We stop in front of a multistory home like so many in Chicago, red brick, except this one has the unusual detail of a dark-green door. “This is the first home we lived in [when we moved to Chicago],” he explains, “and the reason I’m showing you this, the crazy thing about it, is that the door is the same green that my grandfather’s company’s identity was built around,” the first nod I will get toward a past that colors so much of his present. The door is forest-green, or hunter; even a simple decorative decision, I realize, can reference faraway roots.
To walk with artist Michael Rakowitz is to relinquish any sense of urgency and embrace interruption. Conversation is punctuated by digressions from his historical, personal, and contemplative memory, which makes sense, given the multilayered nature of this work. I’ve met him in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, where he has lived for over ten years since he began teaching at Northwestern University, and at almost every block Rakowitz has stopped to say hi to a proprietor. As in many Chicago neighborhoods, there’s a visible mix of international communities—it is a stimulating match for Rakowitz, who is obsessed with displacement and diaspora. But it’s an early morning in January, snow is falling, I can’t feel my toes, and I’m giving up on my hopes of ever getting warm.
He continues, “I had just opened up Davisons & Co. in New York, and that storefront happened to have that green, and this door had the same green, and the food truck we also painted this green.” He’s given me a preface to the rest of the day, and a peek into the openness to serendipity that characterizes his work.
“You get a couple of those magical moments, but if you go looking for it you fuck everything up,” he says with a smile, as we turn back to the main road in search of a warmer place to talk.
It’s impossible to describe Rakowitz’s work without delving into his past. Multiple themes course through his various projects—heat and its invisible power, displacement of many forms, loss—all of which are inextricably connected to people, those he’s known, others he’s only heard of, some he can only imagine. Above all these, and connecting them, is perhaps an idea of fate, and accidents that can bear unpredictable meaning.
Born in 1973, Rakowitz spent the first three decades of his life in the Northeast. He is the American-born child of an Iraqi-Jewish mother and a father descended from second-generation Ashkenazi Jews, and grew up in Great Neck on Long Island, near his maternal grandparents. He attended college at SUNY Purchase and went to MIT for a master’s degree in visual studies.
An MIT-organized trip to Jordan led to a turning point in his career. This trip marked the first time anyone in his family had been back to a country in the Middle East other than Israel since emigrating to the states. He was fascinated by the living structures of the Bedouin, a nomadic people who reconfigured temporary tents every night in response to the shifting wind patterns of the desert. With the desert still on his mind, he returned to winter in Boston and saw a homeless person sleeping under a building vent expelling hot air—a nomad of different circumstance interacting with another kind of wind.
In 1998, he created paraSITE, an ongoing series of inflatable shelters now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), with the needs of homeless individuals in mind. The earliest renditions were made of discarded plastic and packing tape; these semi-sheer, polyethylene tunnels with white corded bands that inflate with hot air seem a combination of tent and igloo. These shelters are inflated and kept warm using the ersatz heat of buildings, which is funneled in via single tubes affixed to vents. The structures, an incredible example of economy and reuse, can be easily packed and carried, and cost around five dollars to make.
Rakowitz has since shown work at leading art institutions and expositions around the globe. The first survey of his work will go up at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago this fall. Most recently he was commissioned to create a temporary work to occupy the empty column in London’s Trafalgar Square as part of the Royal Society of Arts’ Fourth Plinth Project. Rakowitz will reconstruct the sculpture of Lamassu which stood at the entrance to the Nergal Gate of Nineveh in Iraq from 700 BC until it was destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Made of paper detritus, Rakowitz’s rendition of Lamassu won’t replace the ancient sculpture, which is the point. Not all things that are lost can be found again.
The sculpture is part of his ongoing project The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, in which Rakowitz recreates Iraqi sculptures and monuments that have been lost or destroyed during conflict using Middle Eastern packaging and Arabic newspapers. As the collections lists of former institutions such as the Iraq Museum shorten with every ISIS video celebrating another artwork’s obliteration, so does Rakowitz’s list of potential projects grow.
