The Ballad of Special Ops Cody and other stories is the second solo exhibition by Michael Rakowitz at the gallery, in which Rakowitz expands on his ongoing project The invisible enemy should not exist, that he started in 2007, and presents his recent film work The Ballad of Special Ops Cody.
The title of the exhibition derives from Rakowitz’ 2017 film, which was shown for the first time as part of the artist’s solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago during the same year. The Ballad of Special Ops Cody is a stop-motion video, in which an action figure, voiced by a veteran of the Iraq War, confronts Mesopotamian votive statues in vitrines at the Oriental Institute in Chicago. In 2005, an Iraqi insurgent group posted a photograph online of a captured US soldier named John Adam. They threatened to behead him in 72 hours if prisoners being held in US jails in Iraq were not freed. The US military took the claim seriously but couldn’t locate a John Adam within their ranks. John Adam, it turned out, was actually Special Ops Cody: a souvenir action figure rendered in exact detail of both African American and Caucasian likenesses. The dolls were available for sale exclusively on US bases in Kuwait and Iraq, and were often sent home to soldiers’ children as a surrogate for a deployed parent. In the video, Cody offers the statues liberation, urging them to leave their open vitrines and go back to their homes, however the statues remain, petrified and afraid, unable to return in the current context.
Besides the new film, we are presenting four new works: papier maché sculptures which are reconstructions of large, stone reliefs belonging to the series The invisible enemy should not exist. This series unfolds as an intricate narrative about the artifacts stolen from the National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad, in the aftermath of the US invasion of April 2003, and the continued destruction of Mesopotamian cultural heritage by groups such as ISIS. The centerpiece of the project is an ongoing series of sculptures that represent an attempt to reconstruct the thousands of lost archeological artifacts. For this project, Rakowitz works together with a team of assistants who gather information on the missing objects from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago’s database and the Interpol website. All of the objects are then produced in Rakowitz’ studio in Chicago. The title of the project takes its name from the direct translation of Aj-ibur-shapu – the ancient Babylonian processional way that ran through the Ishtar Gate in Iraq, which was excavated in 1902-14 by German archaeologist Robert Koldewey and put on permanent display at the Pergamon Museum, Berlin.
At the beginning of 2018, Rakowitz started a new chapter with our gallery by reconstructing stone reliefs from the Northwest Palace of Nimrud after it was completely destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Prior to demolition, the palace’s many rooms were all decorated with 2m 30cm high limestone reliefs depicting figures and ornamental flowers. Rakowitz began by rebuilding Room N of the palace, which had previously contained thirteen of these reliefs. The artist’s thirteen reconstructions were shown for the first time as part of an installation at Art Basel Unlimited 2018. Following on from this, Rakowitz has reconstructed four reliefs from Room G of the Northwest Palace of Nimrud for this exhibition. Room G was a banquet hall where King Ashurnasirpal II received guests. Particularly known as a king under whom art flourished in the Assyrian Empire, the reliefs depict benevolent spirits and sages blessing Ashurnasirpal II and the kingdom with pine cones, dates and other flora from Assyria (present-day northern Iraq).
The material that Rakowitz is working with plays an important role. All works from the series The invisible enemy should not exist are made from the packaging of Middle Eastern foodstuffs and local Arabic newspapers found in cities across the United States and Europe – places where Iraqis have sought refuge from the fighting that continues to ravage their country.
The reconstructed reliefs possess color schemes that follow those believed by archaeologists to have been painted on the limestone when the panels were carved in the 9th century BC. The packaging is culled from products produced in northern Iraq, like date cookies and date syrup, and the salvage of these materials makes present the human, economic and ecological disasters caused by the 2003 Iraq War and its aftermath.
Since 2007, more than 700 artifacts have been reconstructed as part of this project. The invisible enemy should not exist was extended into public space in March 2018 when a reconstruction of the Lamassu, destroyed by ISIS in Nineveh, was installed on the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, where it will stand until 2020.all images © the gallery and the artist(s)