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CLINTON, NY — One of the challenges of talking coherently about Michael Rakowitz’s exhibition at the Wellin Museum is coming to an understanding of what the work is: Is it a memorial to lost cultural heritage, an act of historical recovery, a collective bereavement, or a model for survival? Perhaps this essay is my attempt at answering this question.
Another challenge is wanting to see the work made whole. Here, I’m thinking of a legal definition of this term. To paraphrase the Law.com website: To be made whole is to have the party who has been damaged be awarded, or paid enough, to return to the position they would’ve been in without the other’s destructive acts. My difficulty is that this doesn’t happen here. But I want it to. What Rakowitz has installed at the Wellin is only a partial reconstruction of what is known as “Room H” located in the Northwest Palace of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud (now Kalhu).
The sprawling palace was originally constructed by the ruler Ashurnasirpal II between 879 and 860 BCE and once featured 600 seven-foot-tall reliefs carved in stone depicting the king, members of his retinue, winged male figures (that may be some form of divinity), and an inscription detailing the Ashurnasirpal’s many achievements. But in the intervening millennia, in a process of slow, insidious attrition begun with the British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard in 1845, eventually 400 of the palace’s original 600 relief panels were stolen away. Many of them ended up in institutions in the West. One of them might be close to you. They are to be found at the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge; the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College; the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg; the Bristol Museum; the Minneapolis Institute of Art; and the Brooklyn Museum (which holds three panels), and elsewhere. Rakowitz acknowledges all of this, showing empty wall space where the reliefs should be, with explanatory captions above the aporia. “Room H” is like seeing a once-legendary champion at a press conference where he smiles an earnest, open grin that shows most of his teeth missing.
In crucial ways this is the opposite of the US American ideal: There is no hiding or pretense, no fake-it-til-you-make-it ethos. The exhibition takes on its immanent emptiness, its lack, and acknowledges that the Iraqi culture that birthed these irreplaceable objects will never be whole but has made, and will continue to have to make, a life out of the fragments of their heritage. Understanding this, Rakowitz doesn’t even call the work reconstructions, but rather “reappearances.”
But next to the gaps are startlingly beautiful resuscitations of the reliefs in glorious reams of color that come from the wrappings of food items that originate in Iraq. The artist and his team of studio workers (he’s very careful to define this as a collaborative project) have created the faux reliefs with papier-mâché and cardboard that use the food packaging to form astonishingly vivid mosaics that give fine detail to clothing, jewelry, beards and hair, and skin tone. Crucially, these are all comprised of everyday materials that almost anyone could procure — affirming that this act of historical recovery may be made by not only art school elite or well-researched historians, but anyone who sees themselves in these reliefs and dedicates themselves to the task. In working on this project for 14 years, Rakowitz and his studio workers have resuscitated 900 missing or stolen pieces.
The history of this loss is rooted in power, and power is most profoundly expressed in taking what is not yours. What is known as the “standard inscription” that Ashurnasirpal II incised as captions for the reliefs is replicated here. From the translation I learn that he erected his kingdom on the blood and bones of those he conquered. After Ashurnasirpal II died, subsequent Assyrian kings appropriated the existing architecture to erect peans to their own political authority. Then, in the 19th and 20th centuries, as the West developed the dominant military and colonialist powers in the world, these nations simultaneously concocted a self-absolving paternalism through which they convinced themselves and others that they could be better caretakers of heritage that was not theirs. Power serves power.
Rakowitz uses a historical timeline and wall text to point out that the theft of Iraqi heritage took a dramatic turn in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq and voided the nation of its normative controls. Rampant looting took place. The Iraqi Museum lost 15,000 items and only about 7,000 have since been recovered. Then, a more shockingly brutal loss of the reliefs in the Nimrud Palace took place in the fall of 2015 when ISIL, the Islamic State movement, blew up and sledgehammered the remaining Nimrud reliefs (and filmed this destruction) to assert their own power and generate rare patrimony for sale on the black market. Rakowitz understands that this means, as he says in the video that accompanies the show, “Iraqis had to look at their culture in fragments.”
After having recently experienced a profound loss with the death of my mother, I have found that mourning can be a passive action, the curling of the body into itself to narrow the scope of grief. Grief can also be an opening outward, a conscious taking up the responsibility to rebuild, not replace, but remember and revitalize. This is recipe for living and thriving despite centuries of plunder. I’m reminded of a recent tweet claiming that disco balls are hundreds of shards of broken glass assembled to make an orb of magical light. This is the work of making a life by those who feel they are broken by their circumstances: the collaboration with others, the collecting of what can be salvaged, and the patient assemblage of the shards of our past to make a thing that turns our mourning into song.
Michael Rakowitz: Nimrud continues through June 18 at the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College (198 College Hill Road, Clinton, NY). The exhibition was curated by Katherine Alcauskas.