CHICAGO — Iraqi-American conceptual artist Michael Rakowitz works in a liminal space between fantasy and reality, much like an artist who makes fan art. This is a compliment and a reality, for it’s impossible to think about the artist without thinking about fandom; what contemporary artist is not inspired greatly by another artist, writer, band, historical time period, or even specific materials? In this sense, every great artist is a super fan — but not everyone will admit to it. Michael Rakowitz is one of those exceptions.
In his solo exhibition The Breakup at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Rakowitz takes on two very loaded international cultural subjects: The Beatles and West Asian political relations. Both are confounding, epic, and spark conversations, debates and disagreements in the present-day. Attempting to follow or dissect either in a logical manner is like trying to find invisible needles in haystacks behind closed doors. This is part of Rakowitz’s artmaking process: “As an artistic gesture I try to make an unlikely thing happen, and the impossible becomes possible,” he (apparently) writes on his Wikipedia page. “It’s art because it’s impossible for this to exist in the world.”
The Breakup is massive, taking over the sprawling gallery like a Beatles version of a sports memorabilia store, a glass-box-filled museum of important historical artifacts, and a secret movie theater. Rakowitz arranges memorabilia, a row of records from the remake of the Beatles’ last concert that he staged at the Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art in 2010, and a 45-minute video on the second floor that takes viewers through disjointed connections that the artist draws between the breakdown of West Asian political relations and the breakup of The Beatles.
Mixing archival memorabilia with textual observations, Rakowitz displays these together to make considerations both meandering and pointed. In “The Collapse” (2014), we see a newspaper cut-out from the publication The Daily Mirror announcing the death of Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein in 1967. Many attribute this to the beginning of the band’s breakup. But then again, Brian’s death is speculated as both a suicide and an “accidental drug overdose”; during this exhibition’s opening I overheard a friend say to Rakowitz something about Epstein being in love with John Lennon. What is the truth here? With permanent marker in hand, Rakowitz speculates and scribbles it down on the glass, normally a surface left for the viewer’s own contemplative gaze:
“Is the moment of the dissolution here? When The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein died, an empire fell and each of the four members drew borders around himself. Gone were the ambiguous boundaries, the singular body. The band was Balkanized.”
That’s one portion of this single work, which is much like the other archival ruminations. Above the newspaper clip, we see a Luxe brand tobacco box. Rakowitz’s text above and to the right speculates on an event that connects numerically to the day that Epistein died; he writes:
“Epstein’s death on August 27, 1967 was exactly 46 years to the day the British crowned Amir Faisal as king of Iraq. Faisal’s father, Sharif Hussein bin Ali, had initiated the Arab Revolt in 1916 with the aim of gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire and creating a single unified Arab state.”
Epstein was credited with transforming four individuals — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Star — into a singular entity that was known as The Beatles. Epstein unified these individualistic artistic men, and when he died that unity collapsed. Could the same be said about the attempts at a single unified Arab state, which suffered with the Arab armies’ defeat by Israel in the Six-Day War between June 5–10, 1967. Epstein died on August 27, 1967 in London, just a few months after the Six-Day War. What does that have to do with the Middle East? Were these all just events that occurred during the same time period? Questions, connections, and tangents like these spring up through Rakowitz’s exhibition, and it’s up to the viewer to piece them together based on the evidence provided by the artist and their own research capabilities — if they care to do so.
The Breakup is similar to Rakowitz’s seemingly impossible exhibition Spoils (2011), in which Creative Time purchased plates that were believed to have been looted from Sadaam Hussein’s palace for the artist off eBay. The artist used those plates to serve dinner to art patrons at Park Avenue Autumn; shortly thereafter, they were confiscated by the Iraqi mission. The art-induced creative transference of these now-empty power signifiers occurred on the internet; the physical manifestation occurred on American soil and was performed in the space of an art gallery. All who chose to participate did so to exist in this liminal space created by Rakowitz for contemplating US-Middle Eastern relations. Like The Breakup, “Spoils” created an immersive experience and alternative, fantastical reality.
Unlike a maze that offers an end point, The Breakup works because it makes no sense, taking viewers on a meandering trip that only produces more questions, and leaving them with dinner table conversations to be held over household plates. The only piece in the exhibition that offers some sort of conclusive look is the remixed cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which collages together major players from the worlds of The Beatles and West Asia and North Africa. Finally here — with George Harrison next to Muammar Gaddafi — does Rakowitz ensure that everyone comes together, right now, to listen, talk, remember and wonder, but never to know.
Michael Rakowitz’s The Breakup continues through February 22 at Rhona Hoffman Gallery (118 N Peoria #1A, Chicago).