You might not expect the saga of the Beatles to cast a light on the troubled history of the Middle East, but Michael Rakowitz’s quirky, brilliant installation (based on a 2010 radio broadcast by the artist in Ramallah on the West Bank) does exactly that. That program serves as the soundtrack for The Breakup, which centers on four vitrines containing suggestively juxtaposed ephemera. A vintage map of a divided Jerusalem sits next to a novelty map of the Beatles’ Liverpool; a bit of stone from the Western Wall is paired with a piece of brick from the Cavern Club. A Beatles fan-club Christmas newsletter from 1967 is placed next to a Christmas card from the same year, sent by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former president of Egypt.
Similarly, four colorfully silk-lined shadow boxes displaying Middle Eastern military medals abstractly evoke the John, Paul, George and Ringo on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s. Handwritten notations on the glass equate the Fab Four’s split with the dissolution of the United Arab Republic, the short-lived union between Egypt and Syria.
The fanlike obsession with trivia verges on conspiracy theory, but it all makes a kind of manic sense: bratty rock stars behaving like sovereign nations, and vice versa. Rakowitz alludes to present-day dreams dashed by internecine squabbles with a video that cuts from the Beatles’ 1969 concert atop their Abbey Road recording studio to footage of a Palestinian band playing Beatles covers on a Jerusalem rooftop. The music drifts out toward the Dome of the Rock in a way that’s both lovely and heartbreaking.—Joseph R. Wolin