Michael Rakowitz

Arts & Entertainment

Nasher Sculpture Center Honors Another Artist It Thinks Is Pretty Great

The fifth recipient of the sculpture prize is Michael Rakowitz, a Chicago-based artist who, once again, challenges the nature of sculpture

The Nasher Sculpture Center has announced the recipient of its 2020 Nasher Prize, Michael Rakowitz, a Chicago-based artist who also teaches art at Northwestern University. Rakowitz, who grew up on Long Island and is of Iraqi and Jewish descent, works across a variety of mediums, and his conceptual art practice, as the Nasher’s release puts it, involves “intensive research, resulting in an array of objects, environments, films, and publications that seek to reclaim, reposition or refocus complicated aspects of material and cultural histories or events.” That’s a bit abstract, so let’s simply try to describe what Rakowitz does.

Rakowitz first began to garner attention after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by creating plastic, inflatable shelters for the homeless and, later on, an inflatable recreation of a failed St. Louis housing project designed by the architect of the World Trade Center. During the Iraq war, he set up mail drops for free shipments of donated food and clothing for Iraqis. In a project supported by Creative Time, he set up a storefront in Brooklyn to import dates from Iraq, in defiance of UN sanctions, and the difficult, convoluted travels of the “refugee” dates became the first items clearly marked “Product of Iraq” to be imported into the US in 25 years.

In the mid-2000s, Rakowitz began using food packaging from Iraq to recreate  some of the statues and artifacts that were destroyed or stolen by looters or ISIS during the war. One of these creations, a replica of Lamassu, a winged deity that once guarded the gates of Ninevah, still stands in a plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. In Chicago, Rakowitz created a food truck manned by Iraqi war veterans who served traditional Iraqi recipes.

A recent, well-receive retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery in London included more objects made of Iraqi foods stuffs, drawings of lost or destroyed artifacts, and plaster casts of the reliefs from buildings in Istanbul—reliefs that were originally cast in animal bone and designed by Armenian craftsman who would later be murdered in the Armenian genocide. A through-line emerges in Rakowitz’s work that suggests an interest in the way materials carry a multiplicity of hidden and often contradictory meanings, obscure or distort memory, and silently embodying historical ironies, social hypocrisy, and human suffering. Rakowitz’s work also returns often to considerations of the way consumerism, globalism, and neo-colonialism twist and distort the meanings of cultural artifact and identity.

Which is all very cool, but why Dallas and why now? To answer that question, we have to look at the Nasher Prize in its proper context. The prize is the Nasher’s tricky attempt to raise the profile of the sculpture center and leverage the Nasher’s ambitious institutional authority by shining a light on significant contemporary artists whose practice often directly involves challenging institutional authority and the nature of sculpture. The Nasher’s desire to use the prize to insert itself in a more global artistic conversation is reflected by the museum’s decision to host its announcement this year not in art collector Howard Rachofsky’s Warehouse, a private art space near the Galleria and the usual setting for the reveal, but at the Soho House New York. Rakowitz is the fifth artist to receive the Nasher Prize. Past recipients include Isa Genzken (2019), Theaster Gates (2018), Pierre Huyghe (2017) and Doris Salcedo (2016).

We could tally up the genders, cultural backgrounds, artistic styles, political interests, position in the contemporary art market, and divergent approaches to materials and medium demonstrated by these five artists to begin to piece together a coherent profile of the Nasher Prize–to understand what the prize’s esteemed collection of jurors are trying to say about the state of art, the state of sculpture, the state of artistic institutions, or the state of the world. Perhaps, at some point, we will. For now, what is important is that Rakowitz is an interesting artist, and Dallas art lovers will have an opportunity to learn a lot more about him when his work and career are highlighted in a block of programming this spring–all capped by a gala fundraiser where Rakowitz will receive a cool $100,000 and the Nasher Prize trophy, designed by Renzo Piano.

