Unveiled in March 2018 by the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz’s Fourth Plinth commission The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist is the twelfth in an ongoing series that includes works by Antony Gormley, Bill Woodrow, David Shrigley, Katharina Fritsch, Hans Haacke, Yinka Shonibare, and Marc Quinn, among others. Rakowitz has re-created a lamassu, an ancient winged bull with a human face that once stood at Nineveh in northern Iraq and was destroyed by ISIS in 2015.
The footprint of the Trafalgar Square plinth is the same size as was the original base in Iraq. Reconstructed in a 1:1 scale out of 10,500 Iraqi date-syrup cans, the lamassu is a cultural memory brought back to life. Rakowitz used date-syrup cans because “the date was to Iraq what the cigar was to Cuba and wine was to France.”1 The date-syrup industry, once thriving, suffered greatly as a result of the Iraq war and has not recovered since. The inscription in cuneiform, an ancient writing system, at the base of the Trafalgar Square sculpture translates as “Sennacherib, King of the World, King of Assyria, had the inner and outer wall of Nineveh built anew and raised as high as mountains.”2
The lamassu (c. 700 BCE) that is the subject of Rakowitz’s re-creation had guarded the Nergal Gate at the entrance to the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, near modern-day Mosul, since ancient times. In April 2003, when the National Museum of Iraq was looted, Rakowitz’s spirit was awakened and he was made all the more aware of the outrage and destruction that accompanies war. As he has said, “We live in a war culture… cultural erasure or loss is a human problem, not just an Iraqi problem.”3
Coming into contact with the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way at the Pergamon in Berlin was a turning point in Rakowitz’s perception of what contemporary art could potentially communicate. Also a reconstruction, it was made of materials excavated by the German architect and archaeologist Robert Koldewey in Iraq and completed in the Berlin in the 1930s. Archaeology, as a kind of preservation of ancient culture, also became a way of displacing cultural wealth in a state-sanctioned version of theft. Rakowitz has commented, “As the artefacts disappeared, I was waiting for the loss to translate into outrage and grief for lost lives, but it didn’t happen. So I had the idea of these lost artefacts coming back as ghosts to haunt us.”4 In this sense, Rakowitz’s art is an affront to the ethical vacuum in the collecting of ancient artefacts by museum and individuals. These artefacts ultimately reflect real cultures that existed in a place and time and are a treasured part of world history.
The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist is a continuation of Rakowitz’s project begun in 2006 that involves the reconstruction of some seven thousand artefacts stolen from the National Museum of Iraq during the war in that country.
The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist is a continuation of Rakowitz’s project begun in 2006 that involves the reconstruction of some seven thousand artefacts stolen from the National Museum of Iraq during the war in that country. Although these artefacts might have been destroyed elsewhere, Michael Rakowitz’s The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist used the Lost Treasures of Iraq database assembled by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago after the invasion in 2003 as a source. His initiative is remarkable for the resilience of his push against the evils of war, as well as his critique of major collections such as those of the Pergamon in Berlin, the British Museum in London, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in the United States. Such institutions house a plethora of displaced artefacts, many acquired during colonial times, but also recently as a result of wars, theft, and organized crime (as evidenced by the numerous lawsuits brought by individuals and governments against dealers, collectors, and museums).
Rakowitz has had solo exhibitions at the PS1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City (2000–01), the SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art, Montreal (Recent Projects on Baghdad and Montreal, 2009) and the Tate Modern, London (2010). In one early project, paraSITE, Rakowitz produced inflatable custom shelters for the homeless. The shelters were made of plastic bags and waterproof tape and had a unit cost of $5.00; external building vents were used as a heat source.
Symbolically and metaphorically, and in a totally different cultural location, the lamassu again guards the ancient city of Nineveh as it once did, an intercultural gesture of tolerance, openness, and cultural persistence.
(1) Claire Armitstead, “Fourth plinth: how a winged bull made of date syrup cans is defying Isis”, The Guardian, March 26, 2018.
(2) “What’s on the Fourth Plinth now”, Mayor of London – London Assembly, website.
(3) “Conversation with Michael Rakowitz and High Elkin”, SBC, Montreal, 2009. (4) Ibid.