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Michael Rakowitz aims to connect cultures with art and a food truck |

Michael Rakowitz aims to connect cultures with art and a food truck

How does “Backstroke of the West,” the Michael Rakowitz solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, break the rules for an art show? Let us use bullets to enumerate the ways, a choice that seems appropriate for an exhibition that is in part about the connections between conflict and every-day life.

  • Its aesthetic, for Rakowitz’s high-concept riffs on Arab-American relations, recalls the workbench more than the art gallery. Unfinished wood is everywhere. Much of the text is Rakowitz’s own handwriting. Visitors enter through the exposed backside — the raw wooden framework — of a replica of the blue-tiled Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon; you only see the front when you’ve entered the exhibition
  • Some of the “wall text,” the explanatory labels museums glue up to explain what we are seeing, is printed on the floor.
  • “Backstroke’s” newly commissioned work, a short film, features a GI Joe-like doll going to the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago and telling the Iraqi artifacts there they deserve to be free. This provocateur is not just any doll; it’s Special Ops Cody, a figure sold exclusively at U.S. bases in Iraq and Kuwait, Rakowitz said, that became famous when insurgents posed it as a hostage in a temporarily convincing video.
  • And then there is the matter of the food truck parked on the plaza outside the museum, decorated with a golden eagle emblem inspired by one found on Saddam Hussein’s dinnerware. Almost weekly since the exhibit opened in mid-September, the “Enemy Kitchen” truck has served Iraqi cuisine, recipes from Rakowitz’s Iraqi-Jewish mother, free to visitors. The servers are American Iraq War veterans, and the next serving is 6 p.m. Friday.

With “Enemy Kitchen,” the Iraqi-American artist, a 43-year-old native New Yorker who lives in Evanston and teaches at Northwestern, wanted to use cuisine to encourage dialogue. What does it mean to eat the food of the “enemy,” a question he first posed when he debuted the truck in 2003? What does it mean to eat it off the paper-plate replicas of Saddam’s china that Rakowitz has made?

Or, as the artist asks in the exhibition catalog, “How could this generous hospitality be the fruit of such hostility?”

Category: Dinnerware  Tags: ,  Comments off
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