For the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz, the recent American reckoning with its problematic monuments was inevitable.
The sculpture in Grant Park of Christopher Columbus, for instance, became a contested site during the civil unrest in Chicago after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and then was removed for its own protection. In Richmond, Va., in the former Confederate South, a triumphant monument to the defeated secessionist Robert E. Lee took on new meaning when Black Lives Matter protesters covered it in graffiti, before its state eventually took it down.
Even before that heated summer, Rakowitz found that talking with his Northwestern University students about contradictions and challenges in our civic history was an inspiring process of inquiry. Those conversations helped lead him to “The Monument, the Monster and the Maquette,” his small but intense new exhibition that opens May 6 at Rhona Hoffman Gallery in West Town.
Known for making reconstructions of antiquities looted from or destroyed in Iraq after its post-9/11 U.S. occupation, the 48-year-old Edgewater resident has exhibited globally and his art has attracted international collectors and honors. He sees his new sculptures — the biggest one built from artifacts with direct ties to Lee memorials — as engaging in a sharp dialogue with monuments that have been removed and those that remain standing.
“What,” he wondered out loud during a conversation this week in the gallery, “does it mean for people to have to navigate their lives around, you know, certain monuments that one could call racist, white supremacist, settler colonial? … If you’re an Indigenous youth growing up in Chicago, seeing Columbus on a plinth, it communicates not simply the celebration of circumnavigation around the globe. It’s celebrating the start of the genocide.”
The show’s centerpiece is a purposefully baroque critique of monuments and their makers called American Golem. The sculpture demonstrates direct connections between two pairs of monuments that shared designers: a vanquished Lee memorial in Charlottesville, Va., and the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in Washington, D.C., which were both designed by sculptor Henry Shrady; and the Lincoln Memorial and a Confederate memorial in Wilmington, N.C., both designed by Henry Bacon. The North Carolina memorial came down in 2020 following Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
To put the menacing, vaguely corporeal form together, Rakowitz collected domestic items from some of the same artists, foundries and quarries responsible for the original monuments. The wooden form that serves as the Golem figure’s torso was once used to cast bells for Southern churches; the artist said he found it in a store offering it as “hipster décor.”
In his own handwriting, he tells the stories of the connections between old and new, printed directly atop the little sculptures, marble slabs and bellmaking forms.
“The work that I wanted to do for this exhibition really revolves around watching this quote from the novelist Robert Musil — who said that there is nothing more invisible than a monument — suddenly become a contradiction in a way,” said Rakowitz, a native New Yorker. After the Floyd killing and the civil protests calling attention to racial injustice that followed, “people started to really pay attention to who was in front of them on these pedestals.”
His new works, he said, were influenced “very much by what happened on the streets during that time, and what’s still happening now.”
WBEZ asked Rakowitz to explain the artistic process behind three works in the exhibition, which runs through June 18. The responses were edited for clarity and concision.
On the sculpture “Behemoth”
Rakowitz: “The form that’s underneath here is modeled after the way the Robert E. Lee statue looked in Charlottesville when it was wrapped in the tarp. For me, it’s about the living and breathing process, that these impulses that led to the Lee statue going up in Charlottesville are still very much alive.
Even our own mayor is talking about taking this [Columbus monument] that had been wrapped up and then removed and putting it back out. So it’s like, you take a breath out, you take a breath in. These things perpetually rising and falling showed that those impulses are still very much alive. And it’s showing some of the cruelty of that indecision, you know, the inability to let it go.”
On his centerpiece figure “American Golem”
Rakowitz: “As I started to collect all of these works, all of these things that existed on the domestic scale by the same artists, I started to think about how they might all be put together, and how they’re all imbued with a certain kind of power. And to create this kind of American Golem, you know, which starts to do its job as a monster.And as I do often with my projects, just being able to kind of mark them up with writing becomes a form of drawing for me. But it also in some ways continues this legacy of the way in which those monuments were marked up by people. They started to become wrapped in truth when people, you know, wrote messages on them, spray-painted them.
And so this one really talks about the fact that, when you look at both sides of the horse, it tells a story about the Grant Memorial and then the Lee Memorial. But of course Shrady’s story is not unique in this sense. You had many of these sculptors who were then doing things that were for the North and the South. And so I’m thinking about it as this two-sided monster.”
On a set of five drawings that show monuments through history that have found new life, including one in Grant Park
Rakowitz: “It’s really looking at what these monuments can be, that there’s actually potentiality of thinking about these things having a second life.
This one is the story of how, in 1897, a bronze statue of Columbus was removed from what is now Grant Park. Back then it was called Lake Park. In 1905, it was melted down and recast as President William McKinley — who enforced these anti-Indigenous laws. But it was melted down because people thought it was so hideous.”
I found it through a WBEZ piece about the city’s monuments committee and thinking about, you know, the way in which people see this as iconoclasm when in fact, there’s actually precedent for melting down a statue — and a Columbus statue — in Chicago.