Artist Michael Rakowitz on How His Saddam Hussein Dinner Party Became an International Incident

Artist Michael Rakowitz on How His Saddam Hussein Dinner Party Became an International Incident
Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz and Park Avenue chef Kevin Lasko present their art/dish collaboration at Creative Time's "Spoils"
(Photo © Micah Schmidt)

NEW YORK— When a dinner of venison topped with date and tahini sauce was served on plates taken from Saddam Hussein's private collection at Park Avenue Autumn for Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz's project "Spoils," the assorted art-world diners didn't bat an eye — but now New York City's Iraqi mission has, turning Rakowitz's piece into an international incident. The controversy, exploding on the eve of the U.S.'s supposed withdrawal from Iraq, has had reverberations touching the artist, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and president Obama himself. As Iraqi artifacts, the plates have been confiscated by the Iraqi mission after a cease-and-desist letter was sent to the restaurant, and were presented by Obama to the Prime Minister on Wednesday. 

Creative Time president Anne Pasternak, whose organization sponsored the work, wasn't exactly surprised at the dramatic turn of events — "we were thrilled" to get the cease-and-desist letter, she told ARTINFO. "It’s not the first time real life and art have come into contact with one another." But the artist had a different reaction. ARTINFO spoke to Rakowitz and got the full story of how the confiscation occurred, the details of the artist's trip to the Iraqi mission to film the handover of the plates, and why Saddam Hussein's plates are kind of like a used baseball bat from Yankee Stadium. 

When did first find out that the plates were going to be confiscated from Park Avenue Autumn?

Actually, I found out on Thanksgiving, but the cease-and-desist letter was sent to the restaurant, and it was forwarded on to me. The letter was addressed to the ownership group of Park Avenue Autumn, and it wasn’t clear to me at first where the cease-and-desist had originated. A lawyer had written it, of course, and it indicated that the State Department would be following up, and there were several people CCed in the correspondence from the UN and the State Department. After the holidays, it became clear that the language had gone from being a cease-and-desist to being a demand for the surrender of the Iraqi plates that belonged to Saddam Hussein — which was the exact word they used, “surrender.”

What followed was, I think, just an agreement from us to turn over the plates, which was something that I thought was immediately a very powerful ending to the work, and I thought it was kind of perfect. I saw these events in the frame of the project itself, not as something that stopped it. The cease-and-desist came two days before the project was supposed to end anyway, but it’s these kind of events that I think allow for the work to register in different ways.

The project certainly became a lot more public once the confiscation happened and major media outlets reported on it.

It went a lot more public, and also became a part of a conversation that involves people in power who are making critical decisions in this conflict. I think that it also relates to earlier work that I had done that’s still ongoing, dealing with the looting of the Iraq Museum — the repatriation of those items that are found in other countries, where artifacts have ended up being sold in the black market. You always end up with these repatriation ceremonies.

A big part of this work was about seeing those plates for sale on eBay and being a little bit surprised that they were for sale, but also recognizing the fact that they don’t carry with them the same immediate cachet that something like a 4,000-year-old votive statue from ancient Iraq would carry. But at the same time, the questions about its provenance and how it was acquired was a big part of the storytelling of the work.

Like the fact that you initially found the plates on eBay, put on sale by U.S. soldiers and Iraqi refugees.

Exactly. And eBay was one of the places where one of those ancient artifacts [from the Iraq museum] were first found, and eBay was very quick to shut down those auctions. Some of the Mesopotamian artifacts that were looted from Iraq museums and archeological sites have briefly shown up on eBay, and they still show up at places like auction houses across the world, which is one of the ways that archeologists have tracked them down.

But in this case, these kinds of, for lack of a better word, “war trophies” have been sold for the last eight years. It’s weird that my project was the thing that shut them down in the end. The sellers on eBay are no longer listing these pieces of flatware for sale as a result of all this.

Was your project what pushed them over the edge? You made the sales a lot more visible as a result of the "Spoils" piece.

