(G)Hosting the Past: On Michael Rakowitz’s “Reapparitions”

7 February, 2022
Close up of “The Invis­i­ble Ene­my Should Not Exist,” Michael Rakowitz, Sec­tion 1, RoomC, North­west Palace (pho­to­graph by Kay­han Kay­gusuz, cour­tesy of PiArt­works, Istan­bul, 2021).
American artist Michael Rakowitz (b. 1973) grew up in an Iraqi family in New York, and lives and works in Chicago. Across two decades, his practice has focused on highlighting the invisibility of Iraqis beyond images of conflict, either through food, archaeological artifacts or other narratives. In “Réapparitions,” on view from February 25 to June 12, 2022 at FRAC in France, the artist recreates or “re-appears” the missing and destroyed artifacts taken from the National Museum of Iraq after the American invasion in the early 2000s.


Arie Amaya-Akkermans


The sights on the fer­ry from Karaköy to Fen­er, the his­tor­i­cal Greek dis­trict, a quar­ter mid­way up the Gold­en Horn, between Istanbul’s his­tor­i­cal penin­su­la and the dis­trict of Eyüp, is some­thing to behold: At dusk the orange skies of the city cast a shad­ow of fire over the undu­lat­ing waters, pop­u­lat­ed by flocks of seag­ulls care­ful­ly tip­toe­ing on the stri­a­tion of the cur­rent. Right off the Bosporus strait, the opu­lent vis­tas from the inlet allow you to con­sume his­to­ry in blocks, from the pro­trud­ing dome of the 6th cen­tu­ry Hagia Sophia, to the unfin­ished lux­u­ry apart­ments ris­ing uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly at the edge of the ship­yards on the oppo­site side of the prom­e­nade. There’s some­thing allur­ing about this hor­i­zon­tal stratig­ra­phy. Approach­ing Bal­at, the sky­line resem­bles a stack of cake slices (as the wood­en man­sions of the area are known in the local archi­tec­tur­al slang): Col­or­ful mul­ti-sto­ry hous­es paint­ed in vibrant pas­tel col­ors form the pic­turesque facade of a luke­warm present, eas­i­ly digestible and adorned with church­es and palazzos. 

Pha­nar Greek Ortho­dox Col­lege in the Fen­er quarter.

Upon clos­er inspec­tion, how­ev­er, when you arrive on the main­land, the inten­tion­al time warp rapid­ly evap­o­rates: Many of the paint­ed hous­es are car­cass­es, and in fact just facades—they’re aban­doned emp­ty shells, derelict inside. These ghost dwellings are paint­ed out­ward­ly in order to give the illu­sion of ordi­nary life that is so trea­sured by the con­tem­po­rary tourist. A bill­board erect­ed by the munic­i­pal­i­ty cel­e­brates the accom­plish­ment of keep­ing alive this ear­ly mod­ern her­itage. But only a few blocks ahead, off the main streets, most of the hous­es are slow­ly crum­bling or wait­ing to be sold en masse. Demo­li­tions are fre­quent, and as these frag­ile ghosts quick­ly dis­ap­pear, the emp­ty plots reveal that the adjoin­ing hous­es are also aban­doned, rot­ting corpses. Yet the his­to­ry of Fen­er is more than a cat­a­log of ruins: After the fall of Con­stan­tino­ple in 1453, it became home to many Greeks from the city, giv­ing rise to the demonym Pha­nari­otes, a wealthy mer­chant class who occu­pied impor­tant posi­tions in the Ottoman Empire.

