London – Rakowitz’s Lamassu on Trafalgar


Making up for the past – the artists filling in the blanks in our collective memory

20 JULY 2019

In the first week of June, Britain and France played host to a vast spectacle on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The commemoration events, tracing the timetable of the Normandy landings as they unfolded three quarters of a century earlier, marshalled a range of techniques, ancient and modern, to mark the occasion: church services, parades, fly-pasts, parachute jumps, gun salutes, fireworks, singing, dancing and speeches transmitted on live video streams and relayed by the world’s media… ….

….. When official narratives fall short, artists working with the techniques of reconstruction can add to our understanding of violence, trauma and power. The Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz (b. 1973), a survey of whose work is currently at the Whitechapel Gallery in London (until 25 August), has long pursued an interest in creating counter-monuments, to people and stories that have faced various attempts at erasure. Since March 2018, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, Rakowitz’s replica of an Assyrian lamassu statue, destroyed by ISIS at the Mosul museum in 2015, has stood on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Lamassus, protective winged deities with the body of a bull or lion and the head of a man, were placed at the gates of ancient Assyrian cities and palaces as a symbol of power more than three millennia ago. For archaeologists in the colonial era, this was heritage worth digging up and carting off to Europe – the British Museum, for instance, has the pair of winged bulls uncovered at Nimrud. These deities have been used to assert authority in modern times, too. The current US Iraq Command put lamassuimages on their badges and logos (as did the British Tenth Army in Iraq in 1942–43), while Saddam Hussein made elaborate reconstructions of Iraq’s ancient heritage a part of his nation-building project. In its acts of destruction, ISIS was making a break with the past in service of a religiously pure future, but it was also placing itself alongside others throughout history who had the power, or so they hoped, to define meaning.

The invisible enemy should not exist (Northwest palace of Nimrud, Room N) (2018), Michael Rakowitz. Photo: Robert Chase Heishman; courtesy the artist; © Michael Rakowitz

The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (Northwest palace of Nimrud, Room N) (2018), Michael Rakowitz. Photo: Robert Chase Heishman; courtesy the artist; © Michael Rakowitz