Here’s the full release:

Nasher Sculpture Center Announces Michael Rakowitz as Winner of the 2020 Nasher Prize
Chicago Artist Receives $100,000 in Recognition of Outstanding Contributions to Sculpture

Dallas, TX (September 4, 2019) – The Nasher Sculpture Center announces American artist Michael Rakowitz as the recipient of the 2020 Nasher Prize. Now in its fifth year, the Nasher Prize is an international award for sculpture, established to honor a living artist who elevates the understanding of sculpture and its possibilities. Rakowitz will be presented with an award designed by Renzo Piano, architect of the Nasher Sculpture Center, at a ceremony in Dallas on April 4, 2020.

Since his career began in the late 1990s, Michael Rakowitz’s dynamic body of work has involved intensive research, resulting in an array of objects, environments, films, and publications that seek to reclaim, reposition or refocus complicated aspects of material and cultural histories or events. He has especial interest in refugee and migrant populations, particularly from the Middle East. Often durational in nature, his projects frequently enlist the participation of collaborators or the public to create objects or events, making the work as much participatory as it is material.

“In Michael Rakowitz, the Nasher Prize jury has selected a laureate whose work wrestles in unique and revelatory ways with many of the complex questions of history, heritage, and identity that are so much at the forefront of contemporary culture and politics,” says Director Jeremy Strick. “Interrogating objects and materials—their history and associations—Rakowitz weaves dense webs of meaning in distinct bodies of work rich with insight and surprise.”

Rakowitz’s earliest works established his place within conversations about art’s possibilities as a material and conceptual spur for social change. In 1997, he developed the first examples of his ongoing series paraSITE, custom-built, inflatable shelters designed for and in collaboration with homeless individuals. By attaching to the exterior outtake vents of a building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, the small provisional structures allow the warm air leaving the building to simultaneously inflate and heat the personal shelter. In addition, the structures made visible the enduring presence of homelessness at a time when cities were using architectural barriers and new laws to limit the homeless population’s access to public space. More than 90 paraSITE structures have been made and distributed in cities including Boston and Cambridge, New York City, Baltimore, Ljubljana, Berlin and Chicago.

Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Rakowitz’s work shifted to consider his own heritage as an American descendent of the Iraqi Jewish diaspora. His mother’s parents left Iraq when the country’s Jewish population began to face discrimination and violence in the early 1940s, eventually settling in New York. Rakowitz began to investigate both his family’s history within the scope of recent events, as well as that of other immigrants, exiles, and refugees displaced by the Iraq War, most notably in a project called RETURN (2006) for which he reopened his grandfather’s former import/export business in a Brooklyn storefront, where packages and letters could be sent and received from Iraq, and world-renowned Iraqi dates were imported to the US for the first time in nearly three decades. After the looting of the Iraq Museum shortly after the US invasion, Rakowitz also began to research the archeological artifacts and sites that were being destroyed or compromised due to political conflict.

His ongoing project The invisible enemy should not exist, begun in 2007, seeks to recreate the some 7000 artifacts that were looted or destroyed in the raiding of the National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad during the political turmoil after 2003, as well as artifacts decimated by ISIS in 2015 during a destructive spree on cultural sites and institutions throughout Iraq. For this, Rakowitz solicits the help of communities of people to remake each of the artifacts, life size, using images from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute database. Using packaging from Middle Eastern food products and Arabic newspapers in combination with simple sculptural means, such as papier-mâché, the ancient objects are recreated as colorful, text- and image-laden sculptures that the artist has described as “ghosts”.

Rakowtiz’s latest iteration of The invisible enemy should not exist is currently on view, until 2020, in London’s Trafalgar Square as part of the city’s Fourth Plinth commission. The work features a recreation of a lamassu –a figure resembling a winged bull with human features, which guarded the gates of the ancient city of Nineveh since 700 BCE, until it was destroyed in the 2015 destruction by ISIS. Rakowitz’s lamassu is made using Iraqi date syrup cans, in reference to a substance that is not only a cornerstone of Iraqi cooking but had also been the second most important Iraqi product after oil and an industry that was nearly crushed due to embargoes against the country and the decimation of Iraq’s date palms during the war and its aftermath.

