At ISAW, Michael Rakowitz Cooks Fish As Fine Art

THE DAILY PIC: A descendant of Iraqi Jews serves a meal about Iraq's present.


THE DAILY PIC (#1311): At the end of last week, I had the good luck to discover a work of relational art by Michael Rakowitz, as an add-on to the show called “From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics” at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York.

It was smart, and moving – and happened to taste great as well.

The piece, or performance – or menu – was called “Enemy Kitchen”, and consisted of a seven-dish meal served up to motley crowd of archaeologists, artists and hangers-on (i.e., your’s truly). There was fire-roasted seasoned carp (Iraq’s delicious national dish), slow-cooked lamb and eggplant (delectable) and date syrup mixed with tahini (an acquired taste), all based on recipes handed down from Rakowitz’s Iraqi-Jewish ancestors and all cooked by the artist himself. (The meal was a great retort to those who say art schools need to give training in old-fashioned drawing, painting, lithography, etc. If today’s students perfect all that, when will they find time to learn roasting?)

For a while now, Rakowitz has been making work about the cultural effects, and meanings, of America’s miserable adventure in Iraq. His meal – which he’s prepared in any number of places, for all kinds of audiences – gives those effects a literally visceral impact. The carp is cooked on a grill made from a repurposed Humvee – shown at work in today’s image – while a printed menu explains that the fish, as served, came from Illinois, since actual Iraqi carp are under fatwa because of all the corpses they’ve been swimming among. (A parenthesis describes how the breeding ponds that were meant to restore clean carp to Iraqis’ tables where destroyed last year by ISIS.)

There’s also an absurdly baroque story about how Iraqi date syrup has to be exported with a sticker that says “Product of Lebanon” (or sometimes “of the Netherlands”) to get around fees and restrictions on goods from Iraq – the country we “saved” and are now supposed to be “helping”.

If one of art’s aims is to point at how things are in the world, and talk about them with unusual power, then Rakowitz’s dinner qualifies as the finest art. (Photo by Max Shuppert, courtesy the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World)

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