Michael Rakowitz is an Iraqi-American artist renowned for recreating ancient Middle Eastern sculptures, said Elena Clavarino on Air Mail. He does this not with limestone or basalt, but using cardboard, food packaging and other modern materials. In 2018, for instance, he recreated a huge Assyrian statue of a winged bull on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, entirely from empty date-syrup cans: the original had been demolished by Islamic State.
His latest exhibition, “The Waiting Gardens of the North”, is a work of homage to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which were considered one of “the Seven Wonders of the World” but about which little is known. Working with local artists and community groups, Rakowitz has transformed a floor of the Baltic gallery in Gateshead into “an immersive environment of trees, hedges and herbs”, amid which he has positioned a number of his “mesmerising sculpted relics”. The ambitious project is an “ode” to the history of Iraq and a reminder of its lost “archaeological heritage”.
Baltic’s greenhouse-like top-floor gallery is blooming with tamarisks, date palms and infant trees – “olive and spindle, Arabica coffee and pear, fig and bay, date palm, rosemary and amaranth”, said Adrian Searle in The Guardian. Over the period that the installation runs, until May 2024, “the whole thing should come alive”. Stacked in ziggurats and shelves, the plants, flowers and herbs are largely those requested by the local refugee communities with whom Rakowitz collaborated on the project. Legend has it that the Hanging Gardens were constructed by King Nebuchadnezzar for his wife Amytis in order to assuage her homesickness for her verdant mountain home. The hope here is to provide a green communal space for migrants, many of whom “have nowhere to cook or gather to eat”, or to host others. To this end, Rakowitz has created spaces for meals, provided free tea and scattered observations from migrants throughout – some of which are very moving. There’s plenty here for the casual visitor, but one suspects that those who will most enjoy this show are those who contributed to it.
It’s still very compelling as an exhibition, said Christina Riggs in Apollo. Its centrepiece, a recreation of a Neo-Assyrian panel that was taken from modern-day Mosul by the British (now in the British Museum) is fashioned from Rakowitz’s trademark food packaging and depicts an earlier precursor to the Hanging Gardens in ancient Assyria. Again, migration and longing for one’s homelands are the key theme. Poignantly, pots of rosemary – a herb associated with memory – invite us to reflect on the horrendous death toll of the ongoing Mediterranean refugee crisis. “Crowdpleasing” as it is, this is “a sharp and well-informed critique” of a show “with humanity and healing at its core”.
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead (0191-478 1810, baltic.art). Free entry. Until 26 May 2024