It’s 7am in Chicago on what looks like a beautiful day, judging by the swaying trees and clear blue sky that frame artist Michael Rakowitz on my computer screen. Intermittently, he raises a hand to take a sip from a mug shaped like a stormtrooper’s helmet.
We are speaking ahead of the opening of Rakowitz’s latest installation, The Waiting Gardens of the North, at the Baltic Centre in Gateshead. The original brief, Rakowitz tells me, was straightforward enough: he was to create some kind of public garden. “I was very interested in the invitation,” he says, “but I’m not really a gardener.” But when the curators told him they wanted to involve the local refugee community—the northeast of England is a major resettlement area for those seeking asylum—the idea gained a more personal focus.
Rakowitz was struck by the way that refugees in this country, most of whom are housed in hotels, have little control over their food. “Being cut off from being able to do things like host, to always be considered a guest, creates these really difficult power dynamics that one has to reside within,” he tells me. “You’re always a kind of subaltern.”
As the child of migrants himself—his mother was from Baghdad, his father an eastern European Jew from Brooklyn—Rakowitz knows intimately the importance of cooking, hospitality and “sites of gathering” for diasporic communities. “It is a form of magic that, in a saucepan, you put in the oil and the onions and some tomatoes and then you put in the Baharat spice mix, like the one that my grandmother used when she was in Baghdad… all of those things activate another place. That does things to your body that your brain can’t quite process immediately.” It was to this intangible yet central “olfactory experience” that Rakowitz dedicated his garden—to the particular herbs and spices that constitute so much of our sense of home.
A month after our chat, I visit the garden at the Baltic. In the skylit top floor space—“an instant greeting house”, as Rakowitz puts it—you find a small labyrinth of raised beds holding all sorts of plants: basil, coffea arabica, catnip, African milk tree, Damask rose. Some space has been set aside for preparing tea, spices and for drying herbs. By autumn the garden will be harvested to make way for new plants. Throughout the room is an earthy, calming smell.
At the centre of the garden is a reconstruction of a relief panel from the 7th century BC North Palace of Nineveh—currently in the British Museum—depicting the garden of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. From this panel, remade in papier-mâché and a collage of bright food packaging labels—“It’s almost like colour returning to the face of somebody who’s been ill,” Rakowitz told me—a lone man looks out on an orchard irrigated by a viaduct. The trails of plants in the beds align with those in the panel, in a kind of continuum.
Some scholars consider Ashurbanipal’s garden to be the real basis for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. According to legend, those gardens were created by King Nebuchadnezzar to comfort his homesick queen, Amytis, who missed the verdant mountains of her native Media. Similarly, many of the plants in the Baltic’s garden have been chosen by refugees for how much they remind them of home.
“One thing that I love about the Hanging Gardens,” Rakowitz told me, “is that ever since I was a kid, all they could ever be were fantastical drawings… The imagination is a really generous space. It means we can all come into the room with our own ideas of what the gardens should look like.”
Many of those who seek refuge in the UK may never see their homeland again. At least here, in spaces like this, they might find—for an afternoon or two—a place where it can be reimagined.