Dinner plates and dual-use: object art as critical geopolitics

The Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz made the news towards the end of 2011 with his project Spoils, undertaken in collaboration with chef Kevin Lasko for the NYC restaurant Park Avenue. In this, an Iraq-inspired dish created by Lasko was presented to diners on plates provided by Rakowitz.

The twist was that the plates had come from Saddam Hussein’s palaces, having been sold informally to US soldiers in Iraq or brought to the US by Iraqi refugees. Rakowitz had discovered the plates – some of which dated from the pre-Baath monarchy – being sold on eBay. What might have remained an unsettling and/or quirky piece of appropriation spiralled out into the world of diplomacy, however, when the Iraqi mission in the US demanded the return of the plates. Creative Time, the organisation that had facilitated the commission for Spoils, promptly complied with the demand, and the plates were returned at a handover at the Iraqi mission in New York. There’s a great interview with the artist here, in which he describes how the work came about and embraces its unanticipated conclusion.

In exploring the complex predicament of Iraq and the Iraqi diaspora in their relationships with the US, Spoils chimes with Rakowitz’s other projects Return (which explored questions of diaspora, communication and trade, see here), The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (which created versions of artefacts looted from the Iraqi National Museum using found objects, described here) and Enemy Kitchen (which brings people together using Baghdadi food, here).

The Spoils episode is interesting for lots of different reasons. Above all, there’s the intervention in the lives of objects, redirecting them to locations where they would not otherwise have appeared, thereby setting in motion new events and connections. Rakowitz reports that the intention stated by  the Iraqi diplomats was for the plates, once returned to Iraq, to be held and exhibited in an appropriate institution. Placing these objects into the flow and flux of art had made them visible and controversial; they were out of place in a way that could not be allowed to continue, and diplomacy intervened.

This episode reminded me of Jalal Toufic’s proposal for Memorial to the Iraq War, an exhibition at the ICA in London in 2007. For this, the artist proposed a complex installation, part of which was a shelf of books (there’s a photo here) on dual-use technologies (i.e. those that can be used for either civilian or military purposes, which had fallen under the post-1991 sanctions regime on Iraq). The proposal specified that books on this topic were to be borrowed from the British Museum and that prior to the exhibition, four would be mailed to Iraq, followed by one book each day, until the end of the exhibition, by which time all 38 books listed under this sub-heading in the Library collection would have been sent. In the end, only nine books could be borrowed and two of these sent (the artist tells the story here) before the British Library learned of the work and intervened to stop it.

Dual Use tested the limits of what public institutions – whether a library or an art gallery – could legitimately do, while pointing up the way that access to knowledge in Iraq had been subject to tight geopolitical control between 1991 and 2003 and then devastated as a consequence of invasion and occupation.

Their many similarities and differences aside, what strikes me is the similarity of the logics set in train by Spoils and Dual Use: in one, objects must be transferred to Iraq; in the other, they must not. Both are about the proper place, institutional setting and use for objects. Playing with the entangled relationships between Iraq and the US and UK, Spoils and Dual Use serve as illustrations and reminders of just how important museums and libraries remain to the constitution of both the nation-state and the inter-state system.

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