In addition to his use of its packaging for The invisible enemy should not exist, food itself plays a key role in Rakowitz’s work. Since 2003, he has maintained a project called Enemy Kitchen, an Iraqi cooking workshop presented in various places, including New York City public schools and a food truck in Chicago staffed by Iraqi refugees and émigrés as chief chefs and US combat vetarans as sous-chefs and servers. “Preparing and then consuming this food opens up a new route through which Iraq can be discussed—in this case, through that most familiar of cultural staples: nourishment. Iraqi culture is virtually invisible in the US, beyond the daily news, and Enemy Kitchen seizes the possibility of cultural visibility to produce an alternative discourse,” says the artist. He also recently published a cookbook of recipes, all utilizing Iraqi date syrup, called A House with a Date Palm Will Never Starve. With contributions from his mother and 40 prominent chefs, the cookbook extends the space of Rakowitz’s reconstruction of the lamassu, built from 10,500 Iraqi date syrup cans, beyond the Fourth Plinth and into cupboards and bellies as a way to taste the sculpture.

Rakowitz is the fifth artist to receive the Nasher Prize; previous winners are Isa Genzken (2019), Theaster Gates (2018), Pierre Huyghe (2017) and Doris Salcedo (2016). The 2020 Nasher Prize jury that selected Rakowitz is comprised of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Director of Castello di Rivoli, Italy; Phyllida Barlow, artist; Pablo León de la Barra, Curator at Large, Latin America, Guggenheim Museum; Lynne Cooke, Senior Curator, National Gallery of Art; Briony Fer, Professor, History of Art, University College London; Yuko Hasegawa, Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo; Hou Hanru, Artistic Director, MAXXI, Rome; and Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair, Arts Council England.

“Michael Rakowitz’s work bridges, on the one hand, social sculpture—what we’ve come to call relational aesthetics—and embodied material work on sculpture, with a great sense of humor and a great sense of empathy,” says Nasher Prize juror Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. “Michael’s work is about healing and about how to take the problem of cultural destruction and transform that into a resource for a very optimistic vision of the reconstruction of our society.”

In conjunction with the Nasher Prize, the Nasher Sculpture Center annually presents a series of public programs exploring the climate of contemporary sculpture. Called Nasher Prize Dialogues, the talks gather interdisciplinary luminaries to discuss the most compelling topics regarding contemporary sculpture. By galvanizing international discourse, Nasher Prize Dialogues are an apt extension of the Nasher Prize’s mission to advocate for and advance a vital contemporary art form. The most recent talks have taken place in Copenhagen, Denmark in partnership with CHART; Reykjavik, Iceland in partnership with the Reykjavik Art Museum; in Glasgow, UK in partnership with The Common Guild and Glasgow International 2018; and in Dallas in partnership with The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

The 2020 Nasher Prize is generously co-chaired by Nancy Carlson and Adriana Pareles who help garner support for the prize and its attendant programs, including the Nasher Prize Dialogues.

About Michael Rakowitz
Michael Rakowitz was born in 1973 in Great Neck, New York; he is lives and works in Chicago, Illinois and is professor of art theory and practice at Northwestern University. He studied at Purchase College, State University of New York, where he received a BFA in 1995 and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, graduating with a Master of Science in Visual Studies in 1998. His recent retrospective opened at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, in 2019, traveling to Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino and, in 2020 is scheduled to open at the Jameel Art Centre, Dubai. It was preceded by Backstroke of the West, a survey exhibition at the Museum of Contempory Art, Chicago in 2018.

He has exhibited in venues including dOCUMENTA(13), The Museum of Modern Art, New York; MoMA/PS1, New York; Tate Modern, London; MassMOCA; Castello di Rivoli; the 10th and 14th Istanbul Biennials; the Sharjah Biennials 8 and 14 ; the Tirana Biennale; and Transmediale 05. He was invited to exhibit in the 2019 Whitney Biennial but withdrew in protest of the museum’s vice chairman, Warren G. Kanders, who is chief executive of a company that manufactures body armor and tear gas, before the Biennial’s participating artists were announced; after additional protests by other artists and activists following the exhibition opening, Kanders resigned.

Rakowitz is the recipient of many awards and honors, including the 2018 Herb Alpert Award in Visual Arts, a 2012 Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Biennial Award, a 2008 Creative Capital Grant, the Sharjah Biennial Jury Award, a 2006 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship Grant in Architecture and Environmental Structures, the 2003 Dena Foundations Award, and the 2002 Design 21 Grand Prix from UNESCO.


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