15 Jul 2023 - 26 May 2024

The Waiting Gardens of the North

Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art


On 15 July 2023, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead will open the exhibition 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 presents an evolving indoor garden tended by communities who have experienced forced displacement and are seeking refuge.

The IWM 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund is a national partnership programme of over 20 artist commissions dealing with war and conflict. Led by Imperial War Museums, the IWM 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund was created following the success of 14-18 NOW, the official UK arts programme for the First World War centenary. The £2.5 million commissioning programme has been made possible thanks to the success of Peter Jackson’s critically acclaimed film They Shall Not Grow Old, co-commissioned by IWM and 14-18 NOW.

Rakowitz’s exhibition has been conceived as a garden that will continue to grow and develop during its run. Alongside newly created artworks, the installation will present a collection of plants at different stages of their growing process. Born out of collaboration with residents of Gateshead and Newcastle who have experienced forced displacement, Rakowitz’s garden amongst ruins acts as a metaphor for the overlapping histories of imperialism, war, displacement, trauma, and adaptation, that people, cultural objects, and plants carry with them. Collaboration with organisations such as The Comfrey Project, West End Refugee Service (WERS), Scotswood Garden, Dilston Physic Garden, Herb Hub, and Baltic’s Language Café has been instrumental in the realisation and ongoing activation of the project.

The Waiting Gardens of the North is centered around a relief panel from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal (668–631 BCE) in Nineveh depicting the Assyrian gardens, which preceded the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The original panel has been in the collection of the British Museum since 1856. The exhibition sees Rakowitz recreate this panel in a monumental scale, using his signature collage technique with food packaging, locally sourced from West Asian, South Asian and African grocery stores.

The panel shows a luxurious hillside landscape watered by an aqueduct. The installation extends beyond the two-dimensional representation in the panel, inspired by the layout of the Southwest Palace of Nineveh with its ruins now holding and growing plant life. The artist’s interdisciplinary practice of excavation, cooking, sculpting, and activism is interwoven in the installation, highlighting the ways in which heritage can be both a source of identity and a site of conflict, particularly when cultural signifiers are looted, destroyed and erased.

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. Acting as an outsize greenhouse, the garden’s development will benefit from the Level 4 gallery’s large ceiling well windows. The plants, herbs and flowers have been selected as they naturally grow in colonised countries of migrant communities who now live locally in NewcastleGateshead.

Building on Baltic’s Gallery of Sanctuary status – awarded in February 2022 – which recognises its efforts in supporting sanctuary seekers, The Waiting Gardens of the North is developed in collaboration with community gardens and organisations that support people seeking sanctuary in the North East of England: 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 has 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. Baltic’s Schools Programme will develop toolkits 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.

West End Refugee Service (WERS): A charity based in Newcastle that provides support and opportunities for people seeking asylum and refugees in Tyneside.

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.

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.

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.

Caro Howell, Director-General of Imperial War Museums (IWM) says: This poetic new commission by Rakowitz, Waiting Gardens of the North, is a powerful celebration of community, culture and resilience. The IWM 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund builds on IWM’s rich history of commissioning art on the topic of conflict and through this programme, we are honoured to support this ambitious and impactful exhibition with Baltic.

Press release from Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art