Michael Rakowitz, installation view of “The Waiting Gardens of the North,” 2023–24. Photo: John McKenzie, © 2023 Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

Michael Rakowitz

Gateshead, U.K.

Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

Entering “The Waiting Gardens of the North” (on view through May 26, 2024) feels like stepping into another world. Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz has created a quiet and grounding presence, transforming the entirety of a massive gallery on level four of the Baltic into a living indoor garden. Tended largely by community members who have experienced forced displacement and are seeking refuge in the area, this is a garden among the ruins. Like all of Rakowitz’s works, it bears witness, serving as a metaphor for the overlapping histories of war, oppression, migration, trauma, and adaptation that affect cultural objects and plant life, as well as people.

The project, a collaboration with residents of Gateshead and Newcastle, centers around Rakowitz’s re-creation of a monumental relief from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal (668–631 BCE) in Nineveh. The original panel, which depicts the Assyrian Gardens (a precursor of the better-known Hanging Gardens of Babylon), has been in the British Museum since 1856. Rakowitz’s version employs his signature collage technique, with food packaging, sourced from local West Asian, South Asian, and African grocery stores, arranged to depict a lush landscape well-watered by an aqueduct. This scene seems to come to full life in the space beyond his large-scale relief, with raised beds filled with flourishing plants (arranged to mimic the architectural plan of the palace) stretching in all directions. Small sculptures resembling fragmentary artifacts lie strewn within the rich planting scheme, like remains from a lost past.

This is a sensory garden, and one of the most impressive and productive things about it is its deep and varied engagement with the local community. Enthusiastic and well-informed crew members encourage visitors to touch the plants, enjoy traces of scent on their fingertips, and learn about the history of the different varieties—their historical uses and modern-day applications in cooking and medicine. As might be expected in a garden, plant labeling is sometimes purely factual, but this didactic information is supplemented with labels written by members of the community, who have contributed individual memories of foods or people close to them. So, this is a memory garden as well as a pedagogical garden, one that offers the opportunity to learn not only about the plants, but also about some of the displaced people who have nurtured them.

The plant selection, which includes date palms, olive trees, and turmeric, reflects the makeup of the migrant population in Gateshead and Newcastle. There are spaces to sit and rest. There are spaces to engage in sensory activities such as spice-grinding and tea-drying. Importantly, there are areas for community meals and creative activities. None of this is coincidental. Each embedded space and activity is integral to the installation, as well as to Rakowitz’s broader practice and to Baltic’s vision for inclusivity and engagement—it was awarded Gallery of Sanctuary status last year and supports a large number of community initiatives. One such project is visible through the glass ceiling above “The Waiting Gardens of the North.” Beehives kept by North East Dads and Lads thrive on Baltic’s roof space, producing honey for sale while bringing people together. It is a fitting accompaniment to Rakowitz’s gardens.