This isn’t the first time Rakowitz has employed these syrup tins in his work. His 2005 project Return saw him attempt to import cans labelled “Product of Iraq” into the U.S. via Syria and Lebanon, at once circumventing sanctions and shadowing the passage of refugees fleeing the post-2003 chaos that engulfed the country. Nor is this the only reference to his wider body of work in The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, which is just one component of a much larger, decade-long project of the same name. In 2007, Rakowitz took it upon himself to create life-sized recreations of the thousands of objects that went missing from the Iraq Museum after 2003, using a variety of materials so as not to create replicas that might be mistaken for the real thing. “Artifacts can end up mirroring the story of a people,” he explains. “It was important not to make an exact copy: You can try to reconstruct the artifact, but you can never bring back the people.” Following the rise of ISIS and the desecration that followed, the project’s scope expanded even further. “I felt it was a continuation of a commitment. The unfortunate thing about the project is that it’s had to continue.”
Despite this broad and astonishingly ambitious context—and the pouring rain that greeted its unveiling—The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist works brilliantly as a site-specific sculpture in its own right. Trafalgar Square, memorably described by the novelist Will Self as “one of the most crap urban public spaces in the world,” is not an easy location for an artist to work with: Traffic, crowds, street performers, and a small army of historical statues conspire to crowd out any new work seeking to assert itself here. Many of the artists who have taken on the Fourth Plinth commission have failed to overcome these compromises, but Rakowitz has aced it.
For one thing, no photograph will prepare you for quite how huge the sculpture seems atop the plinth; far from being dwarfed by the square’s vast dimensions, it holds its own even when seen in opposition with the vertiginous shaft of Nelson’s Column. And rather than jarring with its uniformly gray surroundings, the sculpture’s colors—subtly varying tones of green, gold, and red—create an effect that is at once arresting and oddly solemn. This is pleasingly at odds with the jingoistic effigies of monarchs, empire builders, and kings with whom it shares space, yet even if it appears to be speaking a different language, it is still in dialogue with these other statues. Like them, the lamassu is the product of cultural myth-making—but it is also a reminder of how abruptly myths, and the people who identify with them, can be forgotten.