Last weekend was the first opportunity to get down to London to see the latest piece of sculpture to occupy the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square – Mark Rakowitz’s life size replica of the ancient Assyrian bull god Lamassu, whose original dimensions are said to match those of the fourth plinth. The statue on which this is based protected the entrance to the city of Nineveh from 700 BC until it was sadly destroyed by IS in 2015. These events and their impact on communities, and the wider context of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia and other countries that has taken place since the Second World War is the subject of a film shown at Manchester Museum in 2016. The film shows how the destruction of monuments and other material culture is often the first step in the removal of whole communities from countries where they have lived for generations and generations, and so these acts, which constitute a destruction of memory should – must – be resisted from the very outset.
The artist Mark Rakowitz, was so appalled he dedicated himself to making copies of all the objects that were damaged or destroyed. As an artist he makes innovative use of modern materials to capture the feel of the original. In this case over 10,000 date syrup tins from Iraq were used in order to reproduce the polychrome effect of the stone and tiles of Lamassu. The metalwork of the cans is cut open and mounted on an armature. Mark Hudson writing in the Telegraph (29/3/2018) described the differently coloured tins as ‘creating an impression of art deco-cinema tackiness’. Using date syrup tins is also deeply significant in an Iraqi context because the date syrup industry – once second in importance only to oil – was badly damaged during the American invasion of 2003. It was the custom to place a date in the mouth of a new born child in Iraq to provide it with its first taste of sweetness in life.
If Lamassu looks a trifle out of place in Trafalgar Square – and I’d say no more out of place than any of the other sculptures that preceded the Assyrian deity – it may be because we tend to be less familiar with Mesopotamian sculpture than that of Egypt, Greece and Rome. Yet this is a culture that goes back as far as if not further back into the past than Egypt and cuneiform writing even predates hieroglyphs. And the list of ancient peoples and cultures who lived in Mesopotamia includes Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Achaemenid Persians, in addition to which there were ancient Greeks, Parthians and Sassanids before the advent of Islam in the 7th century. Zainab Bahrani’s book Mesopotamia: Ancient Art and Architecture (2017) says ancient Mesopotamian art inspired Henry Moore and Giacometti.
The rather unusual title of Mark Rakowitz’s work is shown in cuneiform or wedge-shaped writing in the photograph above and derives from the name given to an ancient processional way, the route of which passed through Babylon’s Ishtar Gate. The original Limassu stood guard for the greater part of 3,000 years before it was destroyed by IS. The future of Mark Rakowitz’s recreation is certain as it will stand guard over Trafalgar Square until the next piece of sculpture takes its turn on the fourth plinth in two years’ time. Other artists who have shown their work on the plinth include Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread.
Manchester Museum’s Mesopotamian collection features an Assyrian bas-relief of the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) from Nimrod (Kalhu). It shows a winged genie with pine cone holding a pine cone or pomegranate and the feet of a second genie in the upper Register. There is a nineteen-line cuneiform inscription, which reads:
“Ashurnasirpal, the great king, the mighty king, king of hosts, king of Assyria, son of Tukulti-Hinurta, the great king, the mighty king, the king of hosts, king of Assyria; the valiant hero who proceeded with the help of Ashur his lord and had no rival among the princes of the four quarters; the king who from beyond Tigris even to Mount Lebanon and the Great Sea, the whole of the land of Laqe and of Sukhi, together with the city of Rapiqu has cast into subjection at his feet, who has conquered from the spring source of the river Subnat to the entrance district which is…. Good heavens someone’s actually reading this! From the entrance district of Kirruri to the land of Gilzan, from beyond the lower Zab to the city Til-bari which is above the land of Zaban, together with the cities Til-sha-abtani and Til-sha-Zabdani, and the cities Khirimu and Kharautu, fortreses of Babylonia, I added to the boundary of my land. And the wide flung lands of Hairi in all their borders I ruled.”
The Museum acquired the slab from the relatives of a man who claimed to have got it when Sir Henry Rawlinson (1810-1895) and Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) – both pioneers of the study of Middle Eastern archaeology – were working in Mesopotamia during the 19th century. In addition, there is a large collection of cuneiform tablets, one of the larger collections outside the British Museum.
Mark Hudson Review of ‘Michael Rakowitz, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’ in The Daily Telegraph (29/3/2018)
Andrew Robinson Review of Zainab Bahrani’s Mesopotamia: Ancient Art and Architecture in The Daily Telegraph (18/2/2018)
Lucy Davies ‘A Plinth Among Men’ in The Daily Telegraph (17/3/2018)