Yeah. I think so, because it was fairly often that you could find these things for sale. There’s not a lot of it out there, but there’s enough that every week you’d see a couple of these items posted. And so, you know, the emails got more and more interesting at the beginning of December, where the State Department indicated that they would want to pick up the works from Creative Time at a certain point, that they needed an expert to come down and authenticate them, and that they wouldn’t likely be able to access an expert until after the New Year.

When I got in touch with Creative Time about it, I thought, well, this is the most amazing ending to the work, and I’d really love to be there for the repatriation ceremony, and if it’s possible, to document it as being a big part of the work. They thought it was a good idea, and they checked. Legally, it didn’t seem like there was going to be any problem, but we all thought this was something that’d happen a few weeks from now. And I just happened to be in New York for a family visit over the past few days, and was CCed on an email where the State Department said that they wanted this pick-up to happen immediately, as soon as possible.

I delayed my flight, and went into Creative Time Tuesday morning, and two U.S. marshals had shown up to pick up the work.

So it was a surprise that it happened so quickly, because they said it probably wouldn’t be until after the New Year?

Yes. And the next surprise was when I asked where they were going to go next, and figured it was going to be in storage for a while until it was authenticated and everything that they wanted to do had happened, but it turned out that they said that they were heading up to 79th Street to the Iraqi Mission and to the UN. When I asked if I could also go, they said, “Well, you can’t ride with us.”

So we saw them off, waved goodbye, ran upstairs to Creative Time, got our coats and the three of us piled into a cab and headed up to the Iraqi Mission. It was surreal. We walked into the front doors, and there were photographs of all these artifacts from the Iraq Museum, some of which were feared to have gone missing in the aftermath of the looting. That was right behind the foyer. Then, to our left, the first office, the ambassador’s office. We walked by, and it was like the perfect scene. The plates are all laid out on the table and in the office there’s an Iraqi flag, and the diplomats are all standing around, and the two marshals are standing there, and the marshals turn to us when they saw that we arrived and said, “So you made it.”

Then they shut the door, and one of the guys working for the embassy asked us to fill out something, and brought us into a waiting area, and we waited for an hour and a half. They gave us tea. Their china was Lenox, so it wasn’t very interesting. Then I suddenly realized that when you go to embassies and places like this, you’re technically standing on the soil of the country that’s represented, so I got a kick out of the fact that I was the first person in my family to go back to Iraq since 1946.

Then they invited us into the office, and let us film the situation. I guess the Deputy Ambassador introduced himself and thanked us for cooperating. He said the plates would go on exhibit in a museum in Iraq, which I thought was really fantastic, because the things that I’ve been saying for the last couple of days to people who’ve asked me — all these symbols of the Saddam regime have been destroyed with reckless abandon by either the United States forces or Iraqis themselves, and the fact that they wanted these items back shows a little bit of the reversal of that trend, which I think is really important.

The earlier process is sort of iconoclastic, attempting to destroy the remnants of Saddam-era history.

Well, it’s not so iconoclastic any more, and it’s not necessarily that I have some huge problem with iconoclasm. What I have a problem with, what I think is dangerous, is when cities and countries and places basically create systematic erasure of the traces of problems or failures. It’s important to keep those traces alive. Otherwise, amnesia ensues.

That was really important, that they were taking ownership of this part of their history. When I asked them where the order had some from, because I thought the Iraqi mission had said they were going to do it later, they said, “No. This order came directly from Washington,” and that it had come up from the Iraqi prime minister [Nouri al-Maliki] who was in town on Monday in Washington, meeting with Obama. So Maliki ordered the plates to be sent to his staff, and he brought them home on his private plane to Iraq.

The timing is impeccable. The news reports today are all about the troops going home, the plates are coming back; there’s some weird exchange there. But also the Times just ran a headline about 20 minutes ago that said that the Iraq war was officially declared over, and this time it’s not just a Yes Men project.