Even though Fen­er is the tra­di­tion­al seat of the Ecu­meni­cal Patri­ar­chate of Con­stan­tino­ple, the Greek pres­ence in the neigh­bor­hood is so faint today that in spite of the grand metaphor of tourism, noth­ing is imme­di­ate­ly vis­i­ble — it needs to be force­ful­ly exca­vat­ed. It’s not that noth­ing remains, but that every­thing has become so dis­fig­ured as to become ungras­pable. But the thin­ning past isn’t a Greek copy­right: Once upon a time the Jew­ish Quar­ter of Istan­bul, the larg­er Bal­at dis­trict, was home to a cos­mopoli­tan pop­u­la­tion, includ­ing also Arme­ni­ans. Minor­i­ty pop­u­la­tions were forced to leave as a result of riots, geno­cide and expul­sions through­out the 20th cen­tu­ry. Today touristy cafes coex­ist with syn­a­gogues guard­ed behind barbed wire fences. The kind of “thana­tourism” (“dark tourism” involv­ing trav­el to places his­tor­i­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with death and tragedy) sur­round­ing Fen­er is of a par­tic­u­lar kind, since the objects of his­tor­i­cal con­sump­tion are not read­i­ly avail­able, or obvi­ous to the onlook­er; they shine in their absence. 

‘These are place hold­ers for human lives that can­not be recon­struct­ed and are still look­ing for sanc­tu­ary.’ In an era of glob­al strife, with home­less peo­ple wan­der­ing around the world, we won­der often about the ancient notions of sanc­tu­ary and hos­pi­tal­i­ty, sacro­sanct in our tra­di­tions, and yet so far from our polit­i­cal reality. 

With one grand excep­tion. A friend writes to me: “Unique­ly weird place with the usu­al Gala­ta het­e­ro­clite archi­tec­ture, scrunched togeth­er hor­i­zon­tal­ly and also piled ver­ti­cal­ly, with that 19th cen­tu­ry ghost school float­ing on top, ever-present, like some appari­tion.” He refers to the Pha­nar Greek Ortho­dox Col­lege, orig­i­nal­ly found­ed in 1454 by Patri­arch Gen­na­dius II, the old­est and most pres­ti­gious Greek school in Istan­bul, housed now in an icon­ic red cas­tle going back to 1881, designed by Kon­standi­nos Dimadis. The school has weath­ered out all the expul­sions and dis­place­ments of the country’s Greek pop­u­la­tion, and though its future is uncer­tain, it remains indeed an appari­tion, a ghost in the flesh, perched atop a hill.

Anoth­er view of Fen­er (pho­to cour­tesy Barış Yapar).

There exists a sense of con­ti­nu­ity between the grand mon­u­men­tal­i­ty of the build­ing and the dif­fi­cul­ty in locat­ing the actu­al con­text and con­tent of the sur­round­ing ruin — they’re com­ple­men­tary. But how does one make an appari­tion gain depth or resur­face when its mean­ing has become obscured? On the oppo­site direc­tion of the fer­ry jour­ney, from Fen­er to Karaköy, anoth­er men­tal arch­i­pel­ago of unmet tourist fan­tasies, we begin to unveil appari­tions from a dis­tant past, as a par­a­digm for the kind of his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal prac­tice that we wish to deploy when faced with the phys­i­cal extinc­tion of cul­tur­al mem­o­ry com­bined with archi­tec­tur­al grandeur, as we wit­ness in Istanbul’s Bal­at neighborhood.

In his project, “The Invis­i­ble Ene­my Should Not Exist,” a small sec­tion of which was on show at the end of last year at Karaköy’s Pi Art­works,  Michael Rakowitz began to recre­ate the miss­ing and destroyed arti­facts tak­en from the Nation­al Muse­um of Iraq after the Amer­i­can inva­sion in the ear­ly 2000s.

The task is of course unat­tain­able as there are more than 7,000 arti­facts, and so far, Rakowitz and his team have recre­at­ed about 900 of them. (The artist has always been care­ful to name all the mem­bers in his team, in order to high­light the obscu­ri­ty of labor in con­tem­po­rary art, which res­onates with the archae­o­log­i­cal con­text where it is indeed unnamed labor­ers who under­take the task of excavation.)

