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Michael Rakowitz: The Waiting Gardens of the North

Installation view at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK, 2023

Photo: John McKenzie © 2023 Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

On entering Michael Rakowitz’s The Waiting Gardens of the North, one is first overwhelmed by the sensations in play in the art: light and smell. Often, one exists in a gallery space far too cerebrally, engaged only with the ‘ideas’ the work is supposed to imply. But here, the work makes its point by placing one first fully, bodily within the space.

Essentially, The Waiting Gardens of the North, which is on at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, consists of a huge, white open gallery space, filled with rows upon rows of plant beds, pots and trellises framing tables and benches laid out for communal activities, and crowned by a Babylonian-style banner made of trash harvested from a halal food store. Among the planters herbs, fruit and spice predominate: one smells nutmeg, coffee, tomatoes. The Waiting Gardens of the North is like a dream of public space: the ideal space, within a British conurbation, in which one might come to think, play, be – one in which the rawest experiences of being in space, the lights, the smells, are elevated to the level of the aesthetic.

And yet, this is also an exhibition which mourns the very space it attempts to create. The wall text speaks of ‘waiting’ in the context of forced migration and seeking asylum, thus as representing ‘an in-between time suspended between the past and an uncertain future’. They stand in a ‘North’ that is, in the context of the UK, an embattled space: marginalised from and impoverished by the centre; an area where so many residents now live in uncertainty, thanks to the cost of living crisis, day-to-day. But the word ‘North’ here also contrasts Global North with Global South. The plants here grow almost as memories of a homeland lost: taken, for instance, from the Middle East (which many of Gateshead’s prominent Kurdish community will have left as refugees) or Ukraine (the word ‘Chernobyl’, we are told, comes from ‘Mugwort’). And then, in time, the memories themselves will be lost. The Gardens will be in Gateshead for just under a year, and then they will be packed up. Perhaps the staff will take some of the plants to keep at home, but then the rest of it will be left to die. The space will be gone – it cannot stand here.

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