Tania El Khoury splits her time between London and Beirut, where she helped found an artists’ collective. Three years ago, moved by stories she was hearing about the Syrian uprising, she created an interactive work called “Gardens Speak.” It grew out of an image she saw of a mother digging a grave for her son in her home garden because public funerals had become too dangerous.
“I didn’t know that this was happening,” El Khoury says. “And I started to collect these stories and interviews. And this is when I had the idea that gardens can now speak all of these stories that [have] been buried in them.”
In Miami Beach, people have been lying in freshly-dug graves as part of her work. It’s one of the most provocative pieces mounted during Art Basel Miami Beach, an annual fair and marketplace that attracts artists and art fans from around the world.
In a room outside the exhibition, visitors — just 10 at a time — are first asked to remove their shoes and socks and put on long raincoats. Each person is given a card with the name, written in Arabic, of one of those killed in the first years of the Syrian uprising in places like Aleppo and Hama.
Inside, lights are dim. There’s a plot of freshly-laid soil with 10 wooden tombstones, each inscribed with the name of a war victim. Kneeling down, as instructed, visitors use their hands to remove dirt near the headstone to hear the victims’ stories.
One grave tells the story of a man identified as Abdel Wahid. He tells visitors — lying down with their heads close to his tombstone — that after taking part in protests against President Bashar Assad’s regime, he was detained and tortured. When he was released, he joined the resistance.
“I don’t know how,” his testimony reads. “But I don’t care about anything other than taking part in the revolution.
“The army had intensified its attack. I ran quickly. I was in such a hurry that I wore my T-shirt backwards. I carried my rifle. And then before I could use it, I was shot 10 times from afar.”
The stories are read by actors, but they’re taken from those of family members whom Tania El Khoury interviewed in Lebanon, and over phone or Skype from Syria. El Khoury says it’s up to each visitor to decide how deeply to engage with the work.
Sarah Martinez was one of those who found herself standing barefoot in the damp soil.
“It was very cold and wet,” she said. “And like, ‘Oh my God I’m standing in a grave.’ It was very touching and scary at the same time. ”
The experience takes about 40 minutes and, at 10 visitors at a time, 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.
That gives new perspective to stories like those of Abdel Wahid, whose family buried him quietly, out of sight in their home garden.
“They put me under the pomegranate tree my mother planted for me,” his testimony reads. “There were no other noises than the sound of shelling and soil falling on me, bit by bit.”