But to use the term recre­at­ing is mis­lead­ing here, for what we’re deal­ing with is not an arche­o­log­i­cal restora­tion or recon­struc­tion that aims to replace the past with a sem­blance, but what Rakowitz call re-pres­enc­ing or re-appear­ing: For the artist these are not recon­struc­tions or repli­cas, but reap­pear­ances. In this spec­tral, and yet wild­ly col­or­ful form (mak­ing ref­er­ence to the arche­o­log­i­cal debate on poly­chromy), these are ghosts that rep­re­sent the lost Iraqis. In his 2021 lec­ture at the Ori­en­tal Insti­tute in Chica­go, (G)Hosting, Rakowitz uses a beau­ti­ful metaphor: “These are place hold­ers for human lives that can­not be recon­struct­ed and are still look­ing for sanc­tu­ary.” In an era of glob­al strife, with home­less peo­ple wan­der­ing around the world, we won­der often about the ancient notions of sanc­tu­ary and hos­pi­tal­i­ty, sacro­sanct in our tra­di­tions, and yet so far from our polit­i­cal reality. 

Anoth­er view shows the scale of “The Invis­i­ble Ene­my Should Not Exist,” Michael Rakowitz.

A num­ber of Michael Rakowitz’s (re)apparitions of objects from the Nation­al Muse­um reveal them­selves in Istan­bul mod­est­ly laid on a table, and yet they estab­lish a dia­logue with us from an unreach­able time—a time of des­ti­tu­tion and pow­er­less­ness, not acces­si­ble from our two-dimen­sion­al present. As ghosts, they occu­py an inter­me­di­ate in-between where they’ve died but remain unburied, miss­ing and rest­less. They are sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly doc­u­ment­ed in the exhi­bi­tion in the man­ner of an archae­o­log­i­cal dis­play: “Muse­um num­ber: Unknown. Exca­va­tion num­ber: Kh. I 226. Prove­nience: Khafa­je. Dimension(s) (in cm): 21 x 19 cm. Mate­r­i­al: Bitu­mi­nous stone. Date: Ear­ly Dynas­tic II (ca. 2600 BC). Descrip­tion: Frag­ment of relief plaque, for­mer­ly inlaid (inlays miss­ing); low­er part shows out­lines of two boats with rud­ders. Sta­tus: Unknown.” The clin­i­cal oper­a­tion at work in muse­um acces­sion cards is repli­cat­ed almost entire­ly by Rakowitz and his team, even though we are deal­ing here with objects made of card­board, food pack­ag­ing, news­pa­pers, and glue.

These new labels, how­ev­er, instead of pro­vid­ing links to the exist­ing schol­ar­ship (as muse­ums cus­tom­ar­i­ly would do), relay quotes as frag­ments of con­ver­sa­tions between the dif­fer­ent lay­ers of the past, cre­at­ing extend­ed knowl­edge net­works between arche­ol­o­gists, artists, politi­cians, col­lec­tors and the like: “Our arche­o­log­i­cal her­itage is a non­re­new­able resource. When a part is destroyed that part is lost for­ev­er” (Usam Ghaiden and Anna Paolin). “Chap­ters in our under­stand­ing of human devel­op­ment will nev­er be rewrit­ten” (Mic­ah Garen and Marie-Hélène Car­letoni). “Let me say one oth­er thing. The images you are see­ing on tele­vi­sion you are see­ing over, and over, and over, and it’s the same pic­ture of some per­son walk­ing out of some build­ing with a vase, and you see it 20 times, and you think, My good­ness, were there that many vas­es? (Laugh­ter) Is it pos­si­ble that there were that many vas­es in the whole coun­try?” (Don­ald Rums­feld). It is an alle­gor­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion about the mean­ing and val­ue of heritage.

