Michael Rakowitz, “April is the cruellest month,” waterfront commission with Turner Contemporary for England’s Creative Coast. (all photos © Thierry Bal)
Outside Turner Contemporary, an art museum located on the seafront in Margate, England, is a statue of a soldier that is unlike any war memorial. Instead of romanticizing military heroism, Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz’s sculpture acknowledges the atrocities and senselessness of war and ascribes responsibility to its perpetrators. In the case of the Iraq War, the US and allied forces including the UK launched a brutal bombing campaign in March 2003 that marked the beginning of the bloody eight-year conflict, which killed nearly 4,500 Americans and over 100,000 Iraqi civilians. Today, Veterans Day, Rakowitz’s piece is not just a poignant reminder of lives lost but a call for accountability.
Unveiled last May, “April is the cruellest month” (2021) was made in collaboration with Veterans for Peace, a voluntary and politically independent ex-services organization of individuals who have served in conflicts and oppose war and militarism. It will remain on view through this weekend, with a closing ceremony taking place on Saturday, November 14.
The piece is modeled after Daniel Taylor, a Veterans for Peace member who served with the Royal Artillery in Basra, Iraq, during the Iraq War in 2003.
“This nation has a massive cognitive dissonance at the moment towards war,” Taylor says in a poetic video about Rakowitz’s work produced by Veterans for Peace. One of his wishes for the project, he said, was to draw attention to “the way that wars have been fought by the government over the past 20 years since [the] war on terror began.”
Rakowitz cast the towering figure in an aggregate mixture of concrete, calcite, sand, and soil taken from Basra, as well as chalk from Margate embedded with objects that evoke the trauma of war. They include Taylor’s military medals and personal memorabilia from his time as a soldier, as well as other donations from Margate residents and Veterans for Peace members. Visibly encrusted on the sculpture’s surface, they resemble wounds or the exposed innards of broken machinery, indexing memory and pain.
The sculpture is cast in a mixture of concrete, calcite, sand, and soil taken from Basra, as well as chalk from Margate and objects that evoke the trauma of war.
The seed for the work was planted when Rakowitz first visited Margate in 2019 along with curator Tamsin Dillon. One of their first stops was the Nayland Shelter, where T.S. Eliot penned the third part of his landmark poem “The Waste Land,” widely read as a metaphor of devastation and disillusionment in post-war Europe. A few steps away from the Victorian structure stands Frederick Callcott’s 1899 “Surfboat Memorial,” a bronze statue commemorating the nine men who died when the Margate Surf Boat capsized while saving a sinking ship called the Persian Empire.
“I began to think about the coast as a rough edge, as a place where hospitality and hostility meet. I realized that, in the midst of the recent European Migrant Crisis, the Callcott sculpture could be interpreted differently, as someone not looking for people to rescue at sea but rather looking to turn them away,” Rakowitz says in a project description shared with Hyperallergic.
“April is the cruellest month” depicts Rakowitz’s friend Daniel Taylor, who served with the Royal Artillery in Basra, Iraq, during the Iraq War in 2003.
For Rakowitz, Callcott’s monument, looking out to sea with his hand to his brow, conjured images of 80 statues that once lined Basra’s corniche promenade along the Shatt Al Arab river, memorializing Iraqi soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq war. During the British Occupation of the city in 2003, the bronzes were dismantled, some of them drowned in the water.
“I thought about what happens to the British soldier that sees these authoritarian sculptures being torn off their pedestals and thrown into the Shatt Al-Arab by the local population,” Rakowitz continued. “Do they see themselves in that Iraqi soldier? Do they see themselves in this continuous history of invaders and occupiers, who will themselves eventually be removed?”
Unlike the figure in the “Surf Boat” memorial, Rakowitz’s soldier faces inland, pointing an accusatory finger toward London and specifically the British Parliament in a gesture that condemns the government’s decision to invade Iraq. In a plaque next to his Margate sculpture, he dedicates the piece to Siegfried Sassoon, the Baghdadi poet and World War I British soldier who is a direct ancestor of the artist.
Rakowitz is a vocal anti-war activist whose artistic practice has exposed hidden complicities in the military-industrial complex. Last year, he paused his video work “RETURN” at the MoMA PS1 exhibition Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 to protest two museum trustees connected to private prison companies and defense contractors involved in the deaths of Iraqi civilians.
In Veterans for Peace’s video, Taylor says he firmly believes the Iraq War “was an illegal one.”
“I don’t like the idea of veterans having this identity pushed on them that they should be a hero or a warrior,” Taylor continues. “How are you supposed to heal under these conditions? Things need to change.” A sprawling, brilliant blue banner is shown, the color of the Margate sky against which Rakowitz’s stark white chalk soldier rises; it reads “Never Again.”