Review: Gardens Speak, Fierce Festival
Ten wooden graves jut out of a rectangular bed of soil. I step, tentatively, between them, the soil soft and damp underfoot. The long plastic mac I’m wearing feels a bit CSI; the torch I’m holding, a bit Mulder and Scully. In my hand, I’ve a postcard with a picture of one of the graves, Abdul Wahad’s. The aim is to find it.
Tania El Khoury’s Gardens Speak has its roots in the unmarked graves of Syrian protestors, who died standing up to the Assad regime. To avoid the attention of the state’s security services, who have attacked funerals and defiled graves, who have required living relatives to sign away their loved one’s martyrdom by attributing their death to terrorists, many of the 200,000 dead are buried the in the back yards of their family homes. The graves are unmarked. But for memory, they will be lost in time. Telling their stories is important. El Khoury frames the piece with a Walter Benjamin line: “Even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”
Back in the soil, each grave is a different shape and marked with a different set of Arabic words. There’s something childish in this game, like matching a wooden block to the hole that fits it. And yet, the Arabic writing is unfamiliar to me; the differences seem slight, the penstrokes precise. Flashing my torch between the graves, squinting in the dark, it takes a moment or two to find the right plot. It’s a game, yes, but you play it fumblingly. It doesn’t quite seem appropriate – making sport out of this, making a tactile experience out of it. El Khoury disrupts it, trips you up and forces you to slow down.
You kneel, as per the instructions, and start digging with your hands. Doing so, forces your body into the shape of a prayer: bent double, forehead to the ground. Sound seeps up through the soil. You uncover it. Exhume it. A voice whispers back. Not Abdul Wahad, but someone telling his story, recounting his actions and experiences in the protests: how he left his job to join in; how the whole world changes when you stop being afraid; how the regime picked him up, imprisoned and tortured him for a month, caning him, electrocuting him; how swollen he was on release, half-blind and half-bruised; how he returned to the fight; how ten bullets took him out of it again; how he was buried, wrapped in a shroud and folded into a small plot of earth, a flowerbed that no longer holds flowers.
It’s a strange sensory experience: the smell of soil, the feel of it. You have to lean in close, place your ear almost to the speakers to hear the speaker’s voice; an act of active listening. It’s private, too; a story shared, but recounted from beyond the grave – you never forget that. You’re also lying on the floor, your body on top of where theirs would be. In other circumstances, it could so easily be you underground – or rather so effortfully. This isn’t a death that comes easily, by happenstance. It is a death hard won. A life hard lost.
It is in the act of exhumation and reburial that El Khoury’s work is most powerful. These stories will not come to us. We have to seek them out. Living everyday lives over here involves turning a blind eye to everyday suffering elsewhere. It is understandable, but it is also a shirking of – not responsibility – but humanity. Recovering the plot is a respectful act, yes, but it’s also a cover-up. It smothers the sound, silences the stories and reburies the truth.
So what do I do with this story? With Abdul Wahad’s story? Leave it buried in Birmingham or pass it on? Get on a plane and take up his fight? Send support from afar? First of all, I get the chance to write a letter – to him, to be shared, in time, with his family. It’s hard to be heartfelt, to write what you mean and to mean what you write.
As art, though, El Khoury has constructed something with remarkable care. It’s a simple object made doubly meaningful through the exact manner of our interaction. Gardens Speak acts as an intervention: something temporarily unearthed, brought to light and reburied. The onus is on us to carry it forward.
2-5, 9-12 October, AE Harris Building, Birmingham; Book here.
Photograph: c/o Tania El Khoury