10 Mar 2014

Gardens Speak – the art of Syria’s tragic war

Art is supposed to be universal – and there is no more universal thing than fear of death. Or grief. In Gardens Speak, out of the most specific experience, Tania El Khoury crafts something massive.

You go into a dark room to find 10 Arabic headstones in a soil garden. You are instructed to find a specific one and dig into the grave, where you find a cushion bearing the name and basic info of somebody killed in the Syrian war.

A recorded voice inside the grave tells their story. Then you replace the soil and are asked to lie there in the darkness. Afterwards, if you want, you can write a letter to the person buried and leave it in the soil. Some of the letters will be given to the families of those killed.

El Khoury, a London-based artist, was inspired to make the installation by stories of families having to bury their sons and daughters in their own gardens, in secret, to avoid further persecution by the Assad regime.

She has spoken to the families and friends of victims to glean the details of the stories told within the graves: what they said to their friends as they were stopped at checkpoints, never to be seen again; how they resisted the Islamisation and even the militarisation of the revolution; their hopes and fears.


Over 140,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict: a modern slaughter where Russian and Chinese diplomacy protects the killers, where western indifference ensures more graves will be dug each day, where Gulf money fuels the religious and ethnic hatreds that were suppressed for centuries.

There’s been a rush of new work inspired by the Syrian resistance: Amir Nizar Zuabi’s Oh My Sweet Land opens at the Young Vic in April; there’ve been exhibitions of Syrian art in Beirut and western capitals.

But El Khoury’s work takes you beyond the specifics to a place where your mind wanders during every death in your own life. At some point everybody has to consider what it would be like to be in their own grave; or to hear a buried friend speak to you from beyond theirs.

These are the commonplace fantasies generated by grief. El Khoury allows – indeed forces – you to confront them. And in this way an artwork that could have been simply agitprop provokes – at least among the small group I was with at the London preview of the installation – a profound experience, akin to micro-theatre or indeed therapy.

Gardens Speak will debut at the Next Wave Festival in Melbourne, May 2014, and in the UK at the Fierce Festival, Birmingham, September 2014.

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