It was really amazing, and really something I’m still processing. Because I do these projects in public space, but also in things that circulate among the audience. The work is supposed to operate as an open system, where there’s a narrative that gets built from the beginning. The end, sometimes, isn’t really the end. But I never saw this coming.

It sounds like your project got the most significant people connected to the piece directly involved — you put the plates in a restaurant, and now they’re in the hands of the Iraqi prime minister.

I know. It’s so weird, but there’s something that’s really important in there, that culture can play a role in these discussions, and can also create new relationships and new politics.

Do you consider the plates looted artifacts, as the U.S. State Department apparently does, or are they something different?

I think maybe saying “looted artifact” is a little too simplistic. Were these taken? They were taken under circumstances that followed the invasion, that are pretty rotten circumstances, where people are living in a city that’s being decimated by bombs, and in the midst of this, they’re running to these symbols of the political power in their country that have been vacated.

It’s no myth that the Hussein regime was repressive and murderous, and that’s not meant in any way as a statement that justifies the U.S. presence there, or the invasion, but what happens in the aftermath with people moving into those buildings and taking those plates?

If you open up the front of the first couple of pages of those booklets [from the “Spoils” Creative Time project] there’s a photograph that shows two images of one of the Hussein statues being pulled down, that was from April 9, 2003, and then another photograph of a similar statue in the Iraqi city of Qurna where a man has climbed up the pedestal, standing where Saddam stood, and imitating that stance. That, for me, is very much a kind of illustration of what that plate is in the project, when it comes to the Iraqis taking these things, it’s almost like the dispersal of power, or of the symbols of power.

Like a taking back of the authority that Saddam Hussein’s regime had.  

Yeah. A little bit of repossession, a little bit of roleplay — the ability to just level the moment of judgment, whether it’s good or evil, where we can just say “power.”

And in the taking of the plates, the thing to remember is that a lot of the people who took these plates are using them in their homes! It’s become some of the daily dishware. In the case of the American soldiers who bought them, they bought them as these objects that were offered to them for sale by Iraqis, so I wouldn’t necessarily implicate the American soldiers for buying these things, because war trophies have been part of the transaction of war since the beginning of time. It’s a pretty vulgar thing, and it’s something that makes me queasy even, but I don’t want to play games here and say that this is the first time that this has happened. Anyone who has a grandfather who served in the Second World War undoubtedly has something.

It’s not quite the same thing, though. It’s coming from the Iraqis, the victims of the violence, rather than the victors. 

Right. And the folks who provided us with the plates, the two sources, one was an American soldier, who ended up serving in the division that apprehended Hussein from the spider hole, but then the other was an Iraqi refugee living in Michigan. In the case of the American soldier, he’s become like an expert on Iraq’s military and their history, basically through objects, so he tried to preserve as much as he could.

In the case of the refugee, it wasn’t like you would think, that the possession of the plates would be like an act of revenge. For this guy, the story is very special. His father was a high-ranking military officer in Iraq during the Saddam era, and was eventually given an ambassadorial position. After the U.S. invasion, his father was killed in the sectarian violence that followed, and so this guy became a refugee in Jordan. Then he appealed to the U.S. for refugee status, and ended up here. He collects these plates because it reminds him of the dinners that he used to attend when he was a kid, which were state dinners. For him, he said that it prevents him from losing his memory of those times.

So they’re not trophies for him, they’re more like totems, embodying peaceful memories instead of violent ones.

To say they’re looted artifacts is tricky. Any of these artifacts you look at in archeological context always have some trace of violence behind them. If you look at a fragmented votive statue from Babylon, there’s always a chance that it’s lost something because it was under layers of earth before it was excavated, but the likely reason is because invading armies used to lop off the hand and the heads of a lot of those figures as a way to render the image less potent.

You brought up the word iconoclasm before; this kind of iconoclasm comes with the experience of war. So you could say that these are looted artifacts or things that are acquired through questionable transactions, but I think even the soldiers were under the impression that this was legal, because they were sold these objects on military bases at the invitation of the AAFES [the Army Airforce Exchange Service], which sets up bazaars for soldiers, and those flea markets invited these vendors.

