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The Guardian

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

Among the potted geraniums, a pop-eyed man is being devoured by a lion. This would give you pause down the garden centre but that’s not all: a bull’s head rests on flowers, a gigantic snail makes its way towards nasturtiums and a model aeroplane, fabricated from food packaging, has somehow crash-landed between the tamarisks and the date palms. There is a lot more to discover in the high-sided planters, with their sandy soils and loam, the saplings and herbs, in Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz’s The Waiting Gardens of the North, his project for the light-filled top-floor gallery at Baltic.

Small labels stuck in the soil between the plants give us more than growing advice. There are no bargain blooms here. Among the young olive saplings, a label tells us how up to 2m olive trees and countless groves have been destroyed by the Israeli authorities since 1967, as a primary form of land acquisition; the deficit in olive production affects 100,000 Palestinian households, the uprooted trees causing an annual loss of over $12m. Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish has written: “If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears.” “Douma [in Syria] used to smell of roses”, writes a perfumer. “Now it reeks of gunpowder”, and a gardener laments that the damask rose will not return “til this war is over”. So many wars.

The story goes that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built by King Nebuchadnezzar during his reign, between 605-562 BCE, as a cure for his wife Amytis’s homesickness for her native mountain home. Yet after reinterpreting cuneiform texts, academic Stephanie Dalley suggests that the gardens were in Nineveh, over 300 miles distant, and planted by the Assyrian King Sennacherib a century earlier. The gardens were organised in overhanging terraces.

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