Art: Never Forget
English edited by Delphine Schrank
Who could have imagined in March 2001 that when the Taliban gleefully blew up the three giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, their appalling act of cultural vandalism was just a prelude to the assassination less than six months later of Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the country’s iconic resistance leader, and just two days after that, to the attacks of September 11? Silent vigils to the endless vicissitudes of human history, these storied sculptures had survived countless previous attempts to ransack or raid them since their creation sometime between the 4th and the 8th century.
More recently, Islamic State terrorists, or ISIS, made a central mission of destroying the archaeological sites across Syria and Iraq—art, the collateral victim of anger and stupidity.
Archaeologists had previously dismembered many of these relics and transported them to major Western museums—art, the collateral victim, or assumed booty, of powerful nations, human vanity, and plunderers too.
Art, this marvelous messenger of history and ideas, of dreams and beliefs, of visions and hopes, stands as tall as an imagined wall might be, a wall that almost seems a taunt to be knocked down, the prey of an ‘invisible enemy that should not exist,’ a reference to Aj-ibur-shapu, explains artist Michael Rakowitz, recipient of the 2021 Pommery Prize, the name the Babylonians gave to the Procession Way that ran through the Gate of Ishtar, in the ancient city—and which means, ‘May the arrogant not prevail.’ Rakowitz was one of eight artists whom curator Claudia Schmuckli selected for a series of monumental installations assembled for The Platform’s theme Can You Hear the Fault Lines Breathing? Presented at the Armory Show as New York City commemorated the 20th anniversary of 9/11. This section of the fair “asked artists to speak to the urgency of working toward new models of bridging fault lines in empathy and understanding.”
Michael Rakowitz’s award winning art piece–Room F, Section 1, Northwest Palace of Nimrud–echoes the current state of the world.
Rakowitz’s award-winning piece, Room F, Section 1, Northwest Palace of Nimrud—an iteration of his ongoing project The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist— “echoes the current state of the world,” explains Maïlys Vranken, one of the four jury members and co-founder of the Pommery Prize, which was created in 2019 in memory of Louise Pommery (1819-1890), patroness of the arts. “It reacts to events, which, for some, indirectly stem from 9/11,” Maïlys Vranken adds.
Maïlys Vranken celebrates contemporary art and brings Louise Pommery’s mission forward into the 21st century with the same passion, details, and excellence that she invests into the champagnes and Californian wines that she and her family produce. “With drawings, shapes, colors, with cut-outs, collages, spaces, with sounds, images, sculptures, artists have the faculty to immobilize a precise moment in time. Their works reflect our contemporary culture,” adds the president of Vranken Pommery America. “To me, art becomes a permanent source of escape, of imagination and sometimes of thought. Its impact changes according to the moods of the day.”
Presented by Jane Lombard Gallery, Room F transports us to Mesopotamia, better known these days as Iraq, and into the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II who ruled in the 9th century B.C., from his seat in a palace at Kalkhu, in the Assyrian city of Nimrud, then the capital. As soon as its ruins were discovered three millennia later, museums scavenged for artifacts, including stoned-carved panels,—and sometimes to sell them to private collectors. Of the 600 reliefs uncovered inside the ancient Kahlku’s Palace, 400 were scattered overseas. Then, on March 5, 2015, ISIS terrorists exploded and bulldozed the few that remained, and the archaeological site vanished, rendering to oblivion that fragile testament to a history, a culture, an entire people. “A war crime,” then UNESCO’s Secretary-General Irina Bokova called it.
An American artist of Iraqi-Jewish descent, Rakowitz could find no peace with that new reality.
“What I’m trying to do in these ‘reappearances’ is to also ‘reappear’ the architecture of the room, to put the viewer in the position of an Iraqi who might have been in the palace the day before it was destroyed and seen the gaps that were left behind.” Between each fresco or section of the wall of the ancient palace’s banquet hall, the artist leaves “empty spaces,” symbols of the rooms that had already crumbled away to almost nothing before the 2015 destruction.
In creating Room F, Rakowitz brings back to life an architectural layout and a cultural heritage essential to our collective memory and intercultural dialogues. His art projects the past into the maze of the 21st century’s contradictions and violence.
To recreate the drawings of the antique reliefs of Kalkhu’s Palace, the American artist and his team worked with Iraqi and Western archaeologists, the University of Chicago, and even Interpol.
Receiving the Pommery Prize expands the conversation around colonialism, preservation, and the culturicide of a civilization.
Rakowitz also used modern materials composed of food packaging from the Middle East and Arabic newspapers.
