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Stranger Than Science Fiction

Sometimes reality can be stranger than fiction—not just any old fiction, but, according to artist Michael Rakowitz, science fiction. That’s the takeaway, at least, from his show currently on view at Lombard-Freid Projects in Chelsea. In it, Rakowitz explores the scarcely believable but utterly true connections between sci-fi—particularly the movie Star Wars—and Saddam Hussein.

Although each of the two galleries that make up the exhibit contains a sculptural centerpiece, the bulk of the show consists of illustrations on paper with short texts, a sort of graphic novel arrayed on the wall (fitting, given the subject matter). Pretty much everything here is based on Rakowitz’s research, and what he’s discovered is quite bizarre.

Installation shot of Michael Rakowitz at Lombard-FriedTake the story of Uday Saddam, the tyrant’s oldest son, who along with brother Qusay, perished in a shootout with American troops in Mosul on July 22, 2003. In 1980 when he was 15, Uday accompanied his father to a screening of Star Wars in Baghdad just prior to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war. George Lucas’s fable must have made an impression, because in 1995, when Uday was charged with forming the Fedayeen Saddam, a paramilitary organization which at its height numbered 40,000 men, he personally designed their helmets and uniforms, basing both on Darth Vader’s outfit. This homage to the Sith lord seems to have instilled esprit de corps: The Fedayeen were the last Iraqi troops resisting America’s invasion, fighting on long after the rest of Saddam’s military had collapsed.

With the fall of Baghdad, U.S. troops discovered paintings in one of Saddam’s palaces by the American fantasy artist Rowena Morrill, whose friend and fellow sci-fi illustrator, Boris Vallejo created the poster for 1979’s Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. What’s notable about the image is the looming figure of Vader holding above his head two light sabers crossed to form an arch. Coincidently, Baghdad’s monumental Victory Arch consists of a pair of giant hands crossing swords in the same manner. Erected in 1989 to commemorate Iraq’s triumph over Iran, the Arch became the backdrop for a pep rally on the eve of the first Gulf War two years later, when Saddam’s army marched beneath it to the sound of the Star Wars theme.

Lucas wasn’t the only sci-fi auteur to impact Saddam’s regime. As a ten-year-old, Gerald Bull, a Canadian scientist who worked on Saddam’s WMD program, devoured the writings of Jules Verne, especially From The Earth to the Moon, in which intrepid explorers are launched into space from a gigantic cannon. In the early 1960s, while working for the U.S. in the wake of the panic created by Russia’s Sputnik, Bull proposed a similar supergun to loft anti-satellite payloads into orbit. The effort was dropped, though Bull’s research was revived in the 1980s under President  Reagan’s “Star Wars” anti-missile shield. By then, however, Bull was working on another version of his supergun for Saddam. Code-named “Babylon,” the 150-meter-long howitzer was to be fabricated at foundries in England and Holland, then shipped into Iraq in pieces, disguised as oil-pipeline segments. Although the Iraqis successfully tested a smaller version of Babylon, the final project was never realized: Bull was mysteriously murdered by unknown gunmen in Brussels in 1990. After the Gulf War, the remnants of the program were destroyed by international inspectors.

What’s fascinating about Rakowitz’s work, beyond the particulars, is the fact that it reminds viewers that history itself is after all a chain of sometimes unlikely, if not totally crazy, coincidences that, in retrospect, yield rich ironies. Another piece in the show deals with Saddam’s brief turn as an author of romantic fantasy novels. In 2000, a book believed to have been written by him, Zabiba and The King, turned up in Baghdad bookstores, sporting the kind of fairyland cover one might expect on such a tome. Hilariously, the CIA studied the image for years, believing that it held clues to Saddam’s designs on the region. But the cover painting had actually been the creation of another Canadian, an illustrator named Jonathon Earl Bowser. It had also been used without permission. When Bowser looked into suing Saddam, he was told there was little he could do unless the book was published in the U.S. “This is fortunate for Mister Hussein, because the penalties for infringement are considerable,” Bowser remarked. Not as considerable, however, as what happened when Saddam’s luck eventually ran out.

Image of the installation courtesy the artist and Lombard-Freid Projects.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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