Rakowitz’s work is greatly informed by the experience of watching the U.S.—the country his family escaped to in 1946—invade Iraq, his family’s country of origin. In RETURN (2004–present), he “reopened” his Iraqi grandfather’s import-export business, and overcame a number of international security hurdles to import dates from Iraq during the conflict. For Spoils (2011), Rakowitz hosted a dinner using Saddam Hussein’s china plates, which he purchased on Ebay. The work ended in a cease-and-desist order from the U.S. Marshal’s office.
For the Whitney Biennial, Rakowitz had intended to include works similarly engaged with the questions of war: The Ballad of Special Ops Cody (2017), a video narrated by an Iraq war vet suffering from PTSD; and a reconstruction of a room in the Northwest Palace at Nimrud that was destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Following the Kanders revelations, Rakowitz “started to think about those specific works being emptied of their meaning,” he said. He could not justify his presence in the show. “It would have just betrayed everything my work is about,” he explained.