Fourth plinth review – 'My heart is in my mouth' | Art and design
Michael Rakowitz’s new work for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square shimmers, even in the rain and under a leaden sky. A life-sized copy of the winged god that stood at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh from 700 BC until its destruction by Islamic State in 2015, Rakowitz’s replica in London recalls what has been lost and makes it new. Its scale perfectly matches the proportions of the empty fourth plinth. Riveted together from 10,500 empty Iraqi date-syrup cans, the relief sculpture has a disconcerting exactitude, with its polychrome wing on one side, the sheer gold wall and cuneiform inscription on the other, the god’s implacable face, its ruinous majesty.
This is a work of fragments. You can never forget how it has been cobbled and fastened together from tins, dented and cut and bent to form the creature’s flanks and legs, the tail and the pizzle, the beard and the headgear. Rakowitz has described this and other works in his ongoing series The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist as a placeholder. It is something more than that. Cultural heritage cannot be replaced. Nor is his version of the lamassu an Andy Warhol soup-can gag, a cubistic bit of bricolage or a piece of appropriation art. Nor is it like the fantastically complex decorative artworks by Napoleonic prisoners of war made from salvaged fish bones. It isn’t a model of the Eiffel Tower or Windsor Castle fashioned from matchsticks, though at some level it might remind us of all these things. There is, after all, something painfully, desperately futile about this reconstruction of an ancient deity with tin cans. It is more than mere sleight of hand.
Not only was the monumental lamassu itself destroyed by Isis, there were also book burnings and gleeful, wanton sprees of destruction in the Iraq museum in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq. Isis continued what the US bombardment and occupation began with shock-and-awe bombings and the damaging of ancient sites. Until 2015, the lamassu survived. Iraq’s date industry, the country’s second biggest export after oil, was also decimated by the destruction of millions of its date palms. Food is culture, as well as a lucrative export. Rakowitz has also set up a pop-up kiosk across the square, selling small books of recipes involving date syrup, as well as little squares of date cake and other titbits. Rakowitz’s work gives pleasure and sweetness but it has a bitter taste.
From the bronze age to modern Iraq, from the 16th-century protestant reformation to the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001, iconoclasm is always with us. Rakowitz’s project cannot replace the objects looted and destroyed in the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, or those Isis toppled and smashed in the museum in Mosul, nor the lamassu. He has instead done something with their loss and absence. Symbols and representations change their meanings with time; they are hostages to belief and ideology, to conflicting cultures. Images are powerful, which is why people have always wanted to destroy them. Fragility, sorrow and resistance, absence and presence come together in this project. The lamassu refuses to disappear. It persists. This is one of the very best fourth plinth projects. Thinking about it now, my heart is in my mouth.