by Hiba Ali
The history of modernism is wrapped within it a city’s architecture and communities. Buildings not only reflect the trends in vogue, but also taste—the concept of ‘social capital’ coined by Pierre Bourdieu—used to describe a historicized socio-political class construction, coded with value.[i] These ongoing imprints are reflected in Louis Sullivan’s architectural language, which echoes the style of Turkish master decorative sculptor Kemal Cimbiz, and the atelier of Garabet Cezayirlin. Sullivan’s modernist architecture, alongside his mentor, John Edelman, and his pupils Frank Lloyd Wright and George Grant Elmslie, created Chicago’s rich architectural legacy. Similarly, Cezayirlin’s style of architectural ornamentation is said to adorn over three miles of Istanbul’s iconic art nouveau buildings. The architectural traditions of both Istanbul and Chicago bespeak an ongoing institutional sense of place-making.
In the multi-site exhibition, The Flesh Is Yours, The Bones Are Ours (2016), at the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Michael Rakowitz illustrates the socio-political value of architecture through the process of building—from the artisan, historian, and citizen perspective. Each have distinct goals. For the artisan, it is important to pass down knowledge of construction. The historian must study and hold the knowledge of the city’s communities and their architectural structures, and the citizen, whose daily life is structured around these spaces and inhabits them every day. Most salient throughout both exhibitions is that architectural forms in either city have continued to affect and be affected by their present usage–even if the demands of its inhabitants come at the expense of the building itself.
The opening of The Flesh Is Yours, The Bones Are Ours coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. The title of the exhibition refers to a Turkish saying, from when an apprentice starts training with a master—the pupil is under the master’s tutelage. Delineating the process of how artisan expertise and skills, like history, can be passed down from one member to another parallels the relationship between the architectural history of Chicago and Armenian contributions to Istanbul.
The motifs within Rakowitz’s works refer to organic and inorganic elements, constitutive of Sullivan’s and Cezayirlin’s architectural motifs in both Chicago and Istanbul respectively. Responding to Cezayirlin’s use of delicate ornamentation, Rakowitz embeds the use of bones as material—both from deceased dogs and livestock—in seven different molds used to cast the forms in multiple reliefs. The canine remains were recovered from dogs that were driven out of town on the island of Sivriada by the Turkish authorities in 1910 in the name of modernity. The livestock bones used in the molds are from Vakifli, Turkey’s only remaining Armenian village. Rakowitz reflects on the presence of many bodies within constructed shared spaces to formulate a more inclusive concept of the term ‘citizen,’ including humans, plants and animals.
The Graham Foundation’s architecture, inspired by German neoclassicism and the Prairie School, adds to the exhibition. The Flesh Is Yours, The Bones Are Ours elucidates the epistemology of history: by navigating around the reliefs, installed tightly across the entire floor of the space, and observing their designs, viewers are close to—yet still at a distance from—understanding the objects that lie beneath us. History seems to exist separately from the present individual—yet, as a society, pre-existing ideological structures still imply the individual’s creative power to shape history. In the context of the Armenian history Rakowitz illustrates, the people have been deprived of their social agency, not only in their community but also their within their own history. The Armenian genocide of 1915, which took place during World War I, is still denied by the Turkish state.[ii] The vetting of a history’s construction is conscripted and preserved through nation-state mechanisms.
Upstairs, a series of notes are inscribed on the windows of the space, as well as on tables detailing the research and creation process of the reliefs in the exhibition below. The table arrangement strikes a similarity to one of Rakowitz’s previous works as a part of Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s group exhibition The Way of the Shovel (2013), curated by Dieter Roelstraete. In the sculptural installation called The invisible enemy should not exist (2007), Rakowitz laid out objects and artifacts stolen reconstructed from paper-mache from the National Museum of Iraq, in Baghdad following the US invasion in 2003. These archaeological artifacts are a part of an ancient history, some of which connect back to the city of Babylon. When objects of this sort are erased from existence, they enable Orientalist constructions of history to proliferate itself within the dominant historical narrative— as if nothing existed there to begin with. As an official from George W. Bush’s administration stated to journalist Ron Suskind, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”[iii] [iv] By presenting how complex historical forces shape our reality, Rakowitz’s practice continuously challenges the narrow definitions of those who believe that it is their sole right to shape it.
As visitors step outside of the Graham Foundation, and into the garden area, they will see motif tiles submerged underwater. This act refers to the burial of history—a metaphor that traces how specific narratives are archaeologically unearthed, as well as those that are deliberately erased. Opposing linear narratives, Rakowitz deliberately frames history as a process of constant transcription. Re-framing and centering diasporas who are continuously being placed outside history is reflected in his previous collaboration with cultural-studies academic Ella Shohat, entitled Dar Al Sahl (“Domain of Conciliation”) (2014), whose name refers to a period of religious tolerance within the Ottoman Empire. The project, part of New York City-based Creative Time and Public Art Agency Sweden in Stockholm, brought in a food truck serving recipes cooked in Rakowitz mother’s Iraqui-Jewish kitchens to Arab and Muslim neighborhoods. By illustrating the similarities in cuisine between the Jews and their Muslim and Arab neighbors, Rakowitz and Shohat pointed to a time prior to the exodus of this once large community of 150,000.[v] The exodus, which began in the 1940s, occurred due to retaliation and riots brought about the establishment of the state of Israel.[vi]
Rakowitz’s work continues to impress onto the viewer their engagement with the epistemology of history and the crucial act of narrative construction, which is fundamental to the act of conscription. Furthermore, The Flesh Is Yours, The Bones Are Ours brings communities that are repeatedly put on the periphery of a nation-state framework of history into the center. We are reminded of the deliberate erasure of indigenous communities who inhabited locations before they were called “Chicago” or “Istanbul” and their contributions, which have shaped the ground that we currently reside upon.
The Flesh is Yours, The Bones Are Ours at The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and Rhona Hoffman Gallery runs through August 13, 2016
Hiba Ali is an International Contributor for THE SEEN