His contribution to dOCUMENTA (13), a major contemporary art exhibition that happens every five years in Kassel, Germany, explored the complications of the recreation of artifacts. Rakowitz recalls the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001. “When I saw that footage on the news I had the biggest pit in my stomach; it was almost like my art history was collapsing. When Carolyn Christov-Bakarviev, artistic director of dOCUMENTA (13) [invited me to be a part of it my] first line of thinking was whether it was possible to do something in Bamiyan the same way I’d done for the Iraq Museum.” Rakowitz had studied traditional stone carving, a far cry from the conceptual work that has dominated his career, in high school, and his early love for the medium had lingered. “I thought reconstructing the Buddhas [might be] really problematic, not just because of scale but because it was the backdrop to an entire community I had no access to. Afghanistan’s Hazara minority live in Bamiyan, and the people are Muslim. They’ve been persecuted, and they’re all descended from Genghis Khan, but they revered those Buddhas, those Buddhas meant something to them,” he told me. “UNESCO says they can’t rebuild them and the International Council on Monuments and Sites is also against it, but the people there want to, so I thought, Fuck it, I’m going to teach stone carving in one of those caves near the head of one of the Buddhas and disperse the skill set, the same way the dust cloud dispersed the body of the Buddha.”
In many ways, Rakowitz was creating work in a void. “Stone carving hadn’t existed in that valley for more than two hundred years. I worked with twelve students, none trained as artists, a month before dOCUMENTA.” This was May of 2012. He set out to teach them stone carving “the same way I teach it at Northwestern as part of the sculpture class, the same lectures. They were totally up for it.” The curriculum ranged from Michelangelo to Henry Moore, prehistory to the conceptual work of Wolfgang Laib.The students responded to distinct details, like an anecdote about Henry Moore speaking of stone carving on his estate for his sheep. “They were like, ‘We have sheep, we have cows; we’re going to make work for these beings that aren’t humans,” Rakowitz recalls gleefully. “I showed them the way their valley exists as a form of stone carving, all the divots and cavities in the travertine and sandstone landscape that were made by wind.”
Though Rakowitz was able to recycle his Northwestern lectures in transformative ways for his Afghani students, the implements used in class had to be made from scratch. “The stone carving tools were made by the local blacksmith using suspension springs of old Soviet Tanks and American vehicles from the war,” he remembers. “They were just harvesting this metal off of old military vehicles and turning [it] into chisels, which was like a[n art]work in itself.” He delighted in his students’ experimentation. “I had one student who took the example of the wind to heart and spent days just blowing at the rock thinking he was going to make a mark, and I was like, ‘Conceptual art is alive!’ He was convinced it had gotten smaller and thought it was a success and I thought it was a success as a performance.”
During this project, Rakowitz learned the limits of his conceptual training. “There was a Kabul-based sculptor originally from Bamiyan Valley who had been hunted by the Taliban for years because he makes realistic stone carving. He arrived two days into the one-week workshop and all of a sudden he’s going around changing the students’ work, suggesting they carve a face of this martyr or that anti-Taliban leader or a woman in a hijab who’s crying. I stepped back; I’m not trying to enforce anything,” says Rakowitz. “[This sculptor] wanted to make sure I understood what he was doing and he came up to me and he says, ‘I think what they were doing was beautiful. But art should always be radical. And in Afghanistan it’s the real that’s radical. We have plenty of obfuscation and abstraction, we’re forced into a place of abstraction. But it’s pointing things out here that’s radical.’” It was a critical conversation that blew open the idea of abstraction as the only way to be avant-garde. As the sculptor pointed out, in the context of Afghanistan, returning to tradition was so radical you could be killed for it. Rakowitz was moved. “The pedagogy [of the workshop] completely changed,” he says. “By now [that sculptor has] probably opened up an atelier in Bamiyan. The workshop showed him that students wanted this. The governor gave him land to build his atelier and three of the original students have continued. Some are working on the archaeological sites.”
It’s a particularly satisfying ending for Rakowitz. “I’ve never set out to change things. I’m always interested in setting up the possibility that [these projects] can be sustained but I can’t. I can’t move to Afghanistan. I was satisfied with the poetic qualities of doing this thing. But the fact that there has been a denouement was really wonderful.” He talks about the Taliban’s, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the massacres. For some of his students, these stories are extremely close to home. In one particular cave, Rakowitz recalls, “we found out from one of the students, that they took his parents into that cave when he was four and executed them. And I had no idea, but in a way [the students] were reclaiming the space. It was filled with the sounds of hammers and chisels, the guys were flirting with the girls; it was really great. I’ve been to the Middle East many times [now] and I know from my family history what’s really going on, but it was nice to see the joy of production and sense of accomplishment.”
