Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 29, 2007
Return
Sponsored by Creative Time. Exhibition schedule: 529 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, October 1–December 10, 2006

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Michael Rakowitz. Return. 2006. Part of Creative Time’s Who Cares series. Image: Charlie Samuels, courtesy Creative Time.

Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz navigates the unstable border between art and life. Among his well-known interventions are the ongoing paraSITE series in which he collaborates with urban homeless to design portable housing shelters that can be hooked up to a building’s exterior ventilation system (a working example was included in MoMA’s 2005 exhibition Safe: Design Takes on Risk) and 2001’s Rise, in which Rakowitz extended a duct from a nearby Chinese bakery into an exhibition space on New York’s Lafayette Street. His current project—a functioning store and import/export business located at 529 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn—is his most ambitious to date. In fact, like the paraSITE series, a project such as Return, which provides an actual service, seems at first glance to contradict Rakowitz’s assertion that his art does not aim to “solve problems.” After more extensive scrutiny, however, this superficial suspicion is rendered secondary to Rakowitz’s ability to chart the fragile terrain between actual results and metaphorical intention. This, combined with his insistence on making visible that which has lurked unseen, distinguishes his work from a purely unironic humanitarianism.

Named after a business operated from 1945 through the 1960s by his grandfather, Nissam Isaac David, an Iraqi Jew, Rakowitz’s Davisons & Co. offers to ship objects and goods free of charge from “interested citizens” to Iraq. (The exhibition budget covers the high tariffs.) It has also brokered an elaborate deal to import Iraq’s world-famous Khestawi dates, otherwise unavailable in the United States since the August 1990 United Nations embargo imposed following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In using Khestawi dates, the project serves moreover as a quasi-history of the Iraqi people from ancient times—as evidenced by the discovery of date seeds from 50,000 years ago in the Shanidar Cave of northern Iraq—to the present political upheaval, a history Rakowitz charts on a wall panel printed in Arabic and English. This history concludes with the planned-for shipment of dates, which, as elaborated separately on a blog maintained at Creative Time’s website, is currently abandoned in Syria. In this way, as the artist himself asserts, the dates have followed a path taken by many Iraqi refugees who fled their country only to be denied passage due to border restrictions. While not representative of the original ton of dates Rakowitz ordered in September, a modified eleven-box shipment was sent via air from Baghdad to Amman to JFK airport where it was held for several weeks pending USFDA approval. While waiting for this significantly reduced order to arrive, visitors to the store were able to purchase four kinds of California dates, all grown from Iraqi seeds, as well as several date products including date syrup and date cookies. Although made in Iraq, many of these products bear labels from other countries—for instance, a can of date syrup reads “prepared in Lebanon.” This deception reflects the continued use of a technique originally adopted to evade the 1990 U.N. embargo. Employed post-embargo, the suppression of the Iraqi name at the demand of U.S. importers constitutes, in the artist’s own words, a virtual embargo that efficiently and somewhat poetically conveys the futility of present efforts at nation building in Iraq.

For Rakowitz, the Khestawi date’s significance is manifold, particularly in light of the current economic and political situation. Rakowitz’s history of dates, for example, moves beyond the factual trajectory of the Iraqi date industry to explore the fruit’s mythic past. The Koran, we learn, recounts that Mary took shelter under a date palm during Jesus’ birth and consumed its leaves to ease her labor pains. We learn also of the passion for dates attributed to an eighth-century female Islamic saint from Basra, Iraq. In addition, Rakowitz’s blog recounts stories shared by visitors to the store (people of American, Lebanese, and Iraqi descent, among other nationalities) concerning their first and last encounters with Iraqi dates, while Rakowitz’s Iraqi contact, Bassam, explains the tradition of putting a date in the mouth of a newborn baby in order to ensure that the first taste of life is sweet. In other blog entries, Rakowitz discusses dates as an analogue for the plight of the Iraqi people. For example, he observes of some photographs of the stranded dates: “So fresh and robust back in late September, the dates were now withered and flaky, the skin peeling off the rest of the body.”

With such graphic language, Rakowitz pursues personification to the point of absurdity. Is his description of the withered dates meant to draw a parallel with the physical abuse suffered by Iraqi detainees or casualties of war? Is the artist actually suggesting that his experience in the import/export business has granted him felt access to the situation of the Iraqi people? Taken further, does he presume that his modest commercial intervention might have some real effect on Iraq’s disastrous political situation?

In the end, however, it is the manifest absurdity of these suggestions that saves Rakowitz’s enterprise from political naïveté. The artiness of the endeavor is paramount in Return, just as the dates’ excessive symbolism marks them as an emphatically unreal equivalent. Similarly, the installation reveals a self-consciousness of its own mechanisms of display much as the potentially irrepressible ParaSITE structures foregrounded their own visual interruption of a homogenized cityscape. Rakowitz has discussed his interest in the formal aspects of artmaking, observing that without them he would enjoy the process much less. It is this awareness of design that impresses when first encountering Return’s glass storefront graced by bust-length images of the artist and his grandfather. In their schematic, almost comic-book-like appearance, the stagy photos are out of synch with the grungier storefronts nearby. Once inside, we encounter a drop-box that Rakowitz employed in an earlier incarnation of the project in Jamaica, Queens, and that now stands idle like some precious relic. Similarly, at the back of the store, the carefully lined-up date products resemble nothing so much as a Heim Steinbach sculpture. (The difference is that where Steinbach’s intention is to reveal the commodification of art, Rakowitz exposes the aesthetic nature of the commodity as well as its participation in the visual obfuscation inherent to global commerce during wartime.) Like the history of dates as executed with clean lines and panels offset by a delicate Arabic script, or the three flags from different moments in Iraq’s history painted directly on the wall behind the proprietor’s desk, the beauty of the drop-box and date products overreaches their practical function. In their present context, all of these elements are ultimately nothing more or less than works of art removed, in this sense, from any actual effectiveness. What they succeed in doing, as Rakowitz justly recognizes of his paraSITE structures, is to bring a certain situation into public view. They are concrete loci around which discussion is generated.

The store is the perfect setting for Rakowitz’s enterprise because it is predicated on another kind of exchange: the flow of goods. It is the artist’s achievement to have given this impersonal form of transaction a human face and thereby to have reconnected with commodity culture’s originary, utopian promise to shatter boundaries and expand communication. The fact that the main product never arrived in the quantities it was originally expected to only serves to reinforce this dynamic by shifting the focus from the acquired good to the delivery process and to the people and stories encountered along the way. The absurdity of importing a product that is so expensive as to be unprofitable calls to mind the unorthodox vision of consumer culture put forth by Frankfurt School philosopher Walter Benjamin for whom the commodity, stripped of its utilitarian value, represented a failed symbol of humanity’s yearning for universal wellbeing, for a world in which, as Benjamin put it, “all men are brothers” and the universe mirrors humanity’s deepest desires. The elusive dates are such a symbol for Rakowitz and the many people eagerly awaiting their arrival. Endlessly deferred yet all the more meaningful in their absence, they direct attention to a tragic present and harmonious past even as this nostalgic vision remains impossibly out of reach. Rakowitz’s store operates in the real world but it is also an artwork in the truest sense. Bringing hope and encouraging dialogue, it remains a beautiful fiction.

Claire Gilman
independent scholar and curator

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