicago.
The parasitical attachment of Rakowitz’s portable shelters to unwitting “host” buildings has led him to further explorations of the forces distinguishing those given shelter in a particular building, neighborhood, or community and those excluded from it. He has made use of ventilation systems that circulate shared air in other works, including Climate Control (2000–01), which temporarily provided a museum-standard, climatized environment to a gallery lacking it at MoMA PS 1, and Rise (2001), which delivered into an art gallery the aroma from a bakery downstairs, a business under threat from the gentrification that the very appearance of an art gallery can signal in an urban neighborhood. Dull Roar (2005) makes similar use of circulating air to give form to a sculpture of the Pruitt-Igoe housing development. Designed in 1954 by Minoru Yamasaki, what was to have been an idyllic, sunlit community in St. Louis, Missouri became instead an emblem of racial division, with African-American and white residents housed separately. After a desegregation order, white families moved out, and after a period of declining government investment accompanied by deterioration, in 1972 the buildings were demolished, their rubble becoming landfill for a development of luxurious suburban homes. Dull Roar’s inflatable vinyl structure repeatedly rises and deflates, the utopian modernist optimism from which it arose perpetually answered by the realities of persistent racism, shifting governmental priorities, and the forces of gentrification.
While critical of the utopian ambitions of Modernism, Rakowitz sees continued value in their persistence, recognizing in such visionary projects a demand for “a culture capable of enabling their existence, poetic critiques of reality.”4 His continued engagement with public space and the objects and people that occupy it, accompanied by reassessments of the utopian modernist impulse, also includes broader collaborative processes. For a 2006 residency in Budapest, Hungary, during the country’s national elections, Rakowitz created The Visionaries, in which he transformed himself into a sort of mobile sculpture, wearing a sandwich board resembling an election placard and equipped as a portable drawing studio. Walking through neighborhoods, he encouraged residents to share their dreams for improving the city, particularly derelict empty lots known as “missing teeth,” remnants of destruction by retreating German troops during World War II and occupying Soviets a decade later, as well as more recent construction projects that never came to fruition. The Visionaries has subsequently been exhibited in the form of an installation comprised of drawings (drawing remains a vital activity for Rakowitz), materials, and documentation related to the project’s onsite execution, a pattern characteristic of Rakowitz’s work as a whole and another way of prolonging the life of a project across different times and places.
Rakowitz found another way to engage with the failed revolutionary potential of avant-garde art when he collaborated with the Aboriginal community of a neighborhood called The Block for White man got no dreaming, a project for the 2008 Sydney Biennale. In 1972, the Aboriginal community had acquired The Block as housing, but government authorities had since allowed it to deteriorate. Together, Rakowitz and residents of The Block used materials from the neighborhood to recreate Monument to the Third International, Vladimir Tatlin’s 1919 design for a spiraling tower that never went beyond a scaled-down model yet remains a landmark of visionary modernist architecture. As in Tatlin’s designs, the newly assembled tower was also a radio transmitter, broadcasting the Aboriginal station Koori Radio. The tower and its broadcasts galvanized the local community, at last fulfilling, at least in part, Tatlin’s original intentions.
White man got no dreaming testifies to Rakowitz’s determination to accommodate the voices of others through active collaboration whenever possible and through acts of commemoration and surrogacy when communities are absent, displaced, or destroyed. In The flesh is yours, the bones are ours, commissioned for the 2015 Istanbul Biennial, he focused on the sculptural elements of Istanbul’s Art Nouveau architecture. Making plaster casts from the original molds used for these buildings’ friezes, as well as frottages (rubbings) of their sculptural reliefs—parts of buildings often considered mere ornament—Rakowitz demonstrated that they were in fact integral to the buildings’ historical significance and character. His title comes from a Turkish expression regarding the impact of teachers on their students, and its bodily metaphor highlights another, more tragic dimension of the project’s meaning. The motifs of Istanbul’s Art Nouveau façades were designed by Armenian artisans; Rakowitz worked with a student of Garabet Cezayirliyan, one such artisan, to create the project’s elements. Among the friezes in the installation was one for the historic Emek Cinema, whose 2013 demolition had become a focus of protest and memories of a far more catastrophic event—namely, the advent in 1915 of the event now known as the Armenian Genocide.
