Michael Rakowitz at the Whitechapel Gallery

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‘The destruction is nothing special. Wars have always done this. It’s the way they present it to the world that’s shocking’

Margaret van Ess, quoted in the exhibition.

Rubble, both actual and implicit, is a leitmotif in the work of Michael Rakowitz.. It is generally agreed that his piece for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square is the most successful of the long series of commissions for the site. The Invisible Enemy should not exist is his version of the winged bull with human features  which guarded the gates of Nineveh until it was destroyed by Isis in 2015. His sculpture though is made of cheerful Iraqi date cans which sparkle even in the English weather. It will be a sad day when it is taken away in accordance with the regulations in place.

This exhibition begins with Dull Roar (2005), a wobbly inflatable rendition of a housing estate in St. Louis, Missouri which, despite the law, became an example of segregation because the white people refused to live alongside the African Americans. It was eventually demolished and ironically the rubble was used as landfill for new luxury housing. In the same vein but much more positive is White man got no dreaming (2008), a colourful version of Tatlin’s Tower made by Aboriginals as a response to the destruction of their homes in a neighbourhood of  Sydney. Upstairs an array of plaster casts  from the art nouveau facades of modern Istanbul bear witness to the design and craft skills of the Armenians who made them. The Armenian Genocide began in 1915.

 

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Rakowitz deals with big themes but he simply presents the evidence, albeit with a bit of a twist. In What dust will rise (2012) fragments of the destroyed Bamiyan Buddhas and fragments of the artillery used  are set   beside the damage caused by the RAF to ancient Christian texts in World War 11. One might reflect that the British also killed hundreds of thousands of civilians while the Taliban on this particular occasion didn’t kill anybody.

There is a lot of suffering alluded to in his work. His subject is destruction but in his hands it  also becomes an affirmation of values.  You leave the exhibition with a lot to think about: my head is still full of it days  later.

 

Michael Rakowitz  is at the Whitechapel Gallery  until 25 August

 

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