Among the potted geraniums, a pop-eyed man is being devoured by a lion. This would give you pause down the garden centre but that’s not all: a bull’s head rests on flowers, a gigantic snail makes its way towards nasturtiums and a model aeroplane, fabricated from food packaging, has somehow crash-landed between the tamarisks and the date palms. There is a lot more to discover in the high-sided planters, with their sandy soils and loam, the saplings and herbs, in Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz’s The Waiting Gardens of the North, his project for the light-filled top-floor gallery at Baltic.
Small labels stuck in the soil between the plants give us more than growing advice. There are no bargain blooms here. Among the young olive saplings, a label tells us how up to 2m olive trees and countless groves have been destroyed by the Israeli authorities since 1967, as a primary form of land acquisition; the deficit in olive production affects 100,000 Palestinian households, the uprooted trees causing an annual loss of over $12m. Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish has written: “If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears.” “Douma [in Syria] used to smell of roses”, writes a perfumer. “Now it reeks of gunpowder”, and a gardener laments that the damask rose will not return “til this war is over”. So many wars.
The story goes that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built by King Nebuchadnezzar during his reign, between 605-562 BCE, as a cure for his wife Amytis’s homesickness for her native mountain home. Yet after reinterpreting cuneiform texts, academic Stephanie Dalley suggests that the gardens were in Nineveh, over 300 miles distant, and planted by the Assyrian King Sennacherib a century earlier. The gardens were organised in overhanging terraces.
A copy of a carved Neo-Assyrian panel from the north palace of Ashurbanipal (669–631 BCE) in Nineveh depicts the Assyrian gardens, and stands at the centre of Rakowitz’s exhibition. His enlarged reproduction of the relief has been collaged, using food packaging from local stores specialising in South Asian and west African produce. Instead of dun-coloured gypsum, Rakowitz’s version is vibrant with colour and life, dizzy with detail, fragments of Arabic text, logos and decoration. For all that, Rakowitz’s version is faithful to the original, with its orchards and groves, its arches and columns and irrigation channels.
Rakowitz’s technique is familiar. His 2018 version of one of the stone-winged bulls that, for over a thousand years, guarded the city gates of Nineveh, which he made for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, was constructed using his familiar collage technique, its surface covered with 10,500 snipped-up tins of date syrup. Instead of being made in his studio in Chicago, the relief in the current show was produced by local artists in Newcastle and Gateshead, who also made the smaller sculptures dotted about the exhibition.
The large planters surrounding the relief replicate the ground plan of the palace in Nineveh, and Rakowitz has transformed the aquaduct that appears in the relief into a low, three-dimensional model that curves into the gallery. Seen from the mezzanine floor high above, it seamlessly extends the relief into real space. Instead of water, the aquaduct is filled with plants. A few blue flowers have begun to open.
I wander between beds of earth planted with infant trees – olive and spindle, Arabica coffee and pear, fig and bay, date palm, rosemary and amaranth. Over the course of the exhibition, which continues until May 2024, the whole thing should come alive. Rakowitz calls the project “a hanging garden for lives hanging in the balance”. Among the many labels around the plants – with their taxonomical notes, stories and myths about plants, details of culinary uses, their symbolism and cultural significance, are notes and observations by local migrant communities who have contributed to the project, helping choose which species to plant, and detailing what their significance is.
One contributor writes: “As refugees here in the UK, we have to reinvent ourselves because we cannot practice what we were trained to do as jobs. It is like a second childhood”, they write, “but more difficult, since many of us have children to support.” Often, the displaced cannot work at all, and have nowhere to cook or gather to eat. Another, written by Ali from Iran, says, succinctly: “My voyage from a dark place to a better place.” The plants themselves are often a delight. The stories touch me more. Rakowitz observes that The Waiting Gardens of the North features trees, plants, flowers, and herbs requested by the local community of migrants, who miss aspects of their home landscapes, and wish to make them take root, while they wait, hopefully, to take root themselves.
Beyond the planters, and these little groves of hope, remembrance and yearning, are folding wooden clothes-dryers repurposed for drying herbs, all festooned with bundles of vegetation. A sort of apothecary station, with flagons of brownish plant concoctions – herbal chest tinctures, muscle and joint balm, tinctures for memory and sleep, produced in conjunction with the Dilston Physic Garden in Northumberland. A tabletop wooden ziggurat is laden with jars of spices. Beyond are tables to sit at and eat and talk. There will be meals and communal activities. Rakowitz was inspired by Baltic’s status as a Gallery of Sanctuary, and its relationship with local charities providing services for those who have fled their home countries.
Rakowitz’s art has layers of history, commentary and social purpose. Sometimes his work is a lament for what has been lost, destroyed by wars and prejudice. There’s humour and hope there, too, and a sense of social purpose. There are pleasures here as well as lessons for the casual visitor and he’s no finger-wagging moralist. But those who will get the most out of this are the ones who have contributed to the project, and with whom the garden has been planted. Rakowitz observes that, temporarily housed in hotels, many recent migrants are: “Unable to host, they are perpetually stuck in the position of guest. My hope is that this space can support them to become hosts at Baltic.”
Michael Rakowitz: The Waiting Gardens of the North is at Baltic, Gateshead, until 26 May
Written by Adrian Searle