Syrian stories of fatal resistance against Assad's regime

Gardens Speak

Tania El Khoury

Buried beneath the earth are the stories of ten ordinary Syrians. In her sound installation, the Lebanese-British artist Tania El Khoury invites her audience to dig in the soil to hear their stories. Using oral histories and found sound material, she reconstructed how they lost their lives in the early days of the uprising against the repressive Assad regime, and how they were buried in unmarked graves in gardens across Syria. Gardens Speak is a moving account of the lives and untimely deaths of ten Syrians. It is a poignant commentary on life and death, revealing individual stories behind the death toll.

Programme

Background information

Lebanese artist Tania El Khoury makes her debut at the Holland Festival with her interactive sound installation Gardens Speak, a tribute to the victims of the early days of the uprising in Syria. The installation is based on the stories of ten ordinary Syrians who were killed by Bashar al-Assad's regime and were buried in domestic or public gardens across Syria.

Ten audience members are invited to enter the installation at a time. The space is dark and quiet containing four tones of soil and ten gravestones. The audience’s shoes and socks must be taken off. Each visitor receives a torch and a plastic coat. Under each gravestone, a small speaker is buried, each whispering one of the stories of the ten Syrians. The audience are invited to dig into the soil to get closer to the sound. Each of the ten stories comprises oral history fragments, which have been carefully constructed with the help of friends and family members of the killed. They are written in the first person to retell their stories as they themselves would have recounted it. These intimate and personal stories are interwoven with real audio fragments, excerpts from video diaries and YouTube videos, at some point evidencing the moment the victim was killed or buried. 

All over Syria, people have been buried in gardens, rather than official cemeteries. This often happens out of necessity – not only because the official cemeteries are sometimes shelled when burials are taking place, but also because prior to the burial the regime has sometimes forced families to sign documents exonerating the regime of their loved one's death. These domestic and rushed burials play out a continuing collaboration between the living and the dead. The dead protect the living by not exposing them to further danger at the hands of the state and the living protect the dead by cherishing and nurturing their identities and their stories, preventing the regime from erasing their memories. 

Ordinary people’s narratives are often lost in the magnitude of historical events, and the broad geopolitical narratives are all what get reported in the media. The Syrian conflict has already created more than four million refugees and an estimated 250,000 dead. Gardens Speak brings the horror back to a human scale. Lying in the earth, audience are confronted with their own mortality, lending the installation a universally recognisable dimension. 

Tania El Khoury considers herself a 'live artist', focusing on interactive and provocative performances, which actively involve audiences. At the centre of her work is the intimate relationship between the artist and the audience – in one of her performances, Maybe if you choreograph me you will feel better (2011), the audience was restricted to one single visitor at a time and was only performed for male audiences. Gardens Speak premiered in May 2014 at the Next Wave Festival in Melbourne, Australia after a preview in Artsadmin, London in March 2014.

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Biography

Tania El Khoury lives and works between London and Beirut. She focuses on interactive and provocative installations and performances, which actively involve her audience. She’s interested in the political, the public, and the fine line between reality and performance, activism and art. 

El Khoury has exhibited her work in a variety of different spaces all around the world, ranging from the main hall of the British Museum to a small boat in the Mediterranean Sea (This Sea is Mine, 2012), a cable car in Beirut (Bit Téléférique, 2010), and a shipping container (Stories of Refuge, 2013). Her work was curated at various international festivals, including Next Wave Festival, Fierce Festival, City of Women, Spielart Festival, Fusebox, LIFT festival amongst others and in venues such as Battersea Arts Centre, ICA, Bluecoat, Watermill Art Centre and Tanzquartier Wien. She has been the recipient of the Total Theatre Innovation Award, the Artsadmin Bursary and the Arches Brick Award. 

In 2009, El Khoury co-founded along with urbanist and architect Abir Saksouk a research and art collective called Dictaphone Group, aiming at reclaiming the public space and triggering political debate about the city. They have been since collaborating with artists and and such as performance artist Petra Serhal on making site-specific performances exploring people’s relation to the city and redefining the public space. Their recent works includes the lecture performance Nothing to Declare (2013) about borders in the Arab world. El Khoury is part of the UK artists community Forest Fringe. Gardens Speak marks El Khoury's debut at the Holland Festival.

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Credits

concept, direction
Tania El Khoury
calligraphy, Ttombstones, publication design
Dia Batal
set design
Abir Saksouk
production management
Jessica Harrington
research assistant & writer (Arabic)
Keenana Issa
sound recording, design
Khairy Eibesh (Stronghold Sound)
commissioned by
Fierce, Next Wave and Live at LICA. Developed through the Artsadmin Artists’ Bursary Scheme.
with support by
Arts Council of England and British Council