The personal, human side of conflict is visibly at the heart of many of Rakowitz’s projects. One of them, Return (2004), funded by the New York nonprofit Creative Time, has roots in Rakowitz’s familial past but wound up becoming a lodestone for so many others displaced by conflict in the Middle East. Rakowitz set out to resurrect Davisons & Co., an import-export business begun by his grandfather that closed in the 1960s. The initial Davisons & Co. was founded in Baghdad before the family’s exile from Iraq in the late ’40s. When the family immigrated to New York, the business came too.
In Rakowitz’s reopened shop, a sign on the window promised “Free Shipping to Iraq,” an unusual model for any business, and a rare service during a time of war. Members of the Iraqi diaspora and families of military personnel flocked to the store, taking advantage of the funding provided by various arts organizations to send messages and goods to their loved ones. Every day the store was open during its six-week run, Rakowitz was there to speak with customers and learn their stories.
Rakowitz modeled his position after that of storeowner Charlie Sahadi, a man whose Brooklyn Heights-based business played a part in the Rakowitz family’s early orientation into American life. “Charlie Sahadi is the living memory of that neighborhood,” Rakowitz says. “He’s the shopkeep, and a great shopkeep knows the history of the area, and of his clientele.” When Rakowitz’s grandparents arrived in New York in 1946, the first store they went to was the Middle Eastern grocery Sahadi’s, which began in Manhattan in 1898 and moved to Brooklyn in the ’40s. After his grandparents died, Rakowitz’s parents visited the store less frequently, but when he moved to Long Island City after grad school he began going to Sahadi’s again on his mother’s recommendation. In 2004, a can of date syrup labeled “Product of Lebanon” caught his attention. His grandfather had made date syrup for the family until his passing, grinding it by hand with mortar and pestle. Since his death the family had taken to buying the store-bought variety, but the most commonly available date syrups in New York were from Israel and of a different consistency than they were used to. Rakowitz took the can to the counter and Sahadi picked it up, saying, “Your mom’s going to love it—it’s from Baghdad.” The shopkeep explained that after the syrup was made in Baghdad, it was driven in vats over the border to Syria, where it was canned, and then the cans were driven to Lebanon, where they were labeled—all of these steps necessary to circumvent bans. This obfuscation of origin, which Rakowitz refers to as a “veiling” of the product, was fascinating to him. When he reopened the Davisons & Co. storefront in 2006, three years after the initial US invasion of Iraq, he had two goals in mind: to send goods to Iraq and to bring dates marked “Product of Iraq” into America.
For months, there were no dates to sell. Despite a so-called relaxing of UN trade sanctions on the Middle East, no exporter could ship goods without being subjected to security examinations, which raised costs and inevitably led to the ruin of anything perishable. Rakowitz ordered two hundred boxes, equal to a ton of dates, through an Iraqi company called Al Farez. The dates were packed to ship in early October and traveled by truck along the dangerous highway to Jordan, only to wait for four days in line at the border. The truck was missing a certificate, so had to return to Baghdad. During its second trip to the border, it was rejected for security concerns. The truck driver turned north to Damascus, Syria, where he deposited the dates to be shipped to Egypt and then to the US. The shipment was held in Damascus for seven days, at which point the dates had been in transit for three weeks. After those weeks of abortive travel and stagnation under the hot sun, the dates had blistered. Deemed unfit for travel, the entire ton was discarded.
Not to be daunted, Al Farez sent ten boxes of dates directly to New York through DHL. The dates spent three weeks in inspection but made it to Brooklyn in the end. “It’s really bad business but it’s really good art,” says Rakowitz. A ton of dates had spoiled, barely ten boxes had made it to their final destination, but in the process he had become intimately familiar with the travails faced when exporting even the most innocuous item from Iraq to the United States. Every day, would-be customers visited the business to inquire about the dates’ progress; some were intent on tasting the flavors of their pasts, while others were intrigued by the stymied journey, and many were eager to talk. The path of the dates, Rakowitz learned, mimicked that of many of his visitors, who had endured convoluted bureaucracy and hardship on their journeys from Iraq to America. “The dates told a story I wasn’t completely in control of,” Rakowitz told me, “and this made for a better project.”
