Khoury’s Gardens Speak volumes about Syria’s tragedies
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.