The Beatles shed light on Middle Eastern affairs

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Rakowitz Image for AD
Michael Rakowitz’s sendup of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

by Sayaka Matsuoka

The best modern and contemporary artists have a duty to use their craft to find a new angle to explore old subjects. Take the likes of Warhol, Duchamp and O’Keefe; all used their skills as visual artists to take the old and spin it to make something new, interesting and different. The world of art is perpetuated by metaphors. A soup can becomes an icon, a urinal becomes social commentary, a flower becomes erotic. In Michael Rakowitz’s case, the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict is better understood and rejuvenated through dissecting the world’s most beloved English rock band, the Beatles.

It started back in 2010 when the artist, a Beatles fanatic, became obsessed with finding the exact moment of dissolution within the iconic band. The deeper he delved, the more engrossed he became. He began to notice similarities between the slow disbanding and breakup of the Beatles with the breakdown of Middle Eastern relations. The latter rupture ultimately led to the Six Days War in 1967, which lay the groundwork for the state of the region today. Driven by this theme of clash and collapse, Rakowitz worked to outline everything from the creation of the Beatles and the union of the Middle Eastern countries up until the disbanding of it all in his most recent work, “The Breakup.”

Earlier this month, it opened as part of the exhibition Zones of Contention: After the Green Line at the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro. It is the second in a three-part series curated by Xandra Eden, whose interest in how contemporary artists’ react to conflict led to the creation of this show. The idea for Zones of Contention: After the Green Line came after Eden found several works relating to the Israel-Palestine dispute during research for the first part of the series on US-Mexico relations in 2011.

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Courtesy photo

Michael Rakowitz is an Arab-Jew, a term of identity that he has worked to revive in many of his pieces. His family was forced to leave Baghdad in the 1940s and the majority of his art revolves around issues of identity, cultural preservation and the displacement of Jewish-Arab populations. His social art endeavors have ranged in subject and medium. One of his pieces worked to recover and recreate stolen Iraqi artifacts in the aftermath of the 2003 US military invasion. Other food-related projects like the ongoing “Enemy Kitchen,” teaches and sells Baghdadi recipes to the public from a truck, while in Dar Al Sulh, a temporary restaurant served Iraqi-Jewish cuisine in Dubai for one week.

In Rakowitz’s portion of the exhibit, a bright blue magazine vertically aligns the four Beatles’ heads: John, Paul, George and Ringo with the top half of Ringo’s face intersected then connected with the lower half of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s head shot. Nasser, a former Egyptian president, conceded to Israel after the Six Days War. Just a few steps down the same wall, a black and white photograph showing Paul holding a button with the words “To hell with the Beatles” hangs next to an actual button with the words “To hell with Nasser” — all within a single wooden frame. Throughout “The Breakup,” Rakowitz outlines the striking similarities between his favorite band and the various elements involved in the Middle Eastern conflict. A glass case holds maps of pilgrimages, one to iconic Beatles’ locations and the others to Jerusalem. In another case, several vinyl records lay scattered in a wooden box with pins identifying different recording moments by the Beatles with Rakowitz’s corresponding scribbled black handwriting on the top of the glass.

A work that shares the name with the installation takes the recognizable album cover, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and swaps out Marilyn Monroe and others in the cast of icons surrounding the Fab Four for Middle Eastern notables like deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, creating a sort of chaotic political collage.

His complementary film, which plays in the gallery, takes viewers further on a disjointed journey through Rakowitz’s process of connecting Beatles events to the politics in the Middle East. He discovers more links such as the fact that Sgt. Pepper’s was released four days before the onset of the Six Days War, or that the last performance by the Beatles was supposed to be held in Tunisia but took place in London instead because of disagreements within the band. As part of his work and as an homage to the Beatles, Rakowitz organized a concert by a band named Sabreen to perform Arabic-inflected Beatles songs on a rooftop in Jerusalem in 2010.

At first glance, Rakowitz’s work is a disjointed, schizophrenic puzzle that causes viewers to question the point of it all. But the more the works are analyzed and mulled over, the more connections arise between the two seemingly unrelated realms. By taking the highly recognizable worldwide phenomenon that was the Beatles and conducting his meticulous dissection, Rakowitz successfully makes the complicated and muddy state of affairs in the Middle East more readily transparent.

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Courtesy image

  • Barbara Hughes

    The best in clarification/description of a mesmerizing section of the Zones of Contention show.
    Her first paragraph indicates knowledge of contemporary conceptual art. ThankYou!

    • Sayaka Matsuoka

      Thanks so much Barbara!