Rakowitz‘s work is always open to moments of intersection and global connection, to unpredictable moments. In his 2011 work, Spoils, those openness was front and center. The New York City restaurant experience he designed—he calls it “a culinary intervention”—was issued a cease-and-desist letter by the US State Department.
His project Spoils was commissioned by Creative Time and the owners of Park Avenue, a restaurant in New York’s Upper East Side that changes décor, menu, and name every season. In line with the restaurant’s seasonality and transparent sourcing, Rakowitz decided to create a dish that highlighted Iraqi dates. “I wanted to foreground the fact that the restaurant was high-end and, like most high-end restaurants, it’s a trend to let you know where your arugula comes from and [where] your meat [was] harvested; it’s a way of making your diner feel good,” Rakowitz says. “I wanted to make the diner feel bad.”
For Park Avenue Autumn, Rakowitz suggested debes wa’rashi, a dessert made with date syrup and tahini that’s paired with bread and fruit. Chef Kevin Lasko was enthusiastic about the idea and envisioned American venison on a bed of debes wa’rashi. “I said, ‘Great,’” remembers Rakowitz, “‘and by the way I have twenty pieces of Saddam Hussein’s personal flatware and the dish has to be plated on those.’ There was dead silence. And finally the PR person says, ‘I think we’re going to get a lot of publicity for this project.’”
The plates included Limoges from France and Wedgewood gifted by the Queen of England herself, fine china that could have just as easily appeared in the cabinets of Park Avenue’s diners, all of it purchased from antiques stores on EBay. Over the three months of the project, Park Avenue Autumn received complaints from people who said they’d never eat at the restaurant because of the dish, Rakowitz says, but it was also so popular that there were frequently more customers who wanted to order it than there were available plates.
On December 12, two days before the series was to end, the restaurant contacted Rakowitz; the State Department had sent a cease-and-desist letter and intended to seize the plates. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had been in Washington, DC, meeting with President Obama to discuss ending the war. While there, Maliki had heard about Spoils and requested that the plates be repatriated as the rightful property of the Iraqi people. When he flew back to Baghdad, he wanted the flatware to be on the plane with him. Rakowitz happened to be in New York visiting family; since the project was near completion, he agreed—under the condition that he be able film the US marshals taking the pieces. Rakowitz himself had never been able to bring himself to eat off them.
In the video, a marshal wearing a short black jacket over a nondescript white button-down shirt checks the bottom of each plate for Hussein’s official seal. The mood is convivial as Rakowitz witnesses the officials’ progress. He and the camera crew from Creative Time follow the marshals to the Iraqi embassy. Standing in the lobby, Rakowitz makes a crack about this being the first time a member of his family has been back on Iraqi soil since they emigrated. He learns that the Iraqi government plans to turn Saddam’s palaces into a museum, so people can see how he lived. The plates will be part of this museum and will likely be accompanied by a placard describing Rakowitz’s dinner. “Inshallah,” says Rakowitz in the video. “Good times ahead.”
Two days later, on December 15, the New York Times featured a captioned photograph on its front page of Obama thanking troops as he announced the end of the war; at the bottom of the page is a picture of Rakowitz’s Park Avenue dish with the title “Spoils of War Served as Art.” Spoils also made an appearance as part of The Rachel Maddow Show’s Iraq War coverage that week. Maddow described Spoils and the return of the plates to the Iraqi people, concluding: “The Iraq War is over, Iraq is a sovereign nation, and one of the very small things that means is that they get their stuff back too.”
Over the course of our day together Rakowitz will say several times, “One of the things I detest the most is when people tell me what art can and cannot be.” To him, such definitions exclude too many things. His career aligns with a rising interest in art as “social practice,” a term he finds disturbing. Social practice is used to categorize work in which social interaction is a component. This sort of work is not new, but its professionalization is. Today, one can get a degree in social practice and can be a curator of the field. This rankles Rakowitz as a practitioner of work that has, as he puts it, friction. “When art is professionalized,” he says, “a certain kind of permission is given, and when permission is given it ceases to be radical.”