A more ambi­tious part of the project begins in 2015, fol­low­ing the destruc­tion wrought by the Islam­ic State on Iraqi antiq­ui­ties, when Rakowitz sets out to re-pres­ence what was destroyed, which cat­a­pult­ed his prac­tice to an entire­ly new lev­el of inter­sec­tion­al con­ver­sa­tions with the vio­lent past of arche­ol­o­gy and colo­nial­ism in the region. Many have seen the famous Lamas­su that was unveiled in 2018 on the fourth plinth of Trafal­gar Square in Lon­don (made out of cans of date syrup) as a pub­lic art com­mis­sion; an Assyr­i­an pro­tec­tive deity in the shape of a winged bull, guard­ing the Ner­gal Gate of Nin­eveh, near Mosul, from 700 BC until it was destroyed in 2015 by ISIS. Rakowitz is keen to remark in his Chica­go lec­ture that the Lon­don mon­u­ment, as a “place-hold­er,” is not only a ghost of the orig­i­nal, hop­ing to return in the future, but it also sits in judg­ment, between the insti­tu­tions that hold Iraqi antiq­ui­ties tak­en dur­ing the colo­nial era and the insti­tu­tions that made the deci­sion to invade Iraq in the 2000s.

“The Invis­i­ble Ene­my Should Not Exist,” Michael Rakowitz, Sec­tion 1, RoomC, North­west Palace, pho­to­graph by Kay­han Kay­gusuz, cour­tesy of PiArt­works, Istan­bul, 2021.

And the real pow­er of these ghosts is only unleashed when Rakowitz turns his atten­tion toward a roy­al palace in Nim­rud, known as Kalhu in Ara­bic, some thir­ty kilo­me­ters south of Mosul. The North­west Palace, inau­gu­rat­ed around 879 BC, under King Ashur­nasir­pal II of Assyr­ia, a bru­tal ruler, amass­ing spec­tac­u­lar wealth, and embark­ing on an expan­sion cam­paign from the Asia Minor to Syr­ia. The destruc­tion of the palace dur­ing ISIS occu­pa­tion of Mosul is so exten­sive that it is esti­mat­ed over 60% of the exca­vat­ed area is lost beyond repair. Accord­ing to US media at the time: “Sev­er­al videos released by the mil­i­tants last year show ISIS fight­ers using sledge­ham­mers, pow­er tools, and bull­doz­ers to demol­ish price­less sculp­tures and stone carv­ings. What they didn’t destroy with explo­sives they tore down by hand.” The palace is a humon­gous struc­ture, on the east bank of the Tigris Riv­er, cov­er­ing 28,000 square meters, designed around three or four lav­ish­ly dec­o­rat­ed courtyards.

But when ISIS entered the site in 2015, it wasn’t any­thing like a fresh ruin—the ruin is an ide­o­log­i­cal pro­duc­tion. Arche­ol­o­gists had exten­sive­ly exca­vat­ed the site since it was redis­cov­ered by Austen Hen­ry Layard in the 1840s. Sub­se­quent exca­va­tions by British, Pol­ish, Ital­ian and Iraqi arche­ol­o­gists, as well as by oppor­tunist loot­ers, have scat­tered the con­tents of the palace to all the cor­ners of the earth—there’s mate­r­i­al from Nim­rud in muse­ums in 20 coun­tries, the vast major­i­ty in Britain and the Unit­ed States.

Rakowitz and his stu­dio have reap­peared 7 rooms from Kalhu: N, G, Z, H, sec­tions from rooms F and S, and sec­tion 1 of room C that was on show in Istan­bul. Fol­low­ing their sig­na­ture method, work­ing on relief sculp­tures on wood pan­els, the team has cre­at­ed the col­or­ful reliefs from news­pa­pers and food pack­ag­ing, leav­ing out in dark shades the parts of the relief that were already missing.

One of the most inter­est­ing cura­to­r­i­al strate­gies in the project is leav­ing out the loot­ed reliefs which are now impris­oned souls in colo­nial insti­tu­tions (an expres­sion I learnt from the late Peru­vian artist Juan Javier Salazar) in the West. These emp­ty spaces car­ry weight turned upside down. In the Istan­bul exhi­bi­tion, three of those blank spaces are vis­i­ble: Vir­ginia Muse­um of Fine Arts, Vorderasi­atis­ches Muse­um and the Istan­bul Arche­o­log­i­cal Muse­ums; a fourth relief, C‑10, almost entire­ly destroyed, is reap­peared, and belongs to the Nation­al Muse­um of Iraq—7 oth­er frag­ments from the room are dis­played in oth­er muse­ums, as we learn from exist­ing scholarship.

