Summer of Utopia: Michael Rakowitz

On Day 5 of our latest week-long series, Summer of Utopia, we dive into the work of Michael Rakowitz, whose work has consistently interacted with the leveling of inequality or the recasting of a troubled history. As we take this week to consider how the art world uses or abuses the idea of utopia, one might be able to see how small steps to understanding our current social climate takes us just a little closer to an ideal world.

Joe Heywood's paraSITE shelter, 2000. Courtesy of Lombard-Freid Projects.

Despite our culture’s claim to equality, one cannot deny the social injustices that surround us. I doubt that anyone could see our society as utopian in any way, but somehow equalizing injustice and correcting histories seems to be one step closer to a perfect world. I will admit, I always find it interesting when artists directly interact with their own culture, and the history of Michael Rakowitz’s work does just that. For years, Rakowitz worked with the homeless to design structures that would use the wasted heat from ventilation systems to keep them warm. As his project paraSITE grew, each structure became more and more customized to the individual’s needs and desires. Each structure allowed for what the individual wanted – mobility, freedom and outdoor living – by using the discarded materials from the surrounding environment.

Davisons & Co. as a storefront on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, 2006. Courtesy of Michael Rakowitz.

In 2004, Rakowitz began his project Return, where he reopened his grandfather’s import and export store, Davidson & Co. Following his grandfather’s history of moving to New York in exile from Iraq as many Iraqi Jews have experienced, Rakowitz’s storefront allowed for people in the US to send items to their loved ones in Iraq – a simple gesture of facilitating connection across a great cultural divide. As the project developed, Rakowitz tested importing Iraqi goods to the US, despite the failing wartime infrastructure. Through a long and tedious exercise in patience and diplomacy, Rakowitz finally began selling Iraqi dates to his customers, connecting the displaced Iraqi citizens in New York with their memory and nostalgia for their home.

May the Arrogant not Prevail, 2010. Courtesy of Lombard-Freid Projects.

Rakowitz’s most recent project, May the Arrogant not Prevail, at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, recreates the Ishtar Gate which has become a tourist attraction for American soldiers in Iraq. The original Ishtar Gate was taken to Berlin in 1930 and now lives in the Pergamon Museum, leaving only a replica standing in Iraq today. Built out of Middle Eastern newspaper and packaging, Rakowitz’s replica rewrites the history of the gate with the detailed inclusion of the cultures’ sorted histories. Revisiting a structure with centuries of historical strife, May the Arrogant not Prevail seems to bring to mind the evidence of Iraq’s war-stricken past reminding us all that history is made by those who are in power. And, this new work just goes to show that our world will never reach utopia without paying attention to how we treat each other now.

Michael Rakowitz received a Masters in Visual Studies from MIT in 1998 and teaches at Northwestern University, and his recent projects have included a solo show at Tate Modern and Lombard-Freid Projects in New York.