Rakowitz’s first food memory dates back to 1976. His family was living in Albany, where his father was earning a medical degree. Rakowitz was a child then, and he remembers wanting to recreate an image he’d seen in a picture book based on Lady and the Tramp, the romantic scene in which the dogs slurp spaghetti and their lips accidentally meet. “My mom had given me steak, and she was cutting it up and feeding it to me [with her mouth], and we’re eating the same piece of steak and she bit my lip and I remember how much it hurt and how much I was crying and how much she was crying.”
Other memories relating to food and his mother emerge. He recalls being seventeen and watching news of the first Gulf War, seeing war-torn snapshots of the place his grandparents had recalled so fondly. “I’m sitting there terrified because the country my grandparents fled to is about to bomb the place they fled from. I’d grown up hearing all of these charming stories, rose-colored stories about life in Iraq from my grandmother that sounded almost like fairy tales, exaggerated through the eyes of exile, and all of a sudden the news presented these green night-vision images of indiscriminate pieces of architecture blowing up.”
The scenes of destruction prompted a surprising response from his mom. “You know, there’re no Iraqi restaurants in New York,” she told him. Her statement set the aspiring artist down a path. “She’s an amazing cook and had this ongoing dream to open up our house as a restaurant, but she was showing me how invisible our culture was,” he says. “You could go to a museum to see a Near Eastern artifact, you could go to a gas station and get oil from the Middle East, but other than that it was Saddam Hussein in the newspapers and [that’s it] from the cradle of civilization.”
Rakowitz entered college at SUNY Purchase with these thoughts fresh on his mind, and set out to expose his classmates to the culture he came from. At first, he made Arabic coffee and rice dishes for friends in his dorm. He says, “My understanding of traditional Iraqi cooking methods was just emerging, but I didn’t think about it as artwork, I thought about it as life.” It was Allan Wexler, a visiting artist at Purchase one year, who opened up the possibilities of art for Rakowitz. Wexler had recently done several projects related to coffee; one work, Coffee Seeks Its Own Level (1991), involved four people attempting to drink coffee from cups that were connected by tubes, so that if the cups were lifted unevenly, the ones at a lower elevation overflowed. This multilayered statement on dependency inspired Rakowitz to think of food implements as a performative aspect of art. Rakowitz recalls one undergraduate piece he did in which he poured water onto his jeans and then attempted to drink the water out. “Allan video-documented all of this and pointed out how all of these things were wonderful and completely nuts,” he says.
In his graduate work at MIT, Rakowitz began to experiment with work that existed in unexpected settings. He created little modernist sculptures from matches inside of the matchbooks they came from and then reinserted the matchbooks into the stacks at smoke shops and restaurants. “I used to stand back and watch people go light up and all of a sudden they have these pop-up [sculptures],” he says. “I wanted to have that same sort of seamless relationship with the world, where people wouldn’t come prepared to see my work, but they’d actually experience it and not know what had happened, not know it was art, even.” The idea of engaging with or responding to a site or issue became a driving force. He says of that time, “The pressure was on to think beyond just being clever, to ask yourself, ‘What do you have to say?’”
In 2001 Rakowitz was invited by two curators from the Whitney Museum of American Art to participate in a somewhat unsavory project. There was an eleven-story building at 129 Lafayette Street in Chinatown that had come under the ownership of real-estate developer TriBeach Holdings, LLC. The new owners had raised the rent, effectively ridding themselves of their Chinese tenants. Now the owners were hoping to attract art galleries and had hired the curators to organize an exhibition to draw clients, an easy equating of art and gentrification. The Whitney curators tapped Rakowitz as a Trojan horse, a young artist on the rise who might be interested in creating work that critiqued the developers rather than simply enabling them.
He visited the ninth floor of the site, where his installation would live. There was a familiar smell in the building that he couldn’t pinpoint, one rich and heavy, sweet but with overtones of meat. He stepped out to explore the neighborhood and in the adjacent building came across a bakery called Fei Dar, whose ovens were the source of the odor. Ultimately, Rakowitz built a 125-foot length of flexible ductwork called Rise (2001) that funneled the smell of Chinese pastries from the oven vents of Fei Dar into the gallery for the duration of the exhibition, bringing the presence of the Chinese community back to the building. “It was an invisible work [in the gallery but] you could see it from the outside. It was ridiculous, this 125-foot piece of flexible ductwork. It was one of those works that was subversive enough that the company didn’t know they were being fucked and the bakery was so psyched they donated all of these pastries for the opening,” he recalls with a laugh. Then Rakowitz pauses, the smile fading from his face. “It doesn’t have the happiest ending because nobody took the bait and now it’s just luxury lofts.”