It seems like the plates have taken on a new meaning now that they’ve been re-appropriated by these new, powerful people — the Iraqi mission, the prime minister, and even president Obama. Now the plates are an illegal spoil of war that’s being repatriated, but they weren’t to begin with.

No, they weren't, but I also have to be clear that when I first look at objects like this I look at them through the lens of the past project I told you about with the Iraq museum, but then I also look at them as a collector, collecting baseball memorabilia, and Beatles records, and collectibles. There was always something about — “oh hold onto this free bat that they used to give you at Yankee Stadium during free bat day.” My dad used to tell me to keep that bat pristine because it’ll be worth something some day, and lo and behold, the bats from 1979’s bat day are valuable.

It’s not necessarily something where I would sell those things — I can’t bring myself to part with that stuff. But it’s just a way that I see these things, I don’t think of them as just plates, I think about the trace of who used something. If it’s a game-used ball or a game-used jersey, something from a sporting event, it suddenly goes from banal and mundane to sacred or profane.

I’m curious as to how you felt when this happened, when the project turned into such a big controversy. Were you surprised?

I think at the beginning of this project we had a flurry of press that said how disgusting this was, how could I do this, what an insult to the troops. The comments section of articles online were ablaze with these bits of feedback, which again I think are part of the work. I think to look at just the sensational level of the work is not seeing it through or getting into the intricacies of it.

The feeling that I had is if there was going to be a problem, the plates would not have made their way into the U.S. The plates were sent from a military base in Iraq. The boxes all listed what the contents were inside. I could say that I was amazed that we were able to get these things, but first I was amazed that you could get them on eBay. I see auctions getting shut down on eBay all the time, I spend a lot of time there… I figured if these were illegal, they’d be shutting them down. I was surprised we could find those things to begin with, but once I asked the soldier if it was legal and he said it was, it was clear to me that once we started to receive material, that yeah, wow, surprisingly it is legal.

I didn’t expect what happened, and I was surprised, but at the same time, certainly willing to accommodate these events as being an essential part of the work.

Is there anything else that has surprised you about this whole situation, or that made you think differently about the work itself?

Not necessarily. I think that the provenance of the materials was always something that was part of the questions and the layers that were in the work, so I don’t think that’s changed, but I guess I’m just really happily surprised that Iraqis want to take possession of these items and that the Iraqi government doesn’t seem to want to follow through with what seemed to be the American program of removing the symbols of the Saddam era.

There’s actually a committee that was put together, and I don’t know if it was a collaborative committee with the Americans and the Iraqis, or if it was just Americans, but it was the committee for the removal of the symbols of the Saddam era. They were responsible for taking down a lot of the statues. They started to take down that crossed swords monument in Baghdad [the Victory Arch]. When they started to take it down in 2007, there was a spike in Sunni-Shiite violence, and so they stopped taking it down. So there’s something about everything that I said before, about them keeping those traces visible and alive…

I think that any kind of amnesia or erasure is a form of repression, and psychologically, we know how unhealthy that is. So that’s maybe one of the readings of the work that I have now that I wouldn’t have unless there was this repossession of the items.

The plates are definitely still loaded symbols for those who have a connection to them.

Right. At one point I turned to the ambassador, or the deputy ambassador, when I was there, and I had printed out an article from the New York Times that I think was from 2009, that was about Bush’s library that he’s building at Southern Methodist University in Texas. One of the artifacts he wants to display there is the gun that was in Saddam Hussein’s possession when they pulled him out of the spider hole. It was given to Bush by U.S. soldiers. It was not a gift of the Iraqi government. And so I said, “Do these laws also extend to this guy?” And then when the deputy ambassador saw it, he just sort of shook his head and said, “That’s Bush, and there are going to be a different laws for Bush.”

It was sort of like, “Yeah. We all know. It’s the same thing.”