Michael Rakowitz

New York

at Lombard-Freid


In this engaging and provocative exhibition, Michael Rakowitz considered the degree to which adolescent fantasy is woven into the pursuit of modern warfare. The show presented sculptural installations, found objects and panels, which combine handwritten text with line drawings, mimicking the style of graphic novels. One set of panels recounts the history of the hot air balloon, which was deployed as a means of spying during the French Revolution and later became the inspiration for Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. Another set of drawings tells the tale of Gerald Bull, a Canadian scientist who was inspired as a child by Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Bull went on to work for both Iraq and the U.S., contributing to the creation of the American missile defense shield. Originally disguised as an experimental means of space exploration, the yet-to-be-realized program became known as “Star Wars,” an unmistakable reference to the popular George Lucas epic and its narrative of the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

These military appropriations of popular culture pale beside the use of Star Wars mythology in Iraq during the heyday of Saddam Hussein. In other panels, Rakowitz reveals how Hussein’s son Uday based the design of the uniform worn by members of his paramilitary group Fedayeen Saddam on the Star Wars films, complete with a helmet that replicated Darth Vader’s. Iraq celebrated its 1988 “victory” over Iran with a triumphal arch composed of giant hands holding crossed swords, which echoed a famous poster for the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back. (Paintings by a friend of the man who designed the poster were later discovered in Saddam Hussein’s mansion.) At the beginning of the 1990-91 Gulf War, Iraqi soldiers participated in a televised ceremony in which they marched under the arch to the movie’s theme. Rakowitz created a version of this arch in the middle of the gallery, surrounding it with Darth Vader helmets molded from colorful G.I. Joe toys covered in clear plastic.

There were other striking convergences between fact and fiction here. Rakowitz conjectures on possible echoes of the father-son relationship between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in the equally peculiar ties between Saddam and the brutal Uday. The show also included a copy of the aforementioned Star Wars poster, along with a pulp fiction paperback described in a wall text as a “turgid romance novel” reportedly authored by Saddam Hussein himself and bearing a cover illustration appropriated from an image by Jonathon Earl Bowser, a contemporary Canadian fantasy illustrator.

Rakowitz has pulled together a fascinating set of narratives suggesting that fantasy may have been as powerful as realpolitik in shaping Saddam Hussein’s regime. One left the show wondering: would war be possible without the psychological assistance provided by our cultural myths? Or would our myths be possible without real-life war?