Among the exhibits displayed at Art Basel Miami, Tania El Khoury’s interactive sound installation “Gardens Speak” was undoubtedly one of the most provocative, according to a recent profile by NPR. A commentary on the ongoing tragedy of the Syrian civil war, El Khoury’s piece invites viewers to lay in the graves of ten ordinary Syrians who were killed in the conflict and buried in the backyard gardens of their family and friends. As audience members lay inert, in the dirt, they listen to the oral histories of the buried victims, whose stories have been carefully pieced together with found audio to recreate their final moments.
El Khoury, a Lebanese artist, first learned of the phenomenon of Syria’s backyard garden graves about three years ago. As Greg Allen reported for NPR, El Khoury was inspired to create her project when she saw “an image…of a mother digging a grave for her son in her home garden because public funerals had become too dangerous.” As she learned more about these tragic events, El Khoury “started to collect…stories and interviews” from families that had buried their loved ones in their gardens. Pairing these accounts with physical recreations of the graves, the immersive experience allows the “gardens [to] speak all of these stories that [have] been buried in them.”
As Allen writes,
The work isn’t intended for a mass audience. But El Khoury says the interactive experience allows participants to build a relationship with one of the hundreds of thousands killed in the Syrian fighting.
‘It takes you out of your comfort zone,’ she says. ‘It actually places you literally in the story, rather just with a distance. And it works on that distance. You know, you are supposedly lying on a grave, but you’re not really. You’re on a designed place. You are listening to someone’s voice, but you’re not really.’
‘Gardens Speak’ was first mounted in Lebanon in 2014 — in Arabic. Since then, it’s been translated to English, French and Italian, and traveled widely. It opened in Miami Beach two days after the Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration’s ban on travel from six predominantly Muslim countries to go forward.
The intimacy of the exhibit puts these political dynamics into perspective for viewers, highlighting the exorbitant human cost of the Syrian civil war.
Read Allen’s full article on NPR here.