Rakowitz returned to his origins as a sculptor in another consideration of the intricately interwoven fates of cultural artifacts over time in What dust will rise? (2012). A site-specific work created for dOCUMENTA (13), presented in both Kassel, Germany and Kabul, Afghanistan, What dust will rise? took as its point of departure parallel episodes of cultural destruction at three different moments in history: Nazi burnings of Jewish books in the 1930s; a fire following the accidental bombing by the British of Kassel’s Fridericianum in 1941, which destroyed most of the books in their collection; and the destruction by the Taliban of the monumental Bamiyan Buddhas of the Hazara region of Afghanistan in 2001. Turning to his own student training, Rakowitz established workshops near the caves that had housed the Buddhas to help the local community relearn the art of stone-carving—a skill that had been suppressed by the Taliban. For dOCUMENTA, he had Hazari and Italian artisans fashion replicas of burned books from the Fridericianum from Bamiyan travertine.
The loss and destruction of cultural artifacts, the haunting inadequacies of their replacements, and their analogous relation to human exile, injury, and death from parallel, catastrophic events are crucial to Rakowitz’s best-known body of work, The invisible enemy should not exist (2007–ongoing). It began as a response to the initial looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad following the US invasion in 2003, which resulted in the disappearance of some 15,000 artifacts, about 8,000 of which are still missing. To these have been added objects destroyed or taken in subsequent incidents, including attacks on cultural patrimony by ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). Collaborating in workshops and researching databases with information about the missing and destroyed objects, Rakowitz makes, as he calls them, “ghosts,” placeholder objects that approximate the size and appearance of the originals through the employment of papier mâché and brightly patterned fragments of Arabic-language newspapers and Iraqi food packaging.5 So far, over 900 such objects have been made in what appears to Rakowitz as a lifelong project. They range from small votive figures to, most spectacularly, the monumental Lamassu, a bearded, winged deity currently installed atop London’s Fourth Plinth. The sculpture is a full-size replica of the 2,600-year-old original, which had stood at the Nergal Gate in Nineveh, Iraq and was destroyed by ISIS in 2015.
Engaged with the absence of some of the oldest objects in the history of sculpture, Rakowitz creates their substitutes, commemorating acts of destruction and loss through surrogates intended to fool no one. Such placeholders, often displayed on tables accompanied by labels handwritten by the artist, are but the most visible aspect of an intricately layered, widely encompassing body of work. This befits the complexities of the series’ origins, as the artist has explained:
The project began when I was at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum in September 2006. I knew the Pergamon Altar was there, but I wasn’t aware they had the Ishtar Gate, too. When I saw the gate, I was completely blown away. I thought about why it was in Berlin, about the terms under which it was taken. The guidebook noted that the gate was the centrepiece of ancient Babylon, built around 575 BCE, and located on a processional way used during new year celebrations called The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist. It was the coolest street name I’d ever heard. And it was perfect because it spoke to this idea of the ‘phantom threat’: US President George W. Bush’s fabricated existence of weapons of mass destruction and the con?ation of the 9/11 attacks with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Babylonians would bring votive statues down this road to the temples. The statues, which often appear in collections of Mesopotamian art, are understood to have been surrogates for the worshippers. Those artefacts, now stolen, represent the dead. I saw how outrage over lost artefacts could become outrage for lost lives.6
Rakowitz’s work thus draws attention not only to recent acts of expropriation and violence but to older ones as well. His 2010 echo of the Ishtar Gate, May the arrogant not prevail, replicates not the ancient monument in the Pergamon Museum, but instead the scaled-down replica of the gate, made in Iraq in the 1950s from plywood and plaster. Likewise, The invisible enemy should not exist (Room N, Northwest Palace of Nimrud) (2018) reconstructs an Assyrian palace room destroyed in 2015 by ISIS, with areas of the remade wall reliefs left blank to indicate those removed decades earlier by Western archaeologists for museums in the US and Europe. There they survive, safely intact; yet the political forces that made it possible for them end up in Western museums were ultimately to lead to the more recent patterns of destruction and death in the very places of their creation.
