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Michael Rakowitz

Is gardening art? The Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz thinks so. In his exhibition at Gateshead’s Baltic gallery, plants will sprout, bud and fruit. 

Rakowitz is best known for his painstaking reconstructions of lost or looted Iraqi artefacts, made from newspapers and food wrappers. When Isis militants destroyed a statue of a winged bull in the ancient city of Nineveh, he recreated the colossus out of 9,000 date syrup cans, and placed it on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth in 2018.

In Gateshead, Rakowitz has recreated a panel from a palace in Nineveh dating to the 7th-century BC, this time using bright food packaging from Asian and African supermarkets in the local area.

The original panel, housed in the British Museum since 1856, depicts the Assyrian gardens thought to have inspired the legend of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Its carvings detail a verdant landscape of well-tended trees. In The Waiting Gardens of the North, Rakowitz has taken this two-dimensional depiction and extended it into reality. 

“There’s a bit of a trompe l’œil-ist thing, where you see an aqueduct depicted in the panel, and then an actual aqueduct in real space, clad in food packaging,” Rakowitz tells me. Beyond that are a “choreographed series of garden beds” replicating the layout of the palace, planted with herbs, flowers and fruit trees – selected for their nostalgic value to immigrants living in Newcastle and Gateshead.

Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II is said to have constructed the fabled hanging gardens as a gift to his wife, Amytis, who longed for the lush vegetation and wild mountains of her childhood spent in what is now Iran. Though the location and provenance of those gardens remain a point of contention, the myth reflects a wider truth: the yearning for home. 

Rakowitz describes his garden as “a sensory experience. In the front beds, there are rosemary, lamb’s ear – things that you can touch, that you can smell, and that you can also eat. As we move closer to the panel, there are plants of a scale that mimic the panel itself: young tamarisk trees, date palms, quince and olive trees.” The planting scheme also features a type of collard green requested by a local woman of African origin, and red geraniums at the behest of a woman from Iran. 

“It’s about people being able to see things in the landscape that remind them of home,” Rakowitz explains; this “makeshift greenhouse” might offer a glimpse of the past, or for others the possibility of putting down new roots.

In paying tribute to the consolations of the garden, Rakowitz follows in the footsteps of many great artists. In the 1980s, the British filmmaker Derek Jarman documented his creation of a “wilderness garden” on the shingle at Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, in the years that followed his diagnosis with HIV. There, on the wind-swept, salt-stung Kent coast he planted hardy lavender, rosemary, iris, saxifrage: seedlings of courage and comfort, as friends sickened and succumbed around him. 

“Beauty begets beauty,” he wrote in his diary. Jarman’s garden, in all its ethereal glory, is beautiful indeed. But the whole project was steeped in melancholy. Even as he watered and pruned, he wondered whether he would live to see his roses bloom. “The garden as pharmacopoeia has failed,” he admitted. “Yet there is a thrill in watching the plants spring up that gives me hope.” Jarman died in 1994, but his garden’s renown only continued to grow. Prospect Cottage was purchased for the nation in 2020.

The garden, British artist Shezad Dawood tells me, is “somewhere you go to think outside of the everyday, to reflect on the divine, the spiritual, or the universal”. His exhibition Night in the Garden of Love, on view at Wiels gallery in Brussels, draws inspiration from a 1988 novella by the African-American polymath Yusef Lateef, in which a character known as “the mutant” – part-plant, part-human – leads a couple through dystopian Detroit. The show is a daring blend of music, “digital plants”, AI-generated scent and virtual reality. Here, says Dawood, the garden “takes on a phantasmagorical quality”.

The idea that gardens possess mystical powers was a source of inspiration for the 20th-century French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle. Tarot Garden, her magnum opus, is a 14-acre sculpture park in Tuscany structured around a tarot deck; monstrous figures loom from the vegetation, spewing fountains of water or glittering with mirrored shards. 

The idea for the garden first came to her while she was a patient at a French asylum in the 1950s: a period of mental and marital breakdown. She walked the landscaped grounds of the hospital, collecting leaves and twigs which she fashioned into collages. Later, she credited her stay there with the birth of her artistic career.

