I’m Michael Rakowitz. We’re here at the Tate Modern Level Two Gallery, and this is an exhibition of mine called The Worst Condition is to Pass under a Sword which is not one’s own.
The exhibition is comprised of a lot of different materials, drawings, sculptures, video, that explore these kind of unbelievable connections between western science fiction and fantasy and the design of weapons, uniforms and monuments under the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq from about 1989 until 2003. I was diverted on line looking at Ebay, and I found this helmet that was uncanny, exactly like Darth Vader’s helmet, and it turns out it was a war trophy brought back from Iraq by a US soldier who was with the 101st Airborne Division, and it turns out these were the helmets of the Fadayeen Saddam, and they were the last troops to stand against the United States when Baghdad fell in April 2003. And Uday Hussein was the son of Saddam, who was charged with heading up this paramilitary organisation, and he was an avid Star Wars fan, and apparently he designed the helmets and the uniforms so that they bore this resemblance to the famous Star Wars villain.
But the story gets more and more complicated and complex and further embedded into this science fiction mythology when on the eve of the first Gulf War, Saddam has his troops marching underneath the hands of the great monument to the theme song from Star Wars. And I think what’s happening in these rooms is that I’m asking questions and speculating on things that are in way or another just re-emphasising the bizarre connections here. I mean, to think that Uday Hussein, who was born in 1965, which was eight years before I was born, is part of the same generation of kids that I grew up with, who were watching the same movies and acting out the same scenarios in the playgrounds or in their parents’ backyard.
I think with the monument in particular, I became fascinated in Art School when I was studying public art, and an Iraqi expat architect named Kanan Makiya had written a book called The Monument. And it’s a really, really interesting book, and when I saw the cover image of these two hands wielding these two swords crossed, I was immediately reminded of this one poster that I grew up with on my wall as a kid. It was a giveaway poster from the first showings of The Empire Strikes Back, and then it turns out the illustrator, Boris Vallejo was best friends with Rowena Morel, who was a fellow sci-fi and fantasy illustrator, whose paintings were found on Saddam’s walls when the palaces were invaded by the US Army. And it turns out that Boris Vallejo also wrote a critical essay in her monograph called ‘The Art of Rowena’, and so all these connections, and that becoming a little too irresistible, in a way, however loose they may be, speculative they may be, a narrative emerges.
And then it’s also the voice of the American soldier coming in as a form of journalism that is not a part of embedded journalism vis-à-vis the news stations. It’s when they go on line on places like Ebay or Flickr and they start describing what these things are. No new outlet picked up on the Darth Vader helmets. It all comes from these sort of almost provenance texts that one finds when they are being hawked on line.
So with these materials I’m always trying to bring the viewer back from the drawings and then place them into this space where these real items are reinforcing the narrative that they are reading in the illustrations which are so unbelievable on many different levels. But then there are these objects and these images, these real items that underpin their occurrence as truth.