“The Invis­i­ble Ene­my Should Not Exist,” Michael Rakowitz, Room G, North­west Palace (pho­to cour­tesy Bar­bara Wien, Berlin, 2019).

The emp­ty space left for the entire slab kept at the Istan­bul Arche­o­log­i­cal Muse­ums, C11, hits home, and makes us won­der, why would there be a blank space for a region­al muse­um, in the heart of the Mid­dle East, amongst the West­ern colo­nial insti­tu­tions? The his­to­ry of the muse­um, one of the first colo­nial muse­ums in the world, along­side the Lou­vre and the Met­ro­pol­i­tan, deserves atten­tion on its own: Found­ed in 1891, as the Ottoman Impe­r­i­al Muse­um by Osman Ham­di Bey, it amassed a great col­lec­tion due to an impe­r­i­al decree pro­tect­ing cul­tur­al goods in the Ottoman Empire. Gov­er­nors from all the provinces would send in arti­facts to the cap­i­tal city, in what amounts to cul­tur­al extrac­tion from all the peo­ples of the vast Ottoman state.

But this would be a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly tur­bu­lent era, replete with admin­is­tra­tive chaos, net­works of local spies, for­eign dig­gers, licensed expe­di­tions, incom­plete inven­to­ries and per­son­al loot that facil­i­tat­ed the rapid extrac­tion of antiq­ui­ties from the Ottoman lands in the 19th cen­tu­ry. The his­to­ry of the Ottoman Impe­r­i­al Muse­um is a riv­et­ing account of an era when the ques­tion of who owns antiq­ui­ty was asked con­stant­ly: In 1883, while the muse­um was under devel­op­ment, French arche­ol­o­gist Salomon Reinach pub­lished a paper ques­tion­ing whether Turks should be per­mit­ted to own antiq­ui­ties belong­ing to the clas­si­cal past of Europe, and a pro­pos­al was launched to acquire all the antiq­ui­ties in Istan­bul, and in exchange, present the Ottoman state with a large assort­ment of gifts, con­sist­ing of pieces of Tur­kic art (such as swords, minia­tures, pot­tery and car­pets), scat­tered all over the world, to form a nation­al muse­um of Turk­ish art.

Rakowitz has always been aware of the invis­i­bil­i­ty of Iraqis to the Amer­i­can pub­lic except as com­bat­ants and dead bod­ies pre­sent­ed in high def­i­n­i­tion sound and images on TV. Sim­i­lar­ly, minori­ties in Istan­bul, now and in the past, are often only pre­sent­ed as deviants, crim­i­nals and outlaws.

In Feb­ru­ary, Rakowitz will open the exhi­bi­tion “Réap­pari­tions” at FRAC Lor­raine, in France, with reliefs from room G of North­west Palace, a much larg­er room, also exca­vat­ed by Layard in 1846. 12 muse­ums and an anony­mous pri­vate col­lec­tor have kept dif­fer­ent parts of the room, along­side over 16 miss­ing frag­ments and an aston­ish­ing 28 remain­ing frag­ments in situ, now pre­sum­ably destroyed. The Istan­bul Arche­o­log­i­cal Muse­ums appear again, with 3 dif­fer­ent frag­ments, con­firm­ing their place of hon­or among the loot muse­ums of the world.

Syr­i­an mar­ket in Fatih (pho­to cour­tesy Arie Akkermans).

But there remains a key to unlock in the con­sti­tu­tion of Rakowitz’s re-appari­tions that will soon link them to the dis­ap­pari­tions of Istanbul’s Fen­er: The food pack­ag­ings used in the sculp­tures (all of them their real size), are com­ing from the col­or­ful wrap­pings, box­es and cans of Mid­dle East­ern foods avail­able in Amer­i­can super­mar­kets, and in the eyes of Rakowitz, a way in which peo­ples have bypassed sanc­tions and closed bor­ders to reap­pear in anoth­er geog­ra­phy (Arab news­pa­pers from Chica­go and oth­er Amer­i­can cities have been also used). It all start­ed with cans of date syrup pro­duced in Iraq but labeled in Lebanon, and lat­er on, in the Netherlands.

