Michael Rakowitz: The Waiting Gardens of the North
We're pleased to present The Waiting Gardens of the North by renowned Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz. Commissioned by Baltic in partnership with the IWM 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund , this major project responds to conflict by, figuratively and literally, nurturing a community and an evolving indoor garden landscape.
A Letter from Michael Rakowitz
It is good to be with you here. I must confess: I am not a gardener. My wife is the one with the green thumb, and I have always envied those who dig in the dirt and help new life take root. I have an early memory of the garden my Iraqi grandparents planted on Long Island, New York, but my mother told me recently it wasn’t much — just some cucumbers, tomatoes, and watermelons. As a child she was tasked with its maintenance, although how much of it ended up on the plate to eat is not clear.
When I was invited to conceive a garden for the IWM 14-18 Legacy Fund commission at Baltic, I was immediately drawn to the Level 4 Gallery, whose ceiling windows run the span of the space on both sides. Normally, these windows are covered in blinds to protect artwork from sunlight. By removing the blinds, the gallery could become a makeshift greenhouse.
For the past 17 years, I have worked with my studio team to reappear the archaeological artifacts looted and destroyed in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. One sculpture — taken not during the war but in the late 1800s and currently held in the British Museum — is a gypsum wall relief panel from the North Palace of Nineveh, made between 645–635 BCE, depicting the gardens of the Assyrian King, Ashurbanipal, which predated the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. A local team of artists has worked with my studio to make a monumental version of this relief out of the packaging of West Asian, South Asian, and African foodstuffs used by many of the people that have arrived to the UK seeking sanctuary, who now reside in Newcastle and Gateshead. The colors on the panel are those that archaeologists believe were used on the original stone panel. The architectural footprint of the North Palace of Nineveh is recreated in the layout of the garden beds, shelves, and workstations behind the panel, on the gallery floor.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were believed to have been built during the reign of the Neo-Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled from 605–562 BCE. According to one legend, the gardens were built for his wife Amytis, who missed the forested mountains and valleys of her native Media, located in modern-day Iran; a garden to cure homesickness.
These two gardens, built under two empires, serve as a point of departure for The Waiting Gardens of the North. The project was inspired by Baltic’s status as a Gallery of Sanctuary and by its strong, ongoing relationships with local charities that provide services for those who have fled their home countries due to the continued impacts of imperialism, colonialism, racism, war, and oppression. 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, whilst they wait, hopefully, to take root themselves. A hanging garden for lives hanging in the balance.
Our garden is meant to be harvested and features four stations: for tea-drying, spice-grinding, distillation of tinctures, and cooking, which will be activated on specific dates throughout the next year. Many displaced persons are temporarily resettled in places like hotels, where they do not have access to kitchens; unable to host, they are perpetually stuck in the position of guest.[i] My hope is that this space can support them to become hosts at Baltic.
The Level 5 Viewing Box offers a beautiful view of NewcastleGateshead. From up there it is also possible to see an aerial view of The Waiting Gardens of the North and how its aqueduct lines up with the one depicted in the ancient panel. It is believed that cities first formed when people decided to cook and eat together. Here is an opportunity to build a new place, one where those looking for home are welcomed as equals. And so, in closing, I offer a traditional Arabic greeting, familiar enough that we often forget the beauty of its meaning: Ahlan wa sahlan. May you arrive as part of the family and tread an easy path as you enter.
*The architect-artist Sandi Hilal focuses on this power dynamic in her collaborative projectAl Madhafah - The Living Room, to which I am indebted. The Living Room is an ongoing network of spaces set up in different politicized contexts around the world, which looks to invert the relationship between guest and host that refugees find themselves in through the space of the living room. The project seeks to decolonize our relationship to hospitality and to “ensure that everyone has the right to host.” For more information, please visit https://www.decolonizing.ps/site/introduction-living-room/
Michael Rakowitz: The Waiting Gardens of the North is an IWM 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund commission in partnership with Baltic.
Important Allergen Information
Visitor Notice: Level 4 + Level 5
Please be aware the Level 4 exhibition contains plants, flowers and pollen.
There are also dried herbs/spices within Level 4 that may have had contact with Mustard, Celery and Sesame.
If you have allergens related to any of these please speak to a member of Baltic Crew before visiting Level 4 or Level 5.
