Michael Rakowitz takes a second bite at Saddam's repatriated crockery

The artist who caused a furore when he used Saddam Hussein's plates in a dining installation is trying again - with paper replicas.

The artist Michael Rakowitz and Park Avenue Autumn's chef Kevin Lasko with their art/dish collaboration, Spoils, at the New York restaurant.
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A "cease and desist" order was served on the Park Avenue Autumn restaurant in New York in December. Not by the Department of Health, as restaurants fear, but by the US Marshal's office, in response to a request from the Iraqi government for the return of plates that had once belonged to Saddam Hussein.

On the plates, which had been bought on the internet auction site eBay, the artist Michael Rakowitz was serving a meal/installation of roast venison with an Iraqi date syrup. Rakowitz's mother's family came from Baghdad.

In a presentation by the artists' group Creative Time, Rakowitz called his food performance Spoils. Some 20 plates - Wedgwood and other china from Saddam's personal collections and from those of King Faisal II, the last reigning Iraqi monarch (1958) - were indeed Iraqi patrimony, even if they weren't ancient or particularly valuable. And the seizure on December 13, given the posh restaurant where Spoils was consumed, was a gesture that launched a thousand wisecracks in the media.

"Justice is served," announced the New York Post, which had been among the most ardent supporters of the Iraq War among the US newspapers. (Iraqi officials told Rakowitz that they learnt of the plates when the Post published a story on the food performance, under the headline, "Saddam does the dishes".)

US marshals rushed the plates to the Iraqi mission at the United Nations - directly across the street from the home of the mayor Michael Bloomberg - and then by train to Washington. The objects departed for Baghdad on the plane of the prime minister, Nuri Kamal Al Maliki, who was visiting Washington to meet the US president, Barack Obama.

The plates would be returned to the palaces that would eventually be open to the public, Iraqi officials said last month. There has been no response since from the Iraqi embassy in Washington on when the plates might be available for viewing.

"The reverberations on eBay have been pretty visible. There haven't been as many of these items, if any at all, coming up for auction," said Rakowitz, 38, who teaches art at Northwestern University in Chicago. "A lot of the war trophies from the more recent war in Iraq have disappeared. There's been a little bit of that crackdown, or self-censoring, from some of the sellers."

Rakowitz emphasised that the sellers who supplied him were not smugglers. "When the plates were sent to us, the boxes all had stamps from US APOs [military post offices]. And it got out of Iraq really quickly, without any problem," he explained. "These plates were sold to the soldiers on their own bases." The artist bought them on eBay for between US$200 (Dh735) and $300. He said the sellers were an ex-soldier and an Iraqi refugee.

"It was amazing to have this project be part of a conversation when the Americans were pulling out of Iraq and sovereignty is being handed over. People always want symbols, or they want objects at the centre of that, and to think about Saddam's objects being at the centre of that was so weird," he said.

"Maybe the plates are part of a new way of dealing with that history," he suggested. "I don't know if that's reading too much into it or looking at it too optimistically, but I can't help but think that the easy thing to do would have been to throw them on the ground and break them, and forget about them."

The meals at Park Avenue Autumn put an uncomfortable paradox in front of diners. "I wanted to do a project that was as much about consumption as it was about refusal. People would see this amazing dish on the menu that they might not be able to eat, because they can't bring themselves to engage with this bitter surface on which it is served," Rakowitz said. "I couldn't eat off one of Saddam's plates - it's too loaded. It's loaded in the fact of who he was, and how everything went down, during the war and his execution."

Rakowitz is not new to loaded material. In 2007, his New York exhibition, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, reconstructed looted antiquities from the National Museum of Iraq out of food packaging materials and local Arab-American newspapers, to the tune of Smoke on the Water.

"When the museum was looted, there was a tangible thing for people to connect to. People recognised that it wasn't just the Iraqis who were losing something here. We were all losing something - cultural patrimony that was potentially wiped off the face of the earth forever," he said.

On Thursday, Rakowitz presented another take on that patrimony - replicas of Saddam's plates, in paper - as part of Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. (Nearby is the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, one of the major collections of Ancient Near Eastern objects.)

His installation for Feast is a food lorry, Enemy Kitchen, where dishes will be prepared by Iraqi chefs and served by veterans of the Iraq war.

The exhibition will also premiere a video of Rakowitz's visit to the Iraqi UN mission after the seizure of the real plates at Park Avenue Autumn.

"It's Dixie Cup material," Rakowitz said of the paper plates. "It will be a nice hybrid of disposable culture and art ephemera."

Feast will continue at the Smart Museum of Art of the University of Chicago until June 10

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