You can still visit the Tarot Garden, which first opened to the public in 1998. There you will meet the golden skeleton of Death riding a blue horse; the Tree of Life with snakes for branches; and a tiled sphinx the size of a house, where Saint Phalle lived for a time, making her bedroom inside one vast breast and her kitchen in the other. 

She worked like this, she said, because she felt the pressure to prove that female artists could be visionaries, and could, like Gaudí in his Park Güell gardens in Barcelona, make art on a monumental scale. The garden was, she wrote, “my husband, my love, my everything”.

Other artist-gardeners have discovered pleasure in tending to plants themselves, rather than cultivating the garden as a conceptual space. Cedric Morris, the 20th-century artist known for his flower paintings, was a noted breeder of bearded irises; Sarah Price’s homage to his luxuriant gardens at Benton End, Suffolk, was the talk of the Chelsea Flower Show this year

The project to preserve and open Morris’s garden to the public remains a work in progress, for now. But if you make it to the hamlet of Seebüll in Schleswig-Holstein – close to the German-Danish border – you can enter the lush flower garden of another painter of the 20th century: the expressionist Emil Nolde. Here, he planted his favourite “large, glowing-red poppies” in beds shaped into the letters E and A (for Emil and his wife Ada); then he captured them in vibrant watercolour. “I loved the flowers for their fate,” he wrote, “springing up, blooming, glowing, making people happy, drooping, wilting, finally ending up discarded in a ditch. Human life is not always so logical or beautiful.”

The Indian-born artist Raqib Shaw – long based in London – produces mythological scenes painted in enamel and bedazzled with jewels. His maximalist style – cherry blossoms, tumbling waterfalls, fantasias of sexual excess – is reflected in his studio garden, an almost hallucinatory construction of rocks, fountains and foliage. He collects bonsai trees, each with its own spotlit plinth in his bonsai house; Shaw has credited these with a “profound effect” on his “desire to achieve perfection”.

Bonsai are notoriously difficult to tend, however. Shaw admitted in 2019 that he had lost a significant number of his trees, each of which can be worth thousands, to infestation, heat stress, and his general “lack of experience”. 

The struggle to sustain an artist’s elaborate garden never goes away. The most famous of them all is surely Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny, the model for his Water Lilies series. Monet designed it so that there would be flowers in bloom for as long as possible, offering him subject matter throughout the year. The wooden footbridge, whose arc across the pond he captured many times in paint, was inspired by his collection of Japanese prints. This garden, he said, “is my most beautiful work of art”.

Although Monet was away from home a great deal, he was in constant contact with his gardeners. But after his death, the garden became neglected. The bridge rotted and collapsed. It was not until 1980 that fundraising allowed the garden’s restoration and opening to the public. Now, hundreds of thousands of visitors come each year.

Unlike a sculpture in bronze or study in ink, a garden requires constant oversight. However beautifully designed, a garden will evolve over time. Plants boom in size or die back. Carefully selected cultivars may be crowded out by self-seeded rivals. A garden can soon become unrecognisable. 

Just as art taken out of its historical context might be misinterpreted – or interpreted anew – a garden might be encountered “out of season”. Jarman’s garden, seen in midwinter, offers few flowerings of hope. Its salt-frosted shrubs shiver amid a frieze of driftwood and rusted iron; despair lurks not far below redemption. The garden is both a floral wonderland and a place of the bleakest beauty.

In my own travels I have come across many gardens lost to the past: the traces of backyards etched into the “urban prairie” of Detroit, where blighted homes were demolished, but garden ornamentals that escaped the wrecking ball still flourish. In Tanzania, I explored an abandoned botanic garden where colonial scientists tested plantation crops: an archive of overgrown exotics that has now outlasted German East Africa by more than a century. These gardens felt to me like found art; the strange forms they took acted as powerful imprints of the past upon the present.

Rakowitz enjoys the idea of his garden evolving in the year ahead. “I like things that grow a patina, that live and breathe and change over time,” he tells me. Over many months, vines will climb the columns, herbs will fall into dormancy. To garden is to embrace an art that has its own agenda.

Michael Rakowitz: The Waiting Gardens of the North is at Baltic, Gateshead ( until May 26

Written by Cal Flyn

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