Plants including date palms, olive trees, fig trees, quince trees, pear trees, and tamarisk, believed to have been planted in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, will inhabit the space with their lifecycles made visible. Taking root in our expansive Level 4 space, the plants will benefit from the gallery’s large ceiling well windows, supporting their development and bloom. Notably, the plants, herbs and flowers selected for the exhibition naturally grow in countries where those people based in Newcastle and Gateshead with experience of forced migration have come from.
Building on our Gallery of Sanctuary status awarded in February 2022, which recognises its efforts in supporting sanctuary seekers, raising awareness of forced migration and celebrating world cultures, The Waiting Gardens of the North is developed in collaboration with key community organisations local to Baltic in Gateshead. This includes community gardens and organisations that support people seeking sanctuary in the North East: the Comfrey Project, the West End Refugee Service (WERS), Scotswood Garden and Dilston Physic Garden.
A community of exchange will be built daily as gallery visitors encounter the friends and guests Baltic have invited and worked alongside to take care for and activate the living indoor garden. The installation will also host spaces for rest and sensory experiences such as distillation, tea-drying and smells from spices and herbs, and an area for community meals and activities.
The exhibition will be activated by monthly events including conversations, local walks, workshops, musical interventions, community meals, and a commission developed by Baltic’s Young Producers. Our School Programme will develop tool kits for primary and secondary schools inspired by the project. An after-school club will support newly arrived children to connect with their local peers through gardening and art. When the exhibition ends the plants will sprawl into Newcastle and Gateshead through a network of community and school gardens, as well as continuing to live in other areas of Baltic’s building.
The Waiting Gardens of the North is developed in collaboration with key North East community organisations that promote horticultural knowledge and work with people seeking sanctuary:
The Comfrey Project: An organisation based in Gateshead that provides a safe, welcoming place for people who have fled conflict and persecution to improve their physical and mental wellbeing, develop new skills and put down roots in their new community through Social and Therapeutic Horticulture. www.thecomfreyproject.org.uk
West End Refugee Service (WERS): A charity based in Newcastle that provides support and opportunities for people seeking asylum and refugees in Tyneside. www.wers.org.uk
Scotswood Garden: Established in 1995, Scotswood Natural Community Garden is located on the site of a school playing now part of Newcastle College's facilities at the John Marley Centre. Growing areas were created in 2012 that are managed using Permaculture principles. The garden is recognised as a Land Project by the Permaculture Association, part of a network of community gardens that share expertise and encourage partnership working. scotswoodgarden.org.uk
Dilston Physic Garden: Dilston is a living physic garden, a dedicated enterprise for education and scientific research on the use of medicinal plants for health, medicine and the mind. The garden was created 25 years ago on former pastureland on the south bank of the Tyne Valley nestled above the flowing Dyvel’s Water. dilstonphysicgarden.com
Herb Hub: Funded by Big Local Gateshead, Herb Hub is an innovative project working with local communities, to cultivate herbs with recognised benefits on mood and memory. In partnership with Dilston Physic Garden, Herb Hub aims to empower people to improve their wellbeing, through herb horticulture, knowledge and craft.
The exhibition garden design and maintenance is developed in collaboration with the gardeners at Wallington National Trust and Seaton Delaval Hall.
Michael Rakowitz (b. 1973, Long Island, NY) is an Iraqi-American artist based in Chicago, working at the intersection of problem-solving and troublemaking. His work has appeared in venues worldwide including dOCUMENTA (13), P.S.1, MoMA, MassMOCA, Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Palais de Tokyo, the 16th Biennale of Sydney, the 10th and 14th Istanbul Biennials, Sharjah Biennial 8, Tirana Biennale, National Design Triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt, Transmediale 05, FRONT Triennial in Cleveland, and CURRENT: LA Public Art Triennial.
He was awarded the 2018-2020 Fourth Plinth commission in London’s Trafalgar Square. He is the recipient of the 2020 Nasher Prize; the 2018 Herb Alpert Award in the Arts; a 2012 Tiffany Foundation Award; a 2008 Creative Capital Grant; a Sharjah Biennial Jury Award; a 2006 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship Grant in Architecture and Environmental Structures; the 2003 Dena Foundation Award, and the 2002 Design 21 Grand Prix from UNESCO.
Solo projects and exhibitions include Creative Time, Tate Modern in London, The Wellin Museum of Art, MCA Chicago, Lombard Freid Gallery and Jane Lombard Gallery in New York, SITE Santa Fe, Galerie Barbara Wien in Berlin, Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, Malmö Konsthall, Tensta Konsthall, and Kunstraum Innsbruck, and Waterfronts - England’s Creative Coast.