The Null Device
Michael Rakowitz, a US artist who previously created car-shaped tents for reclaiming parking spots as living space, has an exhibition at Tate Modern. Titled "The worst condition is to pass under a sword which is not one's own", the exhibition draws connections between the history of Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Western pop culture, such as professional wrestling, the G.I. Joe figurines and the history of science fiction, from Jules Verne to the Star Wars series.
The exhibition takes up a handful of rooms in a small sub-gallery on the ground level of Tate Modern. On the walls are illustrations (traced from various sources) with explanatory text, shedding light on various episodes which are, if the artist is to be believed, tied into the tangled web of this history. We read about Gerald Bull, the Canadian scientist who, seemingly influenced by the writings of Jules Verne, strove to create a giant cannon capable of hitting the Moon (or, indeed, closer targets) for Saddam Hussein; of the impact that a screening of the Star Wars film had on Saddam's then adolescent son Uday, who, a decade later, would design the uniforms of Iraq's paramilitary Fedayeen, whose helmets were modelled almost exactly on that of Darth Vader. (Rakowitz provides four helmets for comparison: the two mentioned, along with a samurai helmet and a WW1 one.) We see prints of fantasy-art posters which were found in Saddam's palaces, and other (North American) fantasy artwork which had been plagiarised for a novel said to have been written by Saddam and published before his capture. We learn of Adnan Alkaissy, the Iraqi pro wrestler who moved to the US in the 1950s and fought under the name Billy White Wolf in the US, before returning to Iraq and becoming a national champion of the regime, only to flee for the US and resume his career and old identity when his popularity threatened the regime, and the impacts the wars in the Gulf had on the characters and plot lines of US pro wrestling.
The title of the exhibition comes from the Baghdad victory arch erected by Saddam Hussein in 1989, in the form of two cyclopean hands holding crossed swords. The arch is ever-present; one wall at the entrance to the exhibition is covered with photographs taken by US soldiers posing in front of it (including a Sergeant Slaughter, who shares his name with one of the aforementioned wrestling characters), and the main room (which is visible from outside through glass) has a replica of the arch, with plastic Star Wars lightsabres, and the helmets of the vanquished at the hands' base being made of melted together G.I. Joe toys. A monitor in the corner plays a YouTube clip of troops marching through Baghdad to the Star Wars Imperial March.
The worst condition is to pass under a sword which is not one's own is showing in the Level 2 Gallery at Tate Modern until 3 May; entry is free. There is more about the exhibition here.