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LONDON — The latest installation of contemporary public art on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth is the most urgent-feeling, moving, and overtly political plinth commission to date. Unveiled on March 28, Michael Rakowitz’s “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist” (2018) is a recreation of one of the stone statues — called a lamassu — resembling a winged bull with human features, which guarded the gates of the ancient city of Nineveh. In 2015, ISIS militants filmed themselves drilling into the face of the 700 BCE sculpture during an extensive spree of destruction that also included burning books, looting the Mosul Museum and other institutions, and targeting Iraq’s most precious and ancient cultural artifacts. Here, the Iraqi-American Rakowitz presents its ghost in the form of a replica constructed from more than 10,000 empty Iraqi date syrup cans, their bright colors glittering through London’s glum weather — a sharp contrast with the pale stone of the lost original.
Designed by Sir Charles Barry in 1841 to support an equestrian statue matching the adjacent three others in the fountained square in front of the National Gallery, the fourth plinth remained empty after funding for a sculptural portrait of King William IV (1765–1837) fell through. In 1998, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce occupied it with temporary pieces, and responsibility for its programming was subsequently transferred from Westminster City Council to the Mayor of London’s office in 2005. Since then, the program has stepped up a notch in ambition. Recent standouts have been Antony Gormley’s “One & Other” (2009), in which members of the public took turns to do what they liked on it for an hour, or Yinka Shonibare’s “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” (2010–12), which linked African colonial history with the nearby Nelson’s column. Most recently, we saw David Shrigley’s “Really Good” (2016–18), a disembodied bronze “thumbs up” with an abnormally extending appendage, mimicking the nearby bronze statues and belying the feather-light significance it held — a rainy-gray British sense of smirk that was funny for less than the time it took to explain it.
“The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist” is one part of a long-term project of the same name, in which Rakowitz is attempting to reconstruct all of the roughly 7,000 objects known to have been looted from the National Museum of Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003. Many of these were on display through early March at the Museum of Contemporary Art in his hometown of Chicago, and are similarly made from everyday packaging material and debris. Among them is a replica of the Ishtar Gate in Babylon, now itself a replica commissioned by Saddam Hussein to replace the lost original. The modesty of materials from which these replicas are constructed communicates a kind of futile but urgent desire to claw back the shared cultural history of humanity at the same accelerating rate by which it is being lost. The very fabric of history is being erased before our eyes and Rakowitz chooses not to mourn it, but to provoke alternative reactions in the viewer — anything but grim acceptance.
The fourth plinth lamassu references another dimension of Iraqi culture and humanity through its date can cladding. As well as the decimation of historic sites begun by the US-led bombardment, invasion, and occupation, and continued now by ISIS, the project points to the crippling of Iraq’s date industry (the country’s second-biggest export after oil). Millions of Iraq’s date palms have turned to scorched earth. Rakowitz has also used dates to represent the plight of refugees in his project Return, shipping dates directly from Iraq to the US, the consignment of which, held up by US bureaucratic red tape, became spoiled in transit and lost — a poignant summary of the fateful journeys many of those fleeing war-torn countries make.
Beyond its potent and topical political agenda, Rakowitz’s sculpture is more lively and engaging an object than a previous, sombre attempt to highlight the destruction of artifacts: in 2016, a 3D-printed replica of the ISIS-destroyed Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, Syria, was temporarily on show in Trafalgar Square. The average viewer of Rakowitz’s sculpture will benefit from some background reading on the artist; his using plates once owned by Saddam Hussein to serve a traditional Iraqi dish in Manhattan for his 2001 work “Spoils” is a particularly tart demonstration of his charged political humor.
Compared to 2016’s sleek, 3D-printed replica of the Palmyra arch, “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist” has the stamp of the artist’s individual take on the crisis of images and makes for a more though-provoking and powerful piece of public art. For an artist whose family escaped Iraq only to witness their new country invade their old, Rakowitz’s mission is a poignant one. The choice for him to fill the plinth that looks down Whitehall to the site where Britain’s decision to invade Iraq was broiled up seems somehow natural in the current political climate.
“The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist” by Michael Rakowitz is on display on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth (Central London, UK) until March 2020.