On occasion, Rakowitz has noted that the looting of the Iraq Museum touched off a wave of grief in the West that the death of thousands of Iraqi civilians had not. If the destruction of Iraq’s cultural patrimony has sometimes appeared more tragic to Western audiences than the destruction of Iraqi lives, Rakowitz has made his identity as an artist of Iraqi Jewish descent and his family’s history central to his work of the last 15 years. Giving an individual face to a humanitarian catastrophe by using the West’s fascination with artists and his own gifts as a storyteller (another enduringly important aspect of his work), Rakowitz directs our attention to the human costs of a war and its aftermath that otherwise receive little heed. Rakowitz’s maternal grandparents left Iraq in the early 1940s, when rising nationalisms threatened their existence as Iraqi Jews; his mother was born in Mumbai in 1945, just before the family made their way to the US, settling in Great Neck, Long Island. During the Gulf War (1991–92), Rakowitz saw his mother respond with sadness to the fact that US audiences watching the bombing of Iraq on their televisions knew little else about her parents’ former home—a place she would likely never be able to show to her children.7
Rakowitz’s grandfather had operated a successful import-export company in Iraq, which he was able to continue in the US, closing it in the 1960s. Rakowitz revived the company in 2006 with a storefront in Brooklyn for RETURN, a project sponsored by Creative Time, New York. Manifestations of RETURN had begun in 2004, after the official end of hostilities with Iraq when bans on shipping were lifted; Rakowitz’s project was devoted to assisting members of the public with the logistical and financial challenges of shipping goods to and from Iraq. Often Iraqi émigrés separated from friends and family, his customers came in yearning for, if not the actual, unproblematic “return” to their former homes, then some talisman—often food—to symbolically bridge the distance.
The subtext of RETURN concerns connections between the international transit of various items and the travels of Rakowitz’s customers, a circuit of controlled, sometimes illicit movement with parallels to the circulation of objects in the art market, including artifacts looted from museums and archaeological sites in Iraq. Rakowitz makes this link explicit through his use of packaging from Iraqi foodstuffs as part of the material forming The invisible enemy should not exist and related projects. In other works, he widens his purview of the international circulation of people and objects to encompass mass culture—popular songs, movies, and collectibles, with Rakowitz playing the role of critical enthusiast, seeking out purchases from online auction sites. A devoted Beatles fan, he created The Breakup (2010) to trace correspondences between the dissolution of the seminal English band and the contemporary fracturing of Pan-Arabism. The worst condition is to pass under a sword which is not one’s own (2009) explored Saddam Hussein’s obsession with Star Wars and the ways it informed the visual culture of his regime—a project initiated by a helmet of the paramilitary organization Fedayeen Saddam, modeled on Darth Vader’s, that the artist discovered on eBay.
These concerns converged in Rakowitz’s recent video The Ballad of Special Ops Cody (2018). In 2005, an Iraqi insurgent group threatened to behead a US soldier they were holding unless their demands were met, but the US military soon determined that the soldier shown in the group’s photo was actually a Special Ops Cody doll, sold on US bases in Iraq and Kuwait to soldiers who in turn often sent them home to their children as a sort of stand-in for the absent parent. Rakowitz was able to purchase such a doll online, and it became the main character in his stop-motion video. Making its way into the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, Special Ops Cody confronts Assyrian antiquities akin to those looted and destroyed in Iraq, apologizes for crimes inflicted against Iraqi civilians by the US, and encourages the artifacts to flee from their vitrines and leave the museum. When they remain motionless, Special Ops Cody takes his place beside them, his arms crossed like a votive figure.
The intricately layered complexes of meaning in Rakowitz’s approach to sculpture is nowhere more clear than in the substance that has become its emblem: date syrup, a fundamental ingredient in Iraqi cuisine, whose colorful cans are a key component of The invisible enemy should not exist. RETURN’s Brooklyn storefront had faced a particularly daunting challenge in Rakowitz’s determination to import Iraqi dates. Once Iraq’s most important product after oil, the fruit had become increasingly difficult to obtain due to years of sanctions followed by the war’s decimation of millions of date palms. Rakowitz’s company signed the first contract in almost three decades to bring one ton of Iraqi dates into the U.S., but a series of bureaucratic difficulties—recounted in the artist’s blog 8—resulted in a mere ten boxes making it to the shop. Nonetheless, customers could buy other products containing dates, in particular date syrup that was produced in Iraq but had long been driven into Syria to be canned and labeled as a product of Lebanon to circumvent the difficulties that remained for Iraqi exporters even after the lifting of sanctions. (It was in fact Rakowitz’s earlier discovery that the date syrup was being packaged and labeled outside of Iraq that inspired this project.)