The inti­mate and cru­cial rela­tion­ship in Rakowitz’s work between food and reap­pear­ances, as embod­ied in his ear­li­er project “Ene­my Kitchen”, turn­ing around a nar­ra­tive of opac­i­ty to make Iraqi cui­sine vis­i­ble to an Amer­i­can audi­ence, allows you to think through a sub­ter­ranean lay­er of visu­al and sen­so­r­i­al mem­o­ry, hid­den behind the hol­low facades of Fen­er: Beyond the thin strip of dilap­i­dat­ed mod­ernist hous­es fac­ing the sea, past Pha­nar Col­lege, a work­ing class neigh­bor­hood starts uphill, lead­ing up to the Faith Mosque, built in 1463, by the Greek archi­tect Sinan‑ı Atik, on the edges of which, on a pedes­tri­an alley, a Syr­i­an mar­ket, casu­al­ly grows. Since the begin­ning of the ongo­ing con­flict in 2011, Syr­i­ans have set­tled around there and enact­ed some­thing like a new life: It is not the repro­duc­tion of a Syr­i­an city, but rather the pro­duc­tion of an exile, of a rup­ture, of a tem­po­ral temporality.

It’s not only the smells famil­iar to Levantines—pungent gar­lic sauce, car­damom and orange blos­som, but also the reap­pear­ance of a pop­u­lar visu­al cul­ture in the man­ner of Rakowitz: Tra­di­tion­al col­or­ful food pack­ag­ings from Syr­ia and Lebanon are repro­duced in exact resem­blance of the orig­i­nal with Ara­bic fonts, except that the con­tents are brought unmarked into Turkey from Syr­ia, and then pack­aged here as “Made in Turkey”. Are these re-appari­tions place-hold­ers for the lost lives as well as recon­struc­tions of some­thing else? Place-hold­ing in a place like Istan­bul works in two direc­tions: Not only do they stand in place for those who are imme­di­ate­ly miss­ing and are now dis­placed, but are place-hold­ers for those who were dis­placed before them. 

When I spoke of tem­po­ral tem­po­ral­i­ty, I also referred to the pre­car­i­ous­ness of their pres­ence in Istan­bul: Tox­ic nation­al­ism and cycles of pro­pa­gan­da and eco­nom­ic stress, return to haunt migrants and local minori­ties in Turkey, gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion, usu­al­ly in the same cos­mopoli­tan loca­tions, con­stant­ly threat­ened with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of pogroms, expul­sions and vio­lence. So when Michael Rakowitz states that the invis­i­ble ene­my shouldn’t exist, we won­der, who is the ene­my or the friend here? Rakowitz has always been aware of the invis­i­bil­i­ty of Iraqis to the Amer­i­can pub­lic except as com­bat­ants and dead bod­ies pre­sent­ed in high def­i­n­i­tion sound and images on TV. Sim­i­lar­ly, minori­ties in Istan­bul, now and in the past, are often only pre­sent­ed as deviants, crim­i­nals and outlaws.

In his sem­i­nal text “Pol­i­tics of Friend­ship,” Jacques Der­ri­da tells us that the polit­i­cal as such wouldn’t exist with­out the ene­my and with­out war, and that los­ing the ene­my would mean to lose the polit­i­cal itself. Thus he con­cludes that accord­ing to the clas­si­cal par­a­digms of pol­i­tics, the ene­my, often unknown, has to be made pub­lic, because the sphere of the pub­lic emerges only with the fig­ure of the ene­my. And he asks a ques­tion which would be famil­iar to Michael Rakowitz: What about deriv­ing pol­i­tics from friend­ship and not from enmity?

