Gardens Speak, Battersea Arts Centre

5 Tania El Khoury _Gardens Speak_please credit James Allan for Fierce & Artsadmin

In Syria, Asad’s regime attacks the funeral services for rebel fighters. Rather than holding public burials, families bury dead martyrs in their gardens, usually with no tombstone. In tribute to these people, live artist Tania El Khoury has created an interactive sound installation with the stories of ten martyrs buried in gardens. An intimate audience of ten each hear the recorded monologue of an individual martyr who died fighting against Asad’s forces, but they have to experience some discomfort in the process. Gardens Speak lasts a mere 30 minutes but irrevocably alters the detached western view of Middle Eastern conflict, fostering empathy and despair for fellow man.

In a small room, we are asked to remove our shoes and socks, put our belongings to one side and don an over-sized raincoat. Once everyone is ready, the door is opened to a darkened room with ten tombstones lining the edge of a large wooden frame filled with soil. Each person is handed a postcard and a small torch. Following the instructions on the card, we each find the tombstone pictured. To hear the story of the person buried in that grave, we dig into the rich, peaty earth that scents the room. What with the competing sounds of other recordings, to hear properly we kneel or lie in the dirt.

The narration is a simple, unembellished tale of one man’s fight and fall at the hand of the tyrannical government. It’s neither overly graphic but neither does it hold back. The environment created by the set strongly influences the mood – there is a pronounced gravitas in the space. The whole effect doesn’t overwhelm, but imbeds itself internally, somewhere in the depths of the gut, along with the spirit of the young man who’s life spoke from the dirt I lie in.

We are lucky: the room is warm, and our clothes are protected from the soil. After the narrative of a man’s life, death and burial in his mother’s garden and a sound bath in Arabic singing, we can wash our feet (a reassuring ritual element that also adds to the aesthetic of the piece), collect our things and go home to our comfortable, little lives. Gardens Speak is both a little installation and one that encompasses the whole of humanity.

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