A Conversation About an Eruption
Michael Rakowitz and Marianna Vecellio
2 January, 2021
An American of Jewish-Iraqi origin, Michael Rakowitz is an artist, architect, teacher, and chef. His works address the history of places and their memory. They explore the concepts of void and absence by performing a kind of symbolic re-enchantment. Interested in exploring the notion of the fragment, through his works he brings about a process of reconstruction, based on the principle of the social value of exchange, sharing and participatory actions.
In late 2020 Rakowitz was asked to create an artistic contribution for the digital program of Pompeii Commitment that would do justice to the complex and intricate story of the archeological site. This conversation, which began on January 2, 2021, took place during the genesis of his proposal, drawing out the themes close to his vision as an artist, such the idea of nourishment, the concept of the “ghost,” the creative act as an eruption, the notion of the monument, and the power of symbolic restitution that the act of re-enchantment brings with it.
Marianna Vecellio Perhaps we should start by discussing the relevance of your work to Pompeii. You’re interested in the potential for the symbolic reconstruction of places. You’ve often been confronted with damaged archaeological sites and even ruins, such as Nineveh in Iraq and Bamyan in Afghanistan, and now Pompeii.
Michael Rakowitz There’s an aspect of my work for Pompeii that I see as a continuum with what I was doing with the work Geniza and thinking about the idea of what happens when bodies are frozen in time. When I heard about the discovery in Pompeii the other day of the fast-food cart, I said “It would be amazing to do a series of cooking events, something based on this idea of nourishment.” The idea of walking and eating, or being able to stop for something to eat on the way to somewhere, is part of what makes a city. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan talks about how cities formed when people decided to cook together. So, for me, as somebody who started his career looking at architecture, and thinking about it in relationship to portraiture when it comes to shelters, cooking is a fundamental building block to the way that cities are formed. And observing that moment in Pompeii is so much related to that history. Pompeii is so rich in this sense of proximity to history.
MV The theme of participation and the spatial, ritual and community-driven dimension that forms around shared experience are a very important aspect of your approach. I’m referring to your projects on food, and to your workshops.
MR The Babylonian recipes I’ve used take a very long time to be made. A dish like Masgouf, which is a fish dish that takes hours to cook, results in a gathering of people, standing around as they wait for their fish. But while they’re waiting, they have drinks, they have mezze, all of these different things. Suddenly you realize that you have a whole community around you as the food is being made. So I have these visions of what can be done in Pompeii too, beyond just the static sculptural thing, because Pompeii is all about the thing that seems frozen. What happens if we do something that would be like these meals, engaging with archaeological and geological time?
MV The idea of food as a ritual, or of celebrating together, has to do with a sort of re-enchantment and reenactment. It’s a bringing back to life. This is pertinent to the idea of the phantom that recurs in your work. That’s very interesting for me, and relevant to Pompeii, which is a crystalized town. It’s a phantom because it’s about coming back. The idea of recalling a food celebration and being together is also a reenactment. So, it’s about the past and the present.
MR Absolutely. It’s very clear to me that right now we’re dealing with a certain kind of living among the ruins of what came before, while not being totally sure of what comes after. We’ve tried to do things that keep us together. And they’re like lifelines in a way—survival equipment—these conversations that we have with each other. And I’ve done a lot of cooking sessions with people online, with Emily Jacir in Bethlehem and in her residency program that she runs there, Dar Jacir. Everybody is in their own kitchens. Being able to do this through the website, but also to do events through the digital format, until we can gather again, is a way of mingling with the ethos of what happened in Pompeii. The moment when the food becomes enchanted, when we think about the smoke rising from our stoves, commingling with the smoke that might still be in the air from the eruption, becomes part of that aggregation of history.
MV I hadn’t thought about this. It’s also an interesting aspect to consider the ashes resulting from burning food and the ashes left by the eruption. It’s all part of the same matter.
MR It’s carbon and that’s the sign of life.
MV This idea of creating a moment of conjunction until we can gather together is beautiful. It’s like a prayer.
