I have never been to Iraq and may never get to visit, but I have always loved the artwork of its ancient cultures, most particularly the prowling lions, gryphons, and bulls of the Ishtar Gate and the monumental, five-legged sculptures depicting lamassu, winged lions or bulls with human heads, from Nimrud. I have formed my attachments to them in Germany, France, England, Boston, Chicago, and of course here in New York, disparate locations far from each other and, notably, far from these objects’ place of origin (400 of the 600 relief sculptures from Nimrud are housed in Western collections). I thought about that and so much else—about the forcible distribution of art as a result of colonization; about our complicated roles as admirers and consumers of art that has been removed from its geographical context; and about the fact that, after the devastation of the Nimrud palace site by ISIS, the sculptures I love now act as stand-alone objects, fragmentary representatives of a past culture that is undergoing an aggressive process of annihilation—as I made my way through Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz’s current exhibition, the latest iteration of The invisible enemy should not exist (2007–present), at Jane Lombard Gallery.
The visitor enters the gallery and is immediately confronted not by Rakowitz’s recreations of Nimrud’s sculptures but with the backs of their supports. Each of the five panels is displayed in a surround made of wooden two-by-fours, the material recalling nothing so much as shipping or storage crates, the temporary housing of artifacts unearthed (or stolen) from their archaeological environments to be removed to new homes for study or display. The front faces of the panels, arranged as they would have been on the palace walls, reveal the images of a muscular bird-headed and winged human figure and trees intertwined with flowering branches. Like so many of the Nimrud carvings, these are sculptural reliefs, but instead of employing a subtractive lapidary process, Rakowitz and his assistants built these up with found materials, in this instance using newspapers and Mawassem herbal tea packets, among other items. The commercial attractiveness of food packaging lends its color to the artist’s birdmen, revivifying the remnants of a lost Iraqi civilization, calling to mind the stunningly vibrant polychromy of the Ishtar Gate’s brickwork, and reminding us of the street value of the ancient works when looted, significance placed on them that is different from their aesthetic worth or from the notoriety ISIS derived from obliterating them. Informational floor texts identify the current locations of fragments, if known, or indicate their destruction and are accompanied by reminiscences and ruminations on the loss of Nimrud and other aspects of Iraqi culture from archaeologists, museum professionals, politicians, scholars, journalists, and soldiers.
A soldier assumes a leading role in the video, The Ballad of Special Ops Cody (2017), that plays in the second room of the gallery. In 2005, an insurgent group claimed to have captured an American soldier and threatened to execute him unless the United States released prisoners being held in Iraq; the group released a photograph of the soldier with a gun pointed at his head. However, rather than a real person, the man in the photograph was a realistic soldier doll, Special Ops Cody, sold on US army bases. In Rakowitz’s stop-motion video, this doll speaks with the voice of Gin McGill-Prather, an army medic who had been deployed in the Iraq war. Cody is released and finds himself transported to the Oriental Institute in Chicago. Wandering through the museum, he relives the trauma of encountering victims who had lost their eyes, until he arrives at the ancient Near Eastern artifacts and confronts the museum’s collection of votive sculptures excavated from Tell Asmar. About the same size as Cody, the Tell Asmar figures stare at him with painted eyes or impassively face him eyeless, just as the wounded combatants had done. He tries to persuade them to free themselves and escape the museum, but the statues have been too long in “captivity” and remain motionless. In the end, Cody assumes their stiff postures and remains with them in solidarity, to be re-entombed in their museum vitrine.
The Ballad of Special Ops Cody raises questions about America’s complicated relationship with Iraq and the “liberation” of Iraqis as well as the country’s cultural artifacts (McGill-Prather has spoken about stealing, and then guiltily leaving, a bone from Ur).1 The first moments of Cody’s encounter with the Near Eastern collection are more evocative than the last because they hint at the enormous scale of the sculptures themselves and the roles they played in human history, a history destroyed by allies and enemies alike. As he scans the room, he thinks about how unreal the ancient Middle East and its monuments seemed to him until he saw them for himself. And now, he finds it hard to express himself: “When you see these things up close and for real… [it’s] something there aren’t words for… you know?” he asks as he pauses in front of the massive hooves of a lamassu. Rakowitz knows that the vast majority of his audience has been no closer to Iraq than its art in museums. His own art acknowledges and mourns that fact.