– Summer 2009


Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy


On family road trips to the ski resort in Big Bear, California, where we intermittently rented cabins on winter holidays, we used to stop by a roadside stand to drink date milkshakes. Delicately sweet and topped with creamy foam, the sand-coloured beverage was made with locally grown dates; that minor agriculture detail was the real treat. Unlike the other vegetable crops that we were familiar with in the region, these dates hung high in column-like shoot trunks, which were shaded by a crown of pinnate leaves. The date tree looks royal, often inspiring associations with Mesopotamian antiquity, holy rituals or modern-day beach holidays. The stands were placed along the roadside not only to sell milkshakes, but also as rest stops from which to admire the scenic view. The majestic desert setting was different from the wide boulevards of Los Angeles, famously flanked by towering, ornamental fan palms, and even more cinematic than the city itself.

Imagine an old and narrow California highway, just like those lean ones that appear in film noir, planted in the midst of acres of palm fields. This is the Coachella Valley in Southern California, a region that was midway between our hometown in the northeast desert valley of Baja California, Mexico and the snowy mountains where we skied. Visionary horticulturists and entrepreneurial farmers imported palm seeds and shoots from North Africa and the Middle East to cultivate dates here in the barren land. The earliest known farming of date palms in the United States is attributed to Spanish Jesuit missionaries in California in the eighteenth century. After years of several unsuccessful crops, the missions began to nurture the palms

  1. See Donald R. Hodel and Dennis V. Johnson, Imported and American Varieties of Dates (Phoenix Dactylifera) in the United States, Oakland: ANR Publications and University of California Agriculture and Natural Resource Press, 2007, pp.1-10.

  2. Ibid.

  3. As paraphrased from an early article on palm date investigations: 'Ecological Studies of Date Varieties in French North Africa' by Roy W. Nixon, horticulturist, Bureau of Plant Industry, Soils and Agricultural Engineering, US Department of Agriculture (USDA). At the start of the article, a footnote about the author explains that this study was made possible by a fellowship of the John S. Guggenheim Memorial and the USDA. Ecology, vol.33, no.2, April 1952, pp.215-25.

  4. The shelters are basically inflatable tents that the artist custom-makes for homeless people following their instructions. These cocoon-like structures are made with plastic bags and connected to air exhausts vents from buildings for their inflation and heating.

  5. This version of the project was produced by Creative Time, a non-profit arts organisation in New York. It was part of their roundtable and public project series called 'Who Cares?', realised in 2006.

  6. Years denote start date (or when these 'stores' opened to the public); end dates varied, and in some cases 'stores' transformed into other projects. Volksboutique, for instance, still exists but is no longer simply a shop, and has developed into a larger project encompassing an entire practice. Today, according to Hill's description on the project website, it is 'a forum for production, exhibition and exchange'. For more details, see http://www.volksboutique.org/pop_whatis.html (last accessed on 5 March 2009).

  7. Claire Bishop introduces her history of installation art with, among other artworks, a series of realist environments created by gallerists and Pop artists in the 1960s. Of particular note is her observation that Oldenburg's The Store, and similar installations and exhibitions that came after, 'drew attention to the similarities between shopping for food and shopping for art'. See Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History, New York: Routledge, 2006, p.27.

  8. While the business eventually went bankrupt, the community strengthened to create what is considered the first alternative exhibition space in New York, known today as White Columns.

  9. From http://www.volksboutique.org/pop_whatis.html (last accessed on 5 March 2009). Hill's shop is similar to Food insofar as it was a business that could sustain a practice, in this case her own.

  10. Charlie Sahadi is the owner of Sahadi Fine Foods, a grocery store and importing company in Brooklyn specialising in Middle Eastern foods. Rakowitz and his family are frequent customers. Sahadi helped Rakowitz import the dates.

  11. And the story continues to be told. At the time of editing this article, an installation titled Return (offshoots for SculptureCenter) (2009), was on view in the group exhibition 'The Space of the Work and the Place of the Object' (January-March 2009) at SculptureCenter in Long Island City, New York. Essentially, it is an installation documenting the overall project. It included a small shelf with a handful of Iraqi products, a close-up image of dates on a poster and, most importantly, a documentary video made by Rakowitz. Accompanied by a voice-over in which he narrates the story behind the project, the video includes his family photos, other source images and installation shots of the 2004 and 2006 versions of Return.

  12. These are also the details of the project that circulate in mass media, for the artist is cited in articles published in anything from general-interest magazines to culinary journals, community weeklies to top newspapers. While I am not making a media analysis of this project, I am interested in the mediatisation of experience we have of the work and the weight that the artist's personality and intentionality has on our reception of it. These are some of the artist's citations in press: 'These dates [stuck in custom delays] were representative of every person who wasn't able to get out [of Iraq].' (Quoted in Jake Mooney, 'Boerum Hill: Bittersweet Talismans From a Ravaged Land', The New York Times, 17 December 2006); '"The dates have been suffering the same fate as the Iraqi people," as many fleeing the sectarian violence get stuck at borders and are without resources far from home, Rakowitz said.' (Quoted in Christine Lagorio, 'How to Get a Date - From Iraq. New York Artist's Bid To Import Prized Fruit from War-Torn Nation Turns into Quagmire', CBS News, 7 December 2006).

  13. Frances Richard, 'Michael Rakowitz. Lombard-Freid Projects', Artforum, April 2007, p.276.

  14. Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. See particularly Chapter 3, 'Dialogical Aesthetics' and Chapter 5, 'Community and Communicability'.

  15. Ibid., p.90. In this latter shift, Kester explains, 'visual art approaches the condition of theatre', yet it is 'not subsumable into the traditions of theatre, to the extent that these depend on the concept of the "performer" as the expressive locus of the work'.

  16. The phrase 'new genre public art' is attributed to Suzanne Lacy. See, for example, Lacy's introduction, 'Cultural Pilgrimages and Metaphoric Journeys', Mapping the Terrain, Seattle: Bay Press, 1995. In Conversation Pieces Kester discusses Lacy's art practice at length.

  17. See C. Bishop, Installation Art, op. cit., particularly Chapter 4, 'Activated Spectatorship'.

  18. Rakowitz says, 'I wanted to sit in a place where dialogue would be available,' as quoted by Kareem Fahim in 'Dates with an Artist: An Iraq Installation', The New York Times, 10 October 2006.

  19. This was a nine-week programme that ran from May to July 2006 and took place in the framework of the after-school programme of the Hudson Guild Community Center in New York.

  20. The class dynamics of The Enemy Kitchen, and in general the experience of teaching art, is discussed at length in the published dialogue in Alejandro Cesarco (ed.), Between Artists: Harrell Fletcher and Michael Rakowitz, New York: A.R.T. Press, 2008. On another note, Rakowitz is in fact a US citizen. He grew up in Great Neck, New York and currently lives in Chicago. At the time of this project he was based in Brooklyn, New York.