How appropriate that an art gallery housed in the former Baltic Flour Mills should host foodstuffs once more, in the form of the herb, spice, fruit and grain plants featured in Michael Rakowitz’s current exhibition at this Tyneside landmark. Commissioned by the Baltic Centre in partnership with the Imperial War Museum’s 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund, ‘The Waiting Gardens of the North’ grows – in every sense – out of the artist’s and the gallery’s work with migrants in Gateshead and Newcastle. It marks the Baltic’s 2022 designation as the first Gallery of Sanctuary in north-east England, as part of the City of Sanctuary UK movement aimed at welcoming refugees.
‘The Waiting Gardens’ is part of Rakowitz’s ongoing project ‘The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’, which he began in 2007 in response to the pillage of antiquities from the National Museum in Baghdad during the Iraq War. In 2019, he created an artwork of the same name for his Fourth Plinth commission in London’s Trafalgar Square: a recreation of an ancient Assyrian winged bull figure, known as a lamassu. In 1851, the arrival of two stone lamassu at the British Museum had been headline news. Acquiring antiquities marked the colonial presence of Western nations in the region, with its strategic routes for trade, troops and coaling stations.
Born into an Iraqi Jewish family who sought refuge in the United States, Rakowitz is versed in archaeology and immigration and sensitive to how they have been tangled like ill-tended vines on the scaffolds of politics, prejudice and war. To create his ‘Waiting Garden’ at the Baltic, Rakowitz offers structures on a humane and human scale instead, crafted from plywood, banked with earth and papered with commercial food-wrappers sourced from local Asian, African and Middle Eastern shops. The visual centre of the exhibition is a large multi-coloured panel that recreates a stone relief in the British Museum, removed from modern-day Mosul in Iraq by British East India Company officer Sir Henry Rawlinson. The relief depicts a seventh-century BC garden created by King Ashurbanipal for his homesick wife, Queen Amytis, who came from Media in what is now Iran. In this precursor to the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Ashurbanipal grew the plants for which she pined. It was ‘a garden to cure homesickness’, as Rakowitz puts it, which could describe this exhibition as well.