The fate of the date syrup from the cans used in The invisible enemy should not exist—10,500 of them went into the Fourth Plinth’s Lamassu9—reaches back to one of the earliest aspects of Rakowitz’s work, whose origin can be traced to Hubuz, a 1997 “culinary performance” that involved baking bread with women in Kerek, Jordan.10 Cooking and feeding others as a way to make art is not new; among Rakowitz’s predecessors, Alison Knowles made the preparation of salad a mainstay of the everyday practices of Fluxus as early as 1962 and since 1990 Rirkrit Tiravanija has cooked and served food for visitors to his exhibitions rather than show traditional works of art. But Rakowitz has sited food and cooking in the matrix of his art in a highly specific way, using it in concert with other activities as a way of undermining our assumptions about culture, identity and history, especially in relation to the Middle East. Starting with his mother’s recipes and the ubiquitous ingredient of date syrup, he has invited us to partake with all our senses in physical manifestations of what can otherwise appear distant, abstract issues.
Perhaps the most notorious intersection of Rakowitz’s interest in the trafficking of cultural property intersecting with his passion for cooking occurred in 2011 with Spoils, a “culinary intervention”11 sponsored by Creative Time. At the Manhattan restaurant Park Avenue Autumn, he collaborated with chef Kevin Lasko to create a dish melding Iraqi and American ingredients—date syrup and venison—and served it to diners on plates looted from the palaces of Saddam Hussein. According to the artist, he purchased the plates on eBay from a soldier serving in the unit that captured Saddam Hussein, as well as an Iraqi refugee living in the U.S. According to the artist,
the point of the work was to explore the troubled provenance: the date syrup that came out of a can that could not say where it was from, and the plates, made by companies like Wedgewood in the UK, who they also sold arms to, and later went to war with because of the threat those weapons posed. The plates also got to the diner’s table through the US-led invasion, which deposed Hussein. Thus, the bitterness of the surface, combined with the sweetness of the date syrup and the diner’s tongue created a tense triangle that was the essence of a project that was about consumption but also potentially about refusal.12
As news of Spoils spread, the Iraqi mission to the United Nations requested the plates’ return on behalf of the Iraqi people, and the plates’ surrender and repatriation brought an end to the intervention.
Less well-publicized if comparably far-reaching in effect has been the series of culinary interventions Rakowitz has created under the name Enemy Kitchen (2003–ongoing). Collaborating with his mother, the artist gathered Iraqi recipes, which he has then taught to varied groups. In 2006—the same year he opened the Brooklyn storefront for RETURN—he held a series of cooking classes for students in New York City area middle and high schools to teach them the foods and cooking techniques of “the enemy”—that is, Iraqis. In 2012, Enemy Kitchen manifested in Chicago as a food truck, becoming the first establishment in the city to call itself an Iraqi restaurant, with Iraqi refugees as the head chefs and U.S. veterans of the Iraq War as sous chefs and servers, an irony that the artist appreciated: “[Finally] the Americans are taking orders from the Iraqis.”13 Recently, Rakowitz extended this intervention to the medium of publishing with A house with a date palm will never starve, a cookbook issued in conjunction with his Fourth Plinth project and offering 100 Iraqi recipes from his mother and other cooks, all utilizing dates or date syrup: for the artist, publishing a cookbook was a way to “extend the artwork beyond the Fourth Plinth and into cupboards and bellies as a way to taste the sculpture.”14
In naming Michael Rakowitz the 2020 Nasher Prize Laureate, the Nasher Prize jury selected an artist who has introduced a wide array of possibilities into the realm of sculpture even as he has found new relevance for established approaches. Through his willingness to identify his family’s story with a war halfway around the world, he has given a human countenance—an emotional site-specificity—to the enormously complex history and continuing difficulties of a long war and its many casualties. He brings vital historical awareness to our present moment, reclaiming modernism’s utopian hopes even in the confrontation of our own responsibility in the expropriation and destruction of some of humanity’s most ancient cultural artifacts. His art finds the precise means to convey the urgency of our present alongside the importance of histories that stretch back generations, centuries, and millennia. In an era dominated by the reactive world of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, he insists on the decelerated activity of storytelling to weave complex narratives and on the necessity for individual works to continue as long as the circumstances that spurred them into being remain unresolved. While very much a part of the contemporary world of eBay and podcasts, both of which have served his art, he nonetheless insists on the political and social importance of craft traditions, such as stone carving or cooking, as shared, communal activities with deep histories that can be used to transmit skills and understanding beyond their original contexts, as he has explained:
If we speak of artisanship, we should also speak of craft. My hope is that my engagement with questions of craft complicates our understanding of the historical forces acting against transmissions of skill and expertise, hinting at the maintenance of tradition as a form of resistance to cultural erasure.15
In the words of Nasher Prize juror Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, “Michael’s work is about healing and about how to take the problem of cultural destruction and transform that into a resource for a very optimistic vision of the reconstruction of our society.”
About Michael Rakowitz
Michael Rakowitz was born in 1973 in Great Neck, New York; he is lives and works in Chicago, Illinois and is professor of art theory and practice at Northwestern University. He studied at Purchase College, State University of New York, where he received a BFA in 1995 and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, graduating with an MA in 1998. His recent retrospective opened at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, in 2019, traveling to Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino and, in 2020 is scheduled to open at the Jameel Art Centre, Dubai. It was preceded by Backstroke of the West, a survey exhibition at the Museum of Contempory Art, Chicago in 2018.
He has exhibited in venues including dOCUMENTA(13), Kassel, Germany and Kabul, Afghanistan; Museum of Modern Art, New York; MoMA PS 1, New York; MassMOCA; Castello di Rivoli; the 10th Istanbul Biennial; the Sharjah Biennial 8; the 2008 Sydney Biennale; the Tirana Biennale; and Transmediale 05. Rakowitz is the recipient of many awards and honors, including the 2018 Herb Alpert Award in Visual Art, the 2012 Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Biennial Award, a 2008 Creative Capital Grant, the 2007 Sharjah Biennial Jury Award, a 2006 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship Grant in Architecture and Environmental Structures, the 2003 Dena Foundation Award, and the 2002 Design 21 Grand Prix from UNESCO.
1 Hrag Vartanian, “Michael Rakowitz Discusses Withdrawing from the 2019 Whitney Biennial, and his Leonard Cohen Problem,” Hyperallergic, May 17, 2019, https://hyperallergic.com/500947/michael-rakowitz-whitney-biennial-leonard-cohen/, accessed August 11, 2019. In the same interview, Rakowitz also described himself as a sculptor.
2 Evan Moffitt, “Interview: Michael Rakowitz: The Invisible Enemy,” Frieze, March 29, 2018, https://frieze.com/article/michael-rakowitz-invisible-enemy, accessed August 11, 2019.
3 Carolyn Christov-Barkargiev and Marianna Vecellio, eds., Michael Rakowitz (London / Turin / Milan: Whitechapel Gallery / Castello di Rivoli / Silvana Editoriale, 2019), 35.
4 Rakowitz, quoted in the brochure for Michael Rakowitz, Whitechapel Gallery, London (4 June–25 August 2019), n.p.
5 Reference discussion of ghosts in Whitechapel interview (page no.),
6 Moffitt, “Interview: Michael Rakowitz: The Invisible Enemy.”
7 The family of Rakowitz’s father, a physician, is of Eastern European and Hungarian origin. “Biography,” Christov-Barkargiev and Vecellio, 144.
8 http://creativetime.org/programs/archive/2006/whocares/store_log_final.pdf , accessed August 12, 2019.
9 Oliver Basciano, “Michael Rakowitz,” Art Review, Summer 2019, https://artreview.com/features/ar_summer_2019_michael_rakowitz/, accessed August 12, 2019.
10 Marianna Vecellio, “Chronology and Anthology,” in Christov-Bakargiev and Vecello, 146.
11 This term is presumably the artist’s own. Omar Kholeif, Michael Rakowitz: Backstroke of the West (Chicago, Ill. / New York: Museum of Contemporary Art / DelMonico Books-Prestel, 2017), 53.
12 Comment from the artist to the author, email of August 31, 2019.
13 Michael Rakowitz, on Enemy Kitchen, in Kholeif, 58.
14 Michael Rakowitz, A house with a date palm will never starve (London: Plinth / Art Books Publishing Ltd., 2019). Comment from the artist to the author, email of August 31, 2019.
15 Iwona Blazwick, “Michael Rakowitz: A Transatlantic Interview,” in Christov-Bakargiev and Vecellio, 43.