Khoury’s Gardens Speak volumes about Syria’s tragedies

Sunday 17/04/2016
Gardens Speak installation by Tania el-Khoury at London’s Battersea Arts Centre by Jesse Hunniford.

London - Many gardens in Syria cover dead bodies of activists and protest­ers who spearheaded anti-government demonstrations in the early stages of the uprising that degenerated into an open-ended war. The re­lationship between the living and those killed in the conflict is high­lighted in Gardens Speak, an inter­active installation by Lebanese art­ist Tania el-Khoury.
The visitors to London’s Bat­tersea Arts Centre were active re­sponders to the sound installation containing the oral histories of ten people buried in Syrian gardens.
Each narrative that was assigned to a member of the audience was carefully made with friends and family members of the deceased to tell their stories as they themselves may have recounted it.
Audio that told their final mo­ments is buried in soil in which audience members were invited to dig into to hear the story clearly. They were encouraged to write a letter to the deceased and bury it in the soil.
The unusual installation was triggered by a photo — a woman digging a grave for her son in her own garden in Syria — that Khoury said she saw on social media early on in the uprising.
“The image was from Syria and it carried with it the horrors of the costs of the uprising, the transfor­mation of domestic and (suppos­edly) safe spaces into morbid and mourning ones,” Khoury said.
Pointing at the “collaboration between the living and the dead”, Khoury said she believes that, on the one hand, the dead protect the living by not exposing them to further danger at the hands of the Syrian regime, which has targeted funerals and the celebration of martyrdom.
On the other hand, the living protect the dead by conserving their identities and their stories in the ground and not allowing their deaths to become instruments for the regime in its attempts to re­write the historic narrative.
“I have always worked with in­teractive live performances and I wanted to research why people are buried in gardens so I started col­lecting stories through interviews,” Khoury said.
“It took around a year to pro­duce Gardens Speak. I interviewed friends of friends to get the best stories for my piece. I mainly spoke to Syrians who reached Lebanon and London. A lot of my interviews were conducted via Skype.”
Khoury stressed that when she asked people about their experi­ences, they were keen to tell their stories and decided to celebrate the lives of their deceased loved ones.
“Some were scared to use their real names because some of their family members are still living in dangerous areas in Syria,” she said. “It was difficult for them to speak about their experiences but they also wanted to celebrate the lives and dreams of their deceased loved ones. People who died fight­ing against the regime are called martyrs.”
Lies and manipulation plagued both the dead and the living as families were forced to write false statements that their children were killed by “terrorists” and not the regime, although they were slain at the start of the uprising, when funerals of “martyrs” were system­atically targeted because they were seen as gatherings to express anti-regime protest.
Reacting to the emotional re­sponse that her installation caused, Khoury said: “I don’t like to drama­tise my piece because I think the situation is already too dramatic. This is why I tell these people’s sto­ries in a non-dramatic way.”
She noted that some of the fami­lies were willing to tell the stories of their deceased kin, but were eas­ily slipping into depression and it was obvious they were trying to fight it.
“Some people who experienced my piece came out crying. They wrote very emotional letters that showed a lot of solidarity with the families but also reflected the de­ceased experiences with their own experiences. They spoke about their worries and their experiences and grief in general,” Khoury add­ed.
She pointed out that she intends to share the letters by audience members to the deceased after completing an international tour of the exhibition. “The (few) letters that I have shown already were re­ally moving, as they reflected the solidarity of the people,” she said.
Khoury also said that Syrians cannot escape Syrian President Bashar Assad’s dictatorship, even after death.
“Death is not enough to rid one­self of the Assad regime’s tyranny,” she said. “The oppression follows people even after their death, forc­ing a narrative upon them, either stealing their bodies or depriv­ing them from being celebrated as martyrs.
“It is in this context that tell­ing the stories of ordinary people, writing their names on tombstones and singing for them is a necessary act of resistance.”
After showing in London, Gar­dens Speak was to exhibit at the Building Museum in Washington in April; the D-Caf Festival in Cairo, April 15th-18th; the Beirut Spring Festival, May 1st-5th; Fast Forward Festival in Athens, May 25th-30th; Holland Festival in Amsterdam, June 16th-19th; and Belluard Festi­val in Fribourg, Switzerland, June 23rd-26th.