I had been meaning to see the latest Rakowitz show in Chelsea. I was waiting for a convenient day. Maybe I’d have some reason to be in the neighborhood. I could swing by then. I figured I’d see it at some point. I’ve been following and appreciating his work for a decade. This was another iteration of his ongoing project The invisible enemy should not exist (2007-).
I’ve also been working on my book about Assyrian queens in the Northwest Palace at Nimrud. This is part of the reason why I hadn’t yet made it to Chelsea. I try to spend my working hours tucked in at the library.
Rarely do I wake up (on a Saturday nonetheless) and say “I have an idea! I have to go write! Sorry dear husband, but can I leave you with little girl for an hour or so? I have to find a quiet place and write this down.” I had an idea about Room F of the palace.
I got myself to a spot, and started to type. Then an iMessage popped up. Oh no, I thought. I probably need to go back home. But that was not it. It was a friend reminding me it was the last day of the Rakowitz show. Ok, I’ll make it happen. We’ll check it out this afternoon.
Family in tow, I walked into the Jane Lombard Gallery about an hour before closing. Perfect timing. But even more perfect, and serendipitous, or psychic, or just crazy, is that I walked right into Room F of the palace!! Maybe somewhere in my subconscious I’d absorbed the show title; maybe I actually, deep down knew the close-date. But I had no recollection of these facts. I’d been operating on the vague notion of “Rakowitz show is up in Chelsea…” I was completely surprised, totally delighted, floored, and down-right freaked out to find myself at the eleventh hour in the room I probably dreamt about the night before.
I quickly tried to take every picture I could of every element of the show. It was for sale, as one complete installation. I will probably never see this again. I kept imagining it set up in its new home, maybe in Hollywood, overlooking an infinity pool from a room of glass walls. What would it mean there? Would it matter?
The work itself recreates the massive carved stone, once-painted panels that lined the walls of Room F on Nimrud’s Northwest Palace in the 800s to 600s BCE. Room F is described among ancient Near Eastern specialists as the “back room” or “retiring room” of the main throneroom. It is described in the show as a banquet hall. Sure, banquets might have been held here. I like the idea of imagining the space as it was once lived in. Maybe the new owner will install this in their dining room.
The installation consists of five panels, each over seven feet tall, displaying colorful sacred trees and bird-headed, human-bodied, winged creatures (apkallu) carrying cones and buckets with which they ritually treat the blossoming palm (the emblem of the Assyrian empire).
The Arabic words on the collaged scraps of candy wrappers, tea cartons, and newspaper collide with a daintily printed cuneiform text that runs across the panels in gold script evoking the ancient inscription carved on the original stone slabs (“…great king, strong king, king of the universe…”).
The dark patches, cracks, and swaths breaking up the images indicate surfaces lost to the ages. The gaps between the panels remind us of the palace’s more recent losses — these gaps refer to the places where nineteenth-century archaeologists extracted the neighboring slabs, now embedded in Western collections, such as the Assyrian gallery of Met uptown.
The wooden beams extending from the panels emphasize their lost architectural context, while also propping these ghosts of recent and ancient memories up in our living world after their most recent tragedy. Rakowitz’s panels reconstruct the sculptures that were still in place at the excavated palace site when Nimrud fell to the hands of ISIS in 2015.
“The act was a crime against Assyria, against Iraq, and against humanity. Destroy the past, and you control the future. – Tom Holland” read a quote at my feet. Another quote on the floor said “Fueled by an insatiable appetite for Near Eastern antiquities, sites throughout Iraq are being worked daily by teams of looters in search of ‘merchandise.’” These are the words of Dr. Selma Al-Radi, to whose memory, and the memories of two other archaeologists, Dr. Sam Paley and Dr. Donny George, the show is dedicated.
Amy Herritt so kindly took some time to step away from the desk and give me a tour. She was telling me about Rakowitz’s interest in dates as a symbol of the Iraqi people (his Fourth Plinth lamassu was made of date syrup cans) and the aptness of the Assyrian sacred trees he chose to reconstruct being date palms. As she was talking, I was also being tugged by the crescendo of ‘Mommy, mommy, mommy…” and so many layers of so many worlds collided again.