Michael Rakowitz on How Artists Can Succeed without Betraying Their Principles

Kelsey Ables
Aug 22, 2019 4:12PM

Portrait of Michael Rakowitz. Photo by Daniel Asher Smith.

Michael Rakowitz, Lamassu , 2018, from the series The Invisible Enemy Should not Exist ,” 2007–ongoing, on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth. Courtesy of the artist.

To preserve and protect traditional artworks, museum professionals engineer the physical climate, using temperature control, careful lighting, and other regulatory devices. When it comes to conceptual art, the ideological climate is just as important, if not more. To put artist Michael Rakowitz’s work—which comments on the military industrial complex and its resulting traumas—in an exhibition funded by the CEO of a weapons manufacturer would be as destructive as putting a Rembrandt in a steaming-hot room with fluorescent lighting.

During a recent conversation, Rakowitz posed a question: “If you are going to invest in protecting the integrity of a work of art physically, why wouldn’t you protect the integrity of the artist?” This realization led him to become the only known artist to preemptively drop out of the 2019 Whitney Biennial after news broke that tear gas canisters found along the U.S.–Mexican border were from Safariland, a company owned by Whitney Museum vice chairman Warren Kanders. (Kanders has since resigned.) But it’s not the first time Rakowitz has made an ethical decision at the price of institutional acclaim. He has preserved the meaning of his work with the same painstaking attention as a conservator looking after an invaluable oil painting.

Michael Rakowitz
Live in Jerusalem 2010, 2014
Rhona Hoffman Gallery

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.

Influenced by artists engaged in institutional critique, like Hans Haacke and Andrea Fraser, Rakowitz comments on the many ills of global capitalism. He’s provided shelters made on a $5 budget to homeless people and fed Iraqi food, served by war vets, to hungry Chicagoans. While Safariland has a particular relevance to his own work, Rakowitz’s ethical decision-making extends to the concerns of his peers. “I don’t go researching every single place that I’m showing in,” he explained, “but if somebody points out that this place is oppressive because of what they’re supporting, I think it is important we act together.”

Rakowitz emphasizes that change cannot happen from the top down or through one person’s vision, but must happen from the ground up. “All these struggles intersect, and that is how we build alliances,” he said. “We can move together and collectively demand a culture that shifts and evolves on all these positions.”

Michael Rakowitz, Lamassu, 2018, from the series The Invisible Enemy Should not Exist ,” 2007–ongoing, on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth. Courtesy of the artist.

While he believes foundational change will only come from collective action, Rakowitz has been making small-scale, individual decisions over the years to preserve his moral integrity. He has turned down shows sponsored by the state of Israel and removed his work from exhibitions when he’s been asked to censor himself.

Such staunch ethical stances have had consequences. Rakowitz has had buyers return artwork when his views have been made public—most notably that he does not show in Israel, a decision he stresses is not out of “ignorance or hatred,” but a refusal to show for a segregated audience. Were he to show in Israel, his Palestinian students, friends, and fellow artists would not be able to attend, he explained.

Michael Rakowitz, Artifacts, 2017, from the series “The invisible enemy should not exist,” 2007–ongoing. Courtesy of the artist.

Rakowitz works with galleries that keep his ethical concerns at the forefront, from Jane Lombard Gallery in New York, to Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, to Barbara Wien Galerie in Berlin. On most occasions, he has conversations with the people who purchase his work, and he is always consulted before a work enters a collection. “I have had gallerists come to me and say, ‘Somebody asked about this, but it wouldn’t be right for the work,’” he recalled. “Not just that it wouldn’t look good in the place, but that it would really challenge the integrity of the work.”

As an established artist who has made international headlines for his art actions, Rakowitz does not deny that his clout affords him the privilege of being able to turn down inclusion in a major biennial and have artworks returned to him. “I’m not going to use my decision as one that should just be projected on top of another person’s situation,” he said. He encourages artists to take up a variety of tactics, citing artist collective Forensic Architecture’s decision to stay in the Whitney Biennial while partaking in institutional critique: They contributed a video work directly addressing Kanders and Safariland. “There are many ways for us to register our opposition,” Rakowitz said.

When it comes to selling artworks, Rakowitz sees consent and collaboration as fundamental parts of any business agreement. “I think that every artist should be engaged in conversations about where it is that they want their work to end up,” he said. Artists can take initiative, he added, and provide gallerists and curators with a vision—“not just of the career that they want to have,” he said, “but of the world that they want to propose within that career.”

Kelsey Ables