To the Whitechapel (tired and a bit wrecked because I have just finished a book) to see the new Michael Rakowitz show. Of all the artists who have been inspired by museums Michael Rakowitz is one of my favourites. His work is called ‘post-museum art’ because it shares with museums a preoccupation with time, memory, vanishing and loss – but with an added extra charge of poignancy and emotion.
He also loves the language of museums – like object labels – and yet does something different and very touching with them.
So take no notice of the first space in this show (which inexplicably is dull) and head for the heart of it – Rakowitz’ recreation of the heritage of the Ancient Middle East. Here he takes ancient wall reliefs and statues of kings, priests, griffins and bulls – all looted or destroyed in the Iraq War – and recreates them using papier mache, generously streaked with the lovely, gaudy colours and graphics of Middle Eastern newspapers and food wrappings.
This is an exhibition about wars and the loss of the past, and especially the Iraq War and its terrible, wanton destruction of history and how it gave birth to ISIS and how the cycle of destruction started up all over again. Rakowitz works with detailed images of Iraq’s lost treasures (and which in effect add up to a Lost Museum – another concept that Rakowitz loves). Who could have guessed that things so beautiful, so transient and yet so lasting could be made out of paper mache? And yet Rakowitz clearly did. Elsewhere he makes stone sculptures out of books destroyed in the second world war, and last year he used sardine tins to make a sculpture for the Fourth Plinth of one of the ancient winged bulls that guarded the gates of Nineveh.
In the face of all the destruction of war Rakowitz’ sculptures are ephemeral, touching and enduring. They tell us that this is our heritage and that the memory of these things has threaded its way like smoke through all our dreams for thousands of years.
For Rakowitz human beings destroy at least as much as they make, and so everything is in the process of either becoming or vanishing. One Rakowitz sculpture is called ‘Bones dreaming of becoming shells, becoming Art Nouveau, becoming Istanbul’.
By coincidence there is currently an exhibition called ‘Writing: Making your Mark’ at the British Library and there you will find similar themes of memory and loss. But ‘Writing’ is much more pragmatic and less emotional than the Rakowitz experience – although I defy you not to be moved by the sight of Scott’s notebook, which he took with him on his last expedition to the Antarctic and which he carried on writing in even after he knew that he would die; his final words were ‘For God’s sake, look after our people.’
But ‘Writing’ is a museum-y experience, and art and museums do things differently. Museums inform and educate us, whilst art comes at its subjects sideways, and distils and makes more concentrated all the wayward sadnesses you find in museums.
And yet art and conventional museums also supplement each other, each casting a sideways but meaningful light on the other. When you see them together they feel right. And so here is my prediction made in 2019, that art in museums is not a passing fad, and that art and museum artefacts will increasingly come together and become one. Because each gives something to the other, and each would be less without the other.
Michael Rakowitz exhibition is on at the Whitechapel from 4th June to 26th August, 2019
‘Writing’ is on the British Library from 26th April to 27th August, 2019.
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