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  • Writer's pictureRitchard Allaway

19/09/23 - A Visit to the Baltic

The Baltic Centre For Contemporary Arts

It feels like an age ago when summer was here and some sun gleamed upon our bodies, and it also feels an age as to when I visited the Baltic in Gateshead. I do apologise for this entry as it will be a short one but I thought it important to still share and discuss the short train ride further up north. I got wind of a show that was coming to the Baltic and I made sure to find a date within my calendar to pay a visit as I saw something within the advertisement that had me curious. The show I am talking about is that of Michael Rakowitz's 'The Waiting Gardens of the North'.

Well of course if someone is growing a garden in a gallery my spider senses will tingle... and on a quick note, what is it about seeing an abundance of natural fauna and plant life within a gallery that excites me? Is it the differentiation between art work and green 'work'? or maybe is it the idea of placing greenery within an artist 'church' or is it this wonderful idea that maybe the greenery of nature is art work? I do enjoy this idea that nature is now valued as much as the worth of 'high-end art', this is obviously debatable when it comes to the value of art, but the idea is interesting. Could this be some sort of preview into a dystopian future where instead of finding a Van Gogh, or a Botticelli within a gallery we instead find a single daisy flower or a wall climbing sweetpea or a conifer? Maybe with humanities current impact on the climate and our unfortunate projected pathway, the value of all things natural will become sort after and worshipped as a past luxury.*

Setting aside my Black Mirror thoughts I will get back to the reason of this post and that is the wonderful and delightful exhibition Michael Rakowitz exhibited at the Baltic (and continues to exhibit until the April in 2024 - revisit needed). Arriving at the Baltic and heading to the top floor, I encountered a gallery space I was familiar with from previous visits but this time the space was flooded in natural light entering from the ceiling windows. A key component to the development of the exhibiting work, i:e a food supply for growth of natural greenery. A network of symmetrical bedding spaces dominated the floor, which had dry mud filled within them and potted green plants of different kinds. The bedding spaces were lined with a smooth light wooden finish that complimented the dry mud within and also added a calm aesthetic to the atmosphere within the gallery space. Centralised between the first bedding areas stood a panel depicting the Assyrian gardens from the palace of Ashurbanipal (668 - 631 BCE), Iran. The panel itself was a relief depiction made up of a collage of locally sourced food packaging from South Asian and African grocery shops. The panel itself intended to represent partly what lies before the audience as they enter the gallery but also demonstrate a past time and place embedded deep within middle-eastern culture somewhat forgotten, ruined and looted but still holding onto life through the form of natural greenery that still grows in the palace ruins.

Beyond the relief panel I moved myself around the network of bedding spaces, leaning in at times into the smell of a variety of growing plants. Some plants had information cards sat next to them, explaining what they were and the connection to the artist through historical reference. Some of the language written out was in Arabic and although I am not well versed in the Arabic language, the language itself had a pleasant aesthetic that once again complimented the growing atmosphere of the exhibition.

At the back of the space there was a series of tables and chairs set out like a dining hall with a TV monitor mounted on the wall. A film played and it showcased Michael Rakowitz's discussing his practice, culture, and history. Opposite the monitor a shelf rang along the wall which stored a variety of cooking books from the UK and middle-east. A clear play between two different cultures that were in conversation throughout this live installation. The cookbooks were inviting and you could pick up and read, take to the table and sit. You could take a cup of tea with you and enjoy reading recipes shared between cultures over decades, but hold on, where did this cup of tea appear from? To the left of the 'dining hall' a series of tables stood, made from the same smooth light surface wood of the bedding spaces. Upon these tables stood jars filled with varying vegetables, fruit and leaves, picked from the bedding spaces. Small placards were placed next to the jars giving out instructions as to how to make the herbal content within the jars. These recipes could also be found within the books from the dining hall or were recipes passed between people around Rakowitz's cultural journey. Cooking pots, hot panels and a microwave were also present upon these tables. Rakowitz invites the audience to participate further and create herbal teas, and remedies from the garden of the north. To me this is a delightful interweaving cycle between nature and audience and between two cultures divided in historical heritage (a nanna's secret recipe).

The bigger question with the Waiting gardens of the North is whether or not this is an installation to demonstrate historical tensions and occupation from century's of conflict; one the British Empire were so famous for. Was my nanna's secret recipe a recipe she was handed down from her mum and so on, or was this recipe originating from a culture oppressed and looted from western gain? What appears as a garden of Babylon full of rich natural fauna and plants that can be grown, excavated and cooked, slowly highlights the rich heritage and identity that can be stolen, erased and forgotten.

*Watch Kevin Reynold's 1995 film Waterworld

Collaboration and organisations:

Herb Hub

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