Entering a darkened room with a floor of dark, earthy soil equipped with only a flashlight and translucent poncho, you trail others bearing the same. With muffled footsteps, you kneel before a grave, laying down your flashlight as your hand moves aside a small mound of soil big enough to cradle your ear. As you lay your head down you begin to hear a voice…
So begins the visitor’s experience of Lebanese artist Tania El Khoury’s Gardens Speak, an interactive sound installation that has exhibited internationally since 2014. Transforming the art gallery into an intimate graveyard, Gardens Speak invites visitors to experience ten oral histories of activists and protestors who were buried in Syrian gardens during the early years of the Syrian uprising against the Bashar al-Assad regime. El Khoury describes these garden burials as “a continuing collaboration between the living and the dead.” Laying down in the soil, listening to the Syrian martyrs’ stories, the visitor becomes part of the story – and part of a collective resistance.
Through her multimedia art installations and performances, El Khoury often represents the lived experiences of those escaping violence and war in the Middle East. She especially uses the act of storytelling to engage audiences and gallery visitors, with spoken stories of the lives and deaths of those caught in struggles for justice. In the early years of the Syrian uprising, El Khoury started to collect photographs of civilians’ gardens-turned-cemeteries, along with oral histories about them. In a bilingual publication accompanying Gardens Speak, the artist notes that activists would attend the martyrs’ funerals as an act of resistance against the al-Assad regime, with funerals, a place of mourning, also becoming a place for political organizing and showing solidarity. Mourning the dead became another way to resist.
With ten tombstones punctuating the soft dirt, visitors to Gardens Speak come to lie down in the soil, parallel to the dead resting below. Each of the buried martyrs seems to whisper in your ear, as buried audio speakers quietly tell their story to the individual visitor. Telling the stories of the victims of political violence is a crucial part of maintaining resistance, and El Khoury seeks to have the visitor embody those very stories. The stories were first written in Arabic by writer Keenana Issa, who, after her arrest by the al-Assad regime, was working in exile in Beirut with El Khoury in 2013-2014. Constructed from the testimonies of families and friends of the dead, the stories are told in the first person, with each of the ten storytellers recounting their final living moments and even what came after death, telling of friends crying, praying, singing, or standing silently over their bodies.
Some of the martyrs’ funerals were silent out of necessity, with only the sound of soil falling into the grave. Being quiet is taking care, lest the sounds of mourning attract nearby security forces who would disrupt the moment of laying to rest. This quietness carries over to Gardens Speak, as the visitor lays quietly, listening to the oral histories of the deceased, remembering their stories – not reenacting their deaths but lying with the dead and listening in solidarity.
From your place in the gallery-turned-garden, ear to the soil, you hear the story of Basil Shehadeh, a documentary filmmaker who was also a friend of Keenana. Basil made his first films about the Syrian uprising from the United States, but became disillusioned, wanting to document testimony from Syrians in Syria. Basil returned to Syria and filmed a series of short films with friends, though his computer crashed and lost all their work. He laments the loss of his friends’ work, and the loss of the filmed testimonies, the voices of Syrian civilians now silenced. Basil tells us how he died in old Homs; he was filming with four of his friends when a mortar shell fell on them. At the end of his story, he says, “If my story was ever important, it is only because it carries with it so many other people’s stories.” Basil’s desire to share Syria’s voices is realized through the continuity of his own beyond the grave, mingling with the voices of other murdered activists and protestors in the soil of Gardens Speak.
In its content and aim, the installation moves from the individual to the collective. By listening to and embodying the individual story, the visitor themselves listens to, attends to, and embodies the collective. As Basil hoped for his own work to do, we hear not just one story but the story of many Syrians, of those who are buried in gardens, and those who are still alive and struggling to live under a brutal regime. While the visitor to Gardens Speak is just a visitor – they will not occupy the same ground, the same garden, the same politics as the deceased – they nevertheless enact an ethics of care.
The ethics of care, a concept first coined by American feminist ethicist and psychologist Carol Gilligan in the 1980s, emphasizes interpersonal relationships in taking care of others, particularly through practices that undo oppressive societal or cultural structures as we attend to and take responsibility for others’ needs. This concept has come to influence other fields of study and practice, too, like art and the nature of the relationship between artist, artwork, and viewer. How people are represented artistically by the artist – and how the visitor engages the artwork and the people represented – is an ethical question. In Gardens Speak, the visitor literally gets their hands dirty for the dead, lying with them and listening to their stories – stories which are themselves crafted through the care of many collaborators. The visitor cannot be passive – they must be active, responding to the soil. We must reckon with the dead, where they are spatially, what they have left behind, and what we should do next.
The ethics of care also acknowledges the impact of the politics and culture in shaping the private sphere. In other words, politics and culture shape and affect the relationships we have with friends, family, and others, near and far, at home and abroad, as explored by American feminist philosopher Virginia Held in her book The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global. We see this interplay of politics, culture, and the private sphere in El Khoury’s installation and the real-world place it represents: the garden. Becoming a space of mourning and resistance, the garden, a once-private space of the home, is directly affected and restructured by state-sanctioned violence in Syria, as are the lives of the living and the dead that inhabit it. The stories from these gardens, passed from family and friends to writer and artist, across the boundaries of nation and language, find their place in the ears of Gardens Speak’s many visitors.
Basil’s story has come to an end. But before you brush away the dirt and leave the garden, you have one final task – you may write a letter to Basil, to be buried next to his grave. What will you say? How will you respond? Will you offer condolences, a message of solidarity, a prayer, a “thank you,” a question? El Khoury has amassed many letters from Gardens Speak. Some of these letters have been shared with surviving family and friends of the martyrs, and some have been reproduced in El Khoury’s publication and other installations. Whether addressing the dead or those who live on, or the world more generally, these letters come about only through listening and a place of mutual rest, a place displaced and reimagined, from Syrian gardens to art galleries and museums across the globe. Gardens Speak invigorates mourning as an act of collective resistance; in lying with the dead, in hearing their stories and responding to them, we carry their struggle onward.
Hannah A. Matangos is a dual-title PhD candidate in German Literature & Culture and Visual Studies at Penn State University. Her research looks at art, technology, and futures in the German context and beyond, including the significance of new media art for transnational movements and resistance.