Michael Rakowitz

The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist


Not on display

Michael Rakowitz born 1973
Papier mâché, 2 wooden tables, metal, card, graphite on paper and sound
Overall display dimensions variable
Purchased with funds provided by the Middle East North Africa Acquisitions Committee 2019


This sculptural installation is part of the American artist Michael Rakowitz’s ongoing project The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist. He began the project in 2007 in direct response to the pillage of antiquities from the National Museum in Baghdad during the Iraq War. Looting on a massive scale had been taking place in Iraq since 2003, following the American invasion of the country. Rakowitz, who is of Iraqi-Jewish descent, has devoted himself to creating full-scale papier-mâché replicas of looted and destroyed artefacts. Alluding to the imposed invisibility of the museum artefacts, the replicas are made from the packaging of Middle Eastern foodstuffs sold in the United States (where Rakowitz, who is of Iraqi descent, now lives) and from local Arabic newspapers – highlighting moments of cultural visibility found in cities across America and Europe where Iraqis have sought refuge from the fighting that continues to ravage their country. Utilising the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute database, as well as information posted on Interpol’s website, Rakowitz has reconstructed more than 700 artefacts since 2007. As a ‘museum without walls’, his constructed collection of antiquities is displayed on tables of variable dimensions; accompanying object labels describe the origin of each item, alongside quotes from either Iraqi archaeologists or American political leaders.

Elements from The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist are in a number of public collections including the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; The British Museum, London; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago. Tate’s iteration of the project comprises twenty-nine objects and four drawings presented on two tables: a larger one which holds twenty-four objects and a smaller one which holds five items. On the larger table, twenty-three small sculptures (mostly of anthropomorphic deities) surround the bigger figure of a lion from Babylon (originally in terracotta); on the smaller table, four small sculptures surround the larger figure of a female goddess (originally in marble) from the Parthian dynasty, who holds a frond in her hand and is dedicated to the worship of Hercules. While only the head of the lion was stolen and destroyed during the looting in 2003, the statue of the goddess was taken in its entirety. The installation is accompanied by a soundtrack for which Rakowitz commissioned a band called Ayyoub to cover Deep Purple’s ubiquitous ‘Smoke on the Water’ in Arabic, a lyric which tells a story of senseless destruction and loss and so underlines the subject matter of the work.

Dislocated in time and space through Rakowitz’s intervention, these replicas of displaced national treasures are transformed into contemporary sculpture to be exhibited in museums or commercial galleries, thereby (re)introducing them to the art market and potential ownership by collectors or institutions of contemporary art. Rakowitz deliberately and ironically plays with these different systems of value and trade. His commitment to fabricating the entire collection of lost archaeological objects in papier-mâché could be seen as an almost Sisyphean labour in its preposterous materiality – in the face of the ‘invisible enemy’ of the work’s title who dismantled and looted Iraqi (and world) heritage sites. The irreplaceable loss of the originals is both highlighted and overcome by the ghostly apparitions that reinvent the hybridised cultural heritage of Mesopotamia and Iraq. When asked about his makeshift antiquities as symbols of resilience to the loss of culture and of human life, Rakowitz commented: ‘It’s meant to do two things; to be a ghost that’s supposed to haunt, but also a spectral presence that’s supposed to offer some kind of light.’ (Quoted in Naomi Rea, ‘The Ghost of Iraq’s Lost Heritage Comes to Trafalgar Square as Michael Rakowitz Unveils his Fourth Plinth Sculpture’, Artnet news, 27 March 2018, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/michael-rakowitz-fourth-plinth-1254095, accessed 25 June 2018.)

Tate’s installation also includes four black and white pencil drawings which portray narrative episodes related to the objects. In one drawing, for instance, the archaeologist Dr. Donny George Youkhanna is depicted sitting at a drum kit, an unexpected position for an academic – but a caption tells us that he used to play in a band called 99% which covered songs by Deep Purple and Pink Floyd. This goes some way towards explaining the background soundtrack to the work. The other drawings focus either on Babylonian archaeological sites and historical data, or on Saddam Hussein’s military dictatorship and attempt at hijacking this national heritage.

Different configurations of The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist have been shown in multiple venues including the Sharjah Biennial and the Istanbul Biennial in 2007; the Hessel Museum of Art in Annandale-On-Hudson, New York in 2008; Modern Art Oxford in 2009; the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art in 2013; and the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago in 2014. As part of the Fourth Plinth project in London’s Trafalgar Square, in March 2018 The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist extended into public space with a reconstruction of the statue – or Lamassu – of the Assyrian winged bull which was destroyed by ISIS in the ancient city of Nineveh (located on the outskirts of Mosul) in 2015.

Further reading
Michael Rakowitz and Harrell Fletcher, Between Artists: Harrell Fletcher and Michael Rakowitz, New York 2008.
Michael Rakowitz, Strike the Empire Back, exhibition leaflet, Tate Modern, London 2010.
Omar Kholeif, Michael Rakowitz: Backstroke of the West, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 2017.

Morad Montazami
June 2018

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