The bittersweet memory of Rise is coupled also with its timing; the project ended in August 2001, a month before the attacks on the World Trade Center. Rakowitz was living in Long Island City at the time. He ventured into Manhattan a few days afterward and recalls walking by St. Marks Place and seeing a line around the corner, all the way to Cooper Union, and initially thinking it was for a blood drive. He then realized that the people were waiting to get into an Afghani restaurant called Khyber Pass. He was struck by this show of support. “The war drums began to beat and it seemed inevitable that the US was going to invade Afghanistan. It was an Afghani family that owned this restaurant and it was the only thing [people] could think to do. And I thought it was so beautiful.”
In the years after 9/11, Rakowitz did a lot of work that was not about Iraq or food, but, as time went on, he began to realize that “every American had a relationship to Iraq whether they liked it or not.” He admits he never set out to do work that directly addressed the war, but began to feel that not addressing the issue was in a way excusing it.
“Enemy Kitchen was my first real foray into using food in art,” Rakowitz says. “[In 1991 during the Gulf War] I wasn’t old enough to think about how I could stand up to that dehumanization of Iraq and Iraqi culture, but as an established artist in 2003, I went back to my mother and said, ‘Remember what you said about there being no Iraqi restaurants? What about us using your recipes and opening up an opposition to the war or an alternative?’” He began teaching after-school Iraqi cooking classes for high-school students at the Hudson Guild Community Center, near the projects in Chelsea. Many students had family stationed in Iraq. “It turned out that the principals had mandated that teachers veer away from discussions of the war in class because it was too incendiary an issue, and I thought that was really damaging, shutting down that discussion. Here were these young people growing up in this war culture and no one ever asked them what they thought of the war.”
Rakowitz began teaching the classes in 2003; by 2006, he had received sponsorship by New York nonprofit More Art to put on several of these after-school cooking classes a week. He remembers teaching some students to make kubbah, an Iraqi dish whose most common variation is that of a meatball coated with a bulgur coating and fried. A young girl walked into the classroom and immediately began bashing the food, saying, “I don’t understand why we have to make this nasty food—they blow up our soldiers every day and they knocked over the Twin Towers.” Other students starting chiming in, saying it wasn’t Iraq that bombed the Twin Towers but bin Laden, while others said, no it was our own government. It was a panoramic snapshot of American sentiment related to the war, one that captured the tensions, distrust, and misinformation. As interest in the project grew, Rakowitz was asked to do Enemy Kitchen in art schools but found the experience disappointing; the spontaneity and honesty of the Chelsea school children wasn’t easily replicated. “[In the art schools] no one was saying anything that wasn’t polite,” he says; “[the project] needed to evolve.”
When he moved to Chicago in 2006, he began exploring the possibility of doing an Enemy Kitchen food truck. He became interested in serving masgouf, the national dish of Iraq. Masgouf is made with carp, traditionally fished out of the Tigris or Euphrates River. The fish is split and impaled on two upright skewers to roast near, but not on, an apricot wood fire, where it smokes for around three hours. It’s served with pickled mangoes, called amba, and a simple sauce made with tomatoes, curry, cumin, dried lemons, onions, and parsley, and eaten with flatbread. Unlike in New York, there are lots of Iraqi-run restaurants in Chicago, which is home to one of the largest Iraqi communities in the United States; however, they call themselves Mediterranean restaurants. According to Rakowitz, the giveaway is if masgouf is on the menu. Rakowitz had never actually tasted the dish before moving to the Windy City. “My mom never made masgouf,” he says. “She hated it because my grandmother used to make it with too much sauce so it was boiled as opposed to grilled.” The best version of masgouf he found in Chicago was at Milo’s Palace, and he convinced the chefs to join him in his project.