Der­ri­da refers to the ques­tion of friend­ship over enmi­ty, as a mem­o­ry site that con­nects his­to­ry with lived expe­ri­ence: “Friend­ship is nev­er a giv­en in the present; it belongs to the expe­ri­ence of wait­ing, of promise or engage­ment. Its dis­course is that of prayer, and at stake there is what respon­si­bil­i­ty opens to the future.” The pres­ence of Rakowitz’s re-appari­tions in Istan­bul, against the back­ground of their uncan­ny arche­o­log­i­cal vio­lence, was a bor­der­line form of tem­po­rari­ness (the gallery space has already moved else­where, a reg­u­lar occur­rence in the flu­id human geog­ra­phy of Istan­bul, remov­ing the con­text of the re-appari­tions from a phys­i­cal place), but these ghosts bereft of sanc­tu­ary, remain in con­ver­sa­tion with the local specters, wait­ing to reap­pear in whichev­er form they can. Rakowitz’s cru­cial empha­sis is on the lost lives and com­mu­ni­ties that ulti­mate­ly will nev­er be recon­struct­ed, and in lieu of which no arti­fact can stand.

Who is the host here and who is the ghost? And can ghosts offer a space of hos­pi­tal­i­ty to their own tem­po­rary hosts? Could this hos­pi­tal­i­ty be trans­lat­ed into the per­ma­nence of tem­po­ral­i­ty? In his exhi­bi­tions through­out the world, Rakowitz has invit­ed com­mu­ni­ties of Iraqi dias­po­ra to host their own West­ern hosts, in these con­texts always going around the theme of the re-appari­tion of the past in the frag­ment­ed present. The last­ing prob­lem with the ghost for the host, as I wrote else­where, is that as Der­ri­da points out, the ghost can­not even be called a being because it doesn’t exist—it is both present and non-exis­tent, and there­fore one can­not enter into mourn­ing with ghosts, because ghosts nev­er die, they always keep com­ing back…

But what if the rela­tion­ship between the ghost and the present could be trans­formed into a transtem­po­ral friend­ship, and not a forced cycli­cal rep­e­ti­tion of a vio­lent past? With­out a corpse and a bur­ial, no clo­sure or mourn­ing is ever pos­si­ble. Rakowitz’s appari­tions hold the place of oth­ers who per­ished at sea or in war or in dan­ger­ous cross­ings, and who can no longer speak to us, in the same way that objects from the past do not speak—it is us who artic­u­late these grand nar­ra­tives. Bro­ken and wing­less, the silence of the Assyr­i­an ghost con­fronts us, but this con­fronta­tion doesn’t have to be fear­ful; it’s a moment of joy, the joy of mutu­al recog­ni­tion, of sur­vival, across impass­able boundaries.



Michael Rakowitz’s “The Invis­i­ble Ene­my Should Not Exist — Sec­tion 1, Room C, North­west Palace” was on view at PiArt­works, Istan­bul, Octo­ber 28-Decem­ber 25, 2021.

“Réap­pari­tions” will be on view at FRAC Lor­raine, Metz, Feb­ru­ary 15-June 12, 2022. Rakowitz’s exhi­bi­tion “Nim­rud,” at the Wellin Muse­um, in Clin­ton, NY, Octo­ber 19, 2020-June 18, 2021, was short­list­ed as one of the best exhi­bi­tions of 2021 in the Unit­ed States by Hyper­al­ler­gic.


BaghdadIraqIstanbulIstanbul Archeological MuseumsMichael RakowitzNimrud

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is an art critic and writer based in Istanbul, formerly Beirut and Moscow. His work is mostly concerned with the relationship between archaeology, classical antiquity and modern culture in the Eastern Mediterranean, with an emphasis on contemporary art. His byline has appeared previously on Hyperallergic, the San Francisco Arts Quarterly, Canvas, Harpers Bazaar Art Arabia, and he is a regular contributor for the popular Classics blog Sententiae Antiquae. Previously, he was a guest editor of Arte East Quarterly, a recipient of an experts fellowship from IASPIS, Stockholm, and a moderator in the talks program of Art Basel.


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