Back in the 2000s, he couldn’t understand why he could only find in Brooklyn date syrups and Maamoul cookies that were always labeled from Lebanon—or “more absurdly“—from the Netherlands (“I’ve never seen a date tree in Holland!”), but never from Iraq. His food-finds record a time when “anything that said ‘Product of Iraq’ was tough to import into the United States. So, I was surrounded by all of these products that had a veiled provenance, as if these products were too terrified to tell me where they were from as a result of the West’s xenophobia. One day I was in the empty store looking at all the beautiful packaging, and it made me think of an empty museum.” He then decided to showcase original Middle Eastern packaging by using it as artistic material. “Through making reappeared artifacts out of food packaging, it made them more vulnerable than the original works while reflecting human life.”
“This sums up the complexity of Rakowitz’s artwork,” explains Maïlys Vranken. It embodies our lost—and now reappearing civilizations through cheerful colors and elements of the current daily life where these cultures once existed… Recycling Middle Eastern food packaging and Arabic newspapers, Rakowitz thus creates a time capsule that puts the individual back at the center of the work.”
“Even as we have forged our relationship with these things,” Rakowitz adds, “we have yet to really fulfill the potential of that relationship by equating our care for the objects to our care for the people.”
Kalkhu lives once again in our shared knowledge and as part of our common heritage. By connecting antiquity with the modern, Rakowitz reminds us that art has the power to resist the desperate, yet permanent, attempts to take control of our history and souls. It is, he shows us, a peaceful bulwark against war and wanton annihilation.
That artistic approach finds an echo in Reims, where the Cellier Pompadour of Domaine Pommery is hosting an exhibition called Blooming until November 15.
In response to the cultural vacuum following months of Covid-19 confinement, curfews, and absent gatherings, Paul-François and Nathalie Vranken hastily organized last spring an exhibition of works connecting past and present around the themes of: nature, rebirth, and a certain idea of happiness. Works of Gauguin, Corot, and Fantin Latour on gardens and flowers thus confront those of contemporary artists, including Jean-Pierre Formica, Virginie Boudoscq, Jean-François Fourtou, and Keith Tyson. A total of 150 art pieces by 61 artists together fuse into a message of hope and renewal for a society still roiled politically and economically by a shape-shifting virus.
The dialogue between the Champagne house Pommery and art has a long history. For more than 15 years, Nathalie Vranken has produced the Experience#, an annual series of exhibitions of contemporary works installed in the historic underground labyrinth caves of Domaine Pommery, 30 meters deep.
(left) Vaincre le Virus ! by Barthélémy Toguo;
(top) detail of Sans Titre by Jean-Pierre Formica;
(bottom) Bouquet by Laurent Pernot
(c) JC Agid
The Domaine itself and its cellars, built in 1868 on a maze of 18 kilometers of ancient Gallo-Roman quarries known as ‘les crayères,’ constitute an extraordinary architectural and artistic work in Champagne.
This complex of castle-like buildings in the English Elizabethan style of the 16th century was the idea of Louise Pommery, passionate about art, the transmission of knowledge, and innovation. With her impetus, the cellar masters of Pommery invented the brut champagne in 1874. To decorate her blue and ocher domain with works of art, she commissioned the cabinetmaker Émile Gallé to create the largest-ever sculpted cask with a capacity of 100,000 bottles, an imposing and monumental sculpture that pays tribute to Franco-American friendship. For her wine cellars, she asked the artist Gustave Navlet to sculpt four giant bas-reliefs in the chiaroscuro of the chalkpits, an organic work that has fed ever since on the minerals of the underlying rock. In 1855, Louise Pommery discreetly acquired Jean-François Millet‘s painting Les Glaneuses to give to the Louvre (the painting is now on display at the Musée d’Orsay).
Wine and champagne themselves reflect an artistic movement in flux, influenced by the terroir, the climate, winemakers’ endless pursuit of excellence, the cellar masters’ tinctures, and the patience necessary to bring such delicate beverages to a perfect maturity. Champagne bubbles are, of their nature, evanescent; they carry, as such, the artist or poet’s tragi-comic relationship with time itself.
As patrons of the arts, Nathalie, Paul-François, and Maïlys Vranken are pursuing a century and a half later Louise Pommery’s ambition to never forget, to constantly reinvent or look to the future, and to generate artistic dialogues, in this case between New York and Reims.
Endowed annually with $20,000, the Pommery Prize at the Armory Show includes an invitation for Michael Rakowitz to exhibit his art at the next Experience# in Reims. “Receiving the Pommery Prize brings additional eyes to my work,” Rakowitz says. “It expands the conversation around colonialism, preservation, and the culturicide of a civilization.”
Domaine Pommery and La Fête de Bacchus by Gustave Navlet
(The Pommery Prize jury was composed of: Corinne Erni, Senior Curator of ArtsReach and Special Projects, Parish Art Museum, Watermill New York; Sohrab Mohebbi, Kathe and Jim Patrinos Curator of the 58th Carnegie International and Curator-at-Large at Sculpture Center, New York; Maïlys Vranken, President of Vranken Pommery America; and Pauline Vranken, Director, Vranken-Pommery Monopole S.A.)
French Version via Le Petit Journal