Rakowitz acquired a 1976 ice cream truck, painted it dark green, covered it with signage in English and Arabic, and picked up a Chicago flag rendered in Iraqi colors. The food was served on paper-plate replicas of the china used in Spoils. The chefs were Iraqi refugees; the sous-chefs and servers were US military veterans of the Iraq War. They parked the truck outside of military academies; they took it into residential neighborhoods and parks. Obama campaign workers would come out en masse to buy food. But in addition to the shows of support, there were acts of violence. People cursed them, threw things at them, smashed the windshield, and vandalized the truck.
There were also moments of serendipity. An Iraqi woman working alongside a veteran realized he had been stationed in her neighborhood in Baghdad. She related an incident in which an armored vehicle, one of the many patrolling her neighborhood, had stopped in the middle of traffic and started playing strange music. A soldier had climbed out of the vehicle into the street and begun to dance, and several Iraqis had gotten out of their cars and started laughing and dancing with him. “That was me,” said the veteran.
Masgouf can no longer be prepared with native carp in Iraq. The large number of human corpses in Iraq’s waterways has made local carp unfit for human consumption. And in Rakowitz’s adopted home of Chicago, carp is an “invasive species.” The Obama administration has invested 260 million dollars in protecting the Great Lakes from the growing infestation. This led Rakowitz to another rendition of the masgouf meal, Every Weapon is a Tool if You Hold It Right (2014), in which he, in collaboration with Iraqi émigrés and US veterans, fished carp from Chicago’s waterways and prepared the traditional meal. The stakes used to skewer the fish were made from Iraqi and American bayonets. The gutting knife Rakowitz used was forged by Saddam Hussein’s personal sword maker.
Rakowitz has been asked to replicate Enemy Kitchen several times, and each time he finds a way of reworking to suit the situation. He was invited to do it in Dubai, but found nothing challenging in the idea of teaching Arabs how to make Iraqi food. So he asked if he could open an Iraqi-Jewish restaurant instead. It was called Dar al Sulh (2013), an Arabic phrase that translates as “domain of conciliation” and is used to refer to non-Muslim governments or territories that have agreed to peace with Muslims. It’s the relationship that Arab Jews like Rakowitz’s grandparents shared with the Muslim majority. The restaurant existed in Dubai for a week. Every night they served t’beet, a Shabbat dish that cooks slowly over eighteen hours. In this version they removed skin from a whole chicken, and stuffed it with rice, cardamom, Baharat seasoning, minced rose petals, and lamb. The stuffed skin was placed next to the skinned chicken in a pot filled with tomatoes and topped with eggs. As the meal cooked, the rice expanded in the skin, puffing it out so that it mimicked the shape of the adjacent chicken. The dish was served on trays from the Great Synagogue of Baghdad, also purchased on eBay. Every night the scholar Ella Shohat would give a traditional Iraqi-Jewish greeting and then Rakowitz would make a toast. The artist had wanted to include a text on the storefront advertising “Iraqi Jewish Cuisine,” but municipality codes ban the word “Jewish” in signage. Instead they went with “Cuisine of an Absent Tribe,” a phrase which thrills Rakowitz. “The sad thing is,” he says, “that when people hear the term ‘Arab-Jew’ they think they’re hearing a contradiction.”
Over the years, Rakowitz has heard many narratives about the exile of Jews from Iraq in the ’40s and ’50s. The plates used in Dar al Sulh were looted by Jews fleeing their home country and who took with them items of value to buy their survival. Learning of these stories led him to create The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist series. Though the mockup for his Fourth Plinth sculpture has already been approved, one imagines that its installation in 2018 will prompt some or other chain of events that will end up as essential to the piece as the materials it’s made of. Some lingering conversation, some chance encounter, that will become part of the work and send Rakowitz on to the next.
The day has grown long and I’m nearly out of time. We’re forced to make a crucial decision: lunch or visit the studio? The talk of food has my stomach growling; lunch it is. Rakowitz suggests a Taiwanese restaurant, a nod to my mother’s heritage. Our last hour is spent eating crispy duck stuffed with taro sliced long-ways, so that the meat appears to curl around pockets of moist taro, and blanched Chinese broccoli seasoned with oyster sauce.
We step out into the snow-covered streets to get cabs. Rakowitz takes out his wallet, which he says his daughter picked out for him. It features Totoro, the friendly rabbit-like star of a film by Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. I point to the rear dash of a car parked nearby, where a stuffed Totoro peers out at us. When he notices it, he smiles.