MR Yes. This is what I did during Passover in April, which is all about the story of the Jews escaping Egypt and then wandering for 40 years before they reach the Promised Land. Passover this year was the most amazing Passover because we couldn’t gather. So it was all about Exodus. It was all about exile. And all of a sudden, those prayers, which we had to try so hard every year to make meaningful, had a meaning that everybody understood. They were reinvigorated, they were re-enchanted with their meaning. In the same way that a monument sometimes loses its power to speak to its public, all of a sudden, it was re-inscribed with the power of the words.
MV You often reflect on the notion of monuments, especially the idea of how monuments can take new shapes, new forms, new meanings, new messages, because they recount and explain history. Through monuments, we can change the way we relate to history. I’m also thinking about the destitution of monuments during the Black Lives Matter’s protests. Our present deserves a new reading and new and different perspectives through which to see history, which are emerging from the decolonial movement and so on, but also from the revision of the Anthropocene Era, which opens up new ways to consider non-human beings, other species and other living creatures. So it’s very important how we create monuments and relate to them. This is another aspect that you confront powerfully in your practice. I’m thinking about Lamassu.
MR Yes. How can we make the monument something that’s never fixed? And I mean fixed in two ways: fixed in that it doesn’t move, and fixed in terms of the idea resulting from it. I don’t want the monument to be something that doesn’t haunt, that doesn’t require us to go back to it. That’s what Passover is. Maybe it was the first conceptual art performance in history. It was so good that people decided to do it every year. Because you have all the food that has magical meaning projected onto it. The egg symbolizes the circle of life. The ground-up apples with dates, walnuts and honey are supposed to represent the mortar that was used to put together the bricks in ancient Egypt. We come back to it every year. The reason we come back to it every year is because we need to be reminded, and so I feel we need to remember monuments, even the troubling ones. This idea that decolonization or restitution is a fulfillment that you move on from is a complete misinterpretation of the way it really works, which is to return to it. We need to be reminded, otherwise there’s no point. And monuments are a kind of fixed position. And we know all too well that this isn’t representative. We need to have places where the broken can actually be reckoned with; we need to be able to grapple with those things and really stay with the troubled aspects of it. Otherwise, for me, monuments and memorials become forgetting machines.
MV Biologist and feminist Donna Haraway uses the phrase “being with the trouble.” In her last book, Staying with the trouble. Making kin in the Chthulucene, she explains that the word trouble comes from French “troubler,” which has to do with something that is dirty, that is muddy. So it’s something that has to do with dirt, but also with the ground or the soil, which is a matter related to archaeological sites. So “being with the trouble” is very pertinent in the context of Pompeii, where the monument stays with the trouble, remains with the complexity of its meaning.
MR Exactly. You wrote about Donna Haraway in your essay for my exhibition catalogue at Castello di Rivoli.
MV Yes. I referred to the idea of “making kin,” creating and keeping kinship, and the notion of bringing different issues together. There’s never only one point of view; there are more perspectives, and that’s the only way to consider history. In recent decades, we’ve started to understand that our approach (Western, dominant, patriarchal) is insufficient, and also that the use of language has to be redefined in some way. That’s why I coined the term “comp(h)ost,” combining compost and host.
MR Absolutely. It’s about the nutrients that exist in the place where something is dead, where something is decayed. That’s where hope comes from. For me, it’s just this recognition that there will always be something new that comes from it. When we were in Sydney in 2008, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev said that these radical moments that are happening now, that are so troubling and sometimes don’t yield the most immediate results, will ultimately lead to something, will create a change, but we won’t be around to see it. My friend Carmen Lane talks about how, working as an Indigenous artist and as a black artist in the United States, they’re always working on projects about creating a world that they won’t be around to see. And so, I think that the idea of comphost, is about being aware of the fact that we need to get beyond what we see within this small mortal window we’re all given in our lives, to make a compost that’s as nutritious as possible. Because from here, other things will sprout.
MV And also to express a form of gratitude towards the world itself and our desire to give back. This is something that the artist Claire Pentecost affirms in her work: the idea that after taking so much, we need to give back a gift to Mother Earth. It’s a beautiful way to consider our participation in the world. And I like the idea of giving a gift back to Pompeii after so many centuries, because nothing is done for nothing. Everything needs a form of respect in our world. This makes us feel more responsible. The ability of response, as physic Karen Barad calls it.
MR Yes, the “response-ability.”
MV Yes, it’s an interesting aspect. And I’m sure that your contribution will bring all these ideas together.