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Artist Michael Rakowitz on recreating destroyed Iraqi treasures for the Fourth Plinth

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Michael Rakowitz: The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist. Photo by Caroline Teo

Among the lions, horses and dolphin statues prowling London’s Trafalgar Square, there’s a new beast in town. A 14ft-long lamassu – a majestic protective deity with the body of a bull and the face of a human, with some wings thrown in for good measure – has been installed on top of the Fourth Plinth today (28th March) ready to take up watch over Central London for its two-year stretch.

The sculpture is by Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz, and part of public art project The Fourth Plinth Programme that has seen the empty plinth filled by a range of work from Anthony Gormley to David Shrigley. Michael’s serene creature is part of a much larger, decade-spanning project, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, which has seen the Chicago-based artist recreate numerous artefacts looted from the National Museum of Iraq after the US invasion in 2003, and others that have been destroyed by Isis in both Iraq and Syria, all from found materials. The original lamassu once stood guarding the ancient Assyrian city of Ninevah, located on the outskirts of Mosul in modern-day northern Iraq. In February 2015, Isis fighters reduced this milleanea-old gatekeeper to dust.

Michael first started The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist project in 2006. “It stemmed out of watching the looting of the Iraq museum in April 2003, and recognising the fact that at this moment of the war this was the first moment of pathos where it didn’t matter whether you were for the war or against the war, there was an agreement that this was a catastrophe,” Michael tells It’s Nice That. “It wasn’t just an Iraqi loss it was a human loss.”

Having recently moved to Chicago, he discovered that the city’s Oriental Institute had a database of the lost treasures of Iraq that went live just after the looting – the only record of irreplaceable examples of our shared human history. “As I was watching those human artefacts disappear, I immediately thought about what it would be like for them to come back as ghosts,” says Michael. “I was also interested to see whether the outrage of lost artefacts would translate into outrage about lost lives, interrupted lives and lost dreams. Obviously that didn’t happen."

Spotting the uncomfortable truth that these treasures had only been stolen because of their value to wealthy – probably Western – collectors on the black or grey market, Michael saw the potential to talk about the complicated complicity underpinning the invasion, its historical and its human casualties. “A lot of art collectors will also have antiquities, and they don’t necessarily want to talk about where they got that African mask from,” he explains. “There was an intersection between those two markets, and in 2007 it was business as usual. You wouldn’t walk through a gallery in New York knowing that we were at war.”

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Michael Rakowitz: The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, Bearded Male Statue

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Michael Rakowitz: The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, Horned Cap and Garmented Figure Plaque

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Michael Rakowitz: The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist.

To manufacture these “uncomfortable ghosts” Michael was inspired by a previous project, which had involved the artist re-opening his grandfathers’ import-export business in Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue to offer free shipping to Iraqi families and import date products. “The deal that I signed, which was bad business but good art, ended up travelling the same path as Iraqi refugees being turned away from all the borders.” Early on in the project Michael discovered that, although many date products bought in the US originated in Iraq, almost all were canned in Syria and labelled in Lebanon, to avoid first sanctions on the country’s produce then expensive security scans. “All of a sudden these packages were telling a story of provenance where the actual object couldn’t declare where it was from,” adds Michael, “so the objects themselves were like victims of xenophobia.”

Seeing the product’s beautiful packaging as “the detritus of the fragments of cultural visibility”, Michael set about recreating some of the database’s 7000 artefacts from cardboard packets, cans and Arabic-English free newspapers – the latter becoming particularly poignant as the project evolved over time. “In 2007 when the project began, all of those stories were about the execution of Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush, the war and occupation and then 2013, all of those newspaper stories were all about Syria and then in 2014 it was what was happening in the north of Iraq with Isis. There’s a legibility that Arabic speakers and readers can pick up on and trace in the work.”

The invitation to submit a proposal to the Fourth Plinth project perfectly coincided with Michael’s research into the lamassu after it was destroyed by Isis in 2015. On discovering the original sculpture, which had sat proud at Nineveh’s Nergal Gate, was the same proportion as the plinth, it seemed an obvious choice for Trafalgar Square. “The Fourth Plinth was made in the early 1840s to accommodate a statue of King William, that was never made because the city couldn’t afford it,” explains Michael. “So you have a sculpture that disappears into the ether. Then eight years later in Nineveh, you have a British archeologist discovering a sculpture that disappeared – the lamassu. I like those magical and poetic intersections.” But unlike its Iraqi counterpart, Michael’s lamassu has been made from 10,500 empty Iraqi date syrup cans with colourful printed lithography labels, all covered by a protective lacquer – a necessary shield for the British weather.

Like earlier sculptures from The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist project, Michael intends the lamassu’s location in Trafalgar Square to be thought-provoking and uncomfortable. Sat facing Southeast, longing for its return to Nineveh, the winged creature also stares squarely at the Foreign Office and Parliament where the decision was taken to participate in the invasion of Iraq.

Also present in the work is Britain’s history of colonialism and its own ‘looting’ of archaeological finds from across the globe. “It’s a critique that needs to be alive. But I also don’t know that there’s a simple act as return, that suddenly heals everything,” says Michael. The Iraqi artefacts housed in the British Museum, for example, are now safe whereas their Iraqi counterparts are not. “It doesn’t excuse anything, but suddenly [one could see] them not as stolen artefacts, but as refugees,” says Michael. “It’s something that I can’t hear without wincing a little bit, but it’s real. I want the work to be about all those complications. It would be wonderful if the Lamasu that I build can one day go back to Iraq.” 

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Michael Rakowitz: The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist fabrication. Photo by Gautier DeBlonde

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Michael Rakowitz: The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist fabrication. Photo by Gautier DeBlonde

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Michael Rakowitz: The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, Statuette of Male

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Michael Rakowitz: The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist.

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Michael Rakowitz: The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, Winged Ram Headed Sphinx