Michael Rakowitz: Dispute Between the Tamarisk and the Date Palm
REDCAT, Los Angeles
through June 2, 2019
Written by Shana Nys Dambrot
Often when an artist’s practice is as rigorously conceptual and deeply rooted in social systems as that of Michael Rakowitz, it can edge toward the dematerialized. But among Rakowitz’s special gifts is the facility to translate the nuances of behavior, culture, geopolitics, and institutional bias into compelling, emotional, hand-crafted, and often monumental physical objects. Examples of such sculptures for floor, wall, and pedestal, as well as large-scale photographic and potted plant installations, share REDCAT’s gallery space with artifacts of more research-based and performative works, documentation, and videos.
The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, and for the past 15 years Rakowitz’s work has sought to contextualize and critique the disruptive repercussions of the violence and corruption inherent in this act and its ongoing aftermath — a brand of injustice repeated across the globe. From social decimation to looting and lawlessness, our actions have prompted retrograde policies and all manner of cultural conflict and displacement. This conviction was the impetus for his widely-reported refusal of the invitation to participate in this year’s Whitney Biennial, to protest the presence of a weapons manufacturer on the museum’s board.
All the works selected from among his output since 2003 for the iterative survey Dispute Between the Tamarisk and the Date Palm, explore this dynamic through the literal and symbolic idiom of the date. Both an emblem of regional agriculture and literature and an actual grocery product traded and valued internationally, Rakowitz transforms the humble date into a multidimensional narrative touchstone. But alongside aspects of this exegesis are also artifacts from his time at a progressive kitchen gig, photographs from the looting of the presidential palace and date-based cuisine, a video on the earnestness of varietal date connoisseurs, and several living potted baby date palms.
Yet for Rakowitz, such big-picture considerations also afford the opportunity to more fully explore, document and interpret the transcendent bright spots of interpersonal connections and social exchange across traditions, heritage, and geography afforded by arenas like art, food, and music. It’s also the spark for a series of interdisciplinary works of art which each in their own way speak to the enforced survivalism and modernization of a history in peril.
In the most literal and beguiling articulations of this dynamic, works replicating the missing (aka looted) holdings of an anthropological museum are made from recycled elements appearing to be culled from date packaging. From the intimate and even tiny to convincing tabletop pieces and impressive large-scale mosaic pictorials, Rakowitz expertly mimics the stylized eccentricity of ancient pictographic tableaux, pottery shards, regal gods and their fanfare, from calligraphy to coloration. The metaphoric impact of the merging of priceless cultural artifact with cheap modern materials related to the intersection of conflict and commerce is powerful and apparent, a uniquely accessible symbolism with a clear political point of view. But as previously observed, they are also ambitious, witty, and sincere decorative devotionals, whose critique of a disrupted cultural order also succeeds in redeeming its marginal components, in a manner recalling arte povera and Fluxus movements of art history. That kind of alchemical